Jim Stewart and sister Estelle Axton were the co-founders of Memphis-based Stax Records.
Stax and Motown were the two most important record labels in America in terms of bringing black music into the mainstream during the Sixties and Seventies.
Stax recorded some of the greatest acts in the history of soul music – Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Booker T. & the MG’s, Eddie Floyd, Johnnie Taylor and Carla Thomas among them. Even Wilson Pickett and Sam and Dave, who were both signed to Atlantic Records, cut some of their greatest sides at Stax. If Motown was “the Sound of Young America,” then Stax/Volt was “Soulsville, U.S.A.” Between 1959 and 1975, Stax and its affiliated labels released 300 albums and 800 singles. Among the latter, 167 were bonafide hit singles.
Stewart was a country fiddle player from Middleton, Tennessee. He moved to Memphis with musical ambition, joining the Canyon Cowboys while making his living as a bank employee. His sister Estelle – who worked for another bank in Memphis – became an equal partner with Stewart in the Satellite label, launched in 1957 on the model of fellow Memphis label Sun Records. The fifth release on Satellite, “Gee Whiz” (1960) by Carla Thomas, became a huge national hit (#5 R&B, #10 pop) in 1961 after it was leased to Atlantic. When the Mar-Keys’ instrumental “Last Night” became a national hit in 1961, it was discovered that there was another label with the same name in California. To avoid litigation, the Memphis-based Satellite became Stax (deriving from the names STewart and AXton).
By this time, after a tip from local producer Chips Moman, Stewart and Axton had taken over an old movie theater at East McLemore and College streets in Memphis. Neighborhood musicians began hanging around 932 E. McLemore Avenue, including organist Booker T. Jones, guitarist Steve Cropper, bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn and drummer Al Jackson, Jr. Thus, Stax acquired a peerless house band that also came to include the renowned Memphis Horns (Andrew Love, Wayne Jackson and Joe Arnold).
Stax signed such artists as Otis Redding, who recorded for the sister label Volt from 1962 until his death in 1967. A distribution deal with Atlantic Records resulted in the larger, New York-based company sending some of its premier soul acts to record at Stax. (That same deal also gave ownership of Stax’s master recordings to Atlantic, which became a sticking point when the deal came up for renewal in 1967.) Stewart, who was involved in many aspects of the company’s operation, also brought to the label local songwritersIsaac Hayes and David Porter. Hayes and Porter became Stax’s equivalent to Motown’s Holland-Dozier-Holland songwriting team. In 1965, Stewart made a key hire, appointing Al Bell - a popular black deejay from Washington, D.C. – Stax’s national sales director.
Stax thrived during the Sixties and early Seventies, generating an awesome string of soul and R&B hits with their bread-and-butter artists – Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Carla Thomas, Booker T. and the MG’s – while breaking such acts as Eddie Floyd (“Knock On Wood,” “Raise Your Hand”), Johnnie Taylor (“Who’s Making Love”), the Staple Singers (“I’ll Take You There,” “Respect Yourself”), Jean Knight (“Mr. Big Stuff”), the Emotions (“So I Can Love You”), Mel and Tim (“Starting All Over Again”), the Soul Children (“I’ll Be the Other Woman”) and William Bell (“I Forgot to Be Your Lover”). Even comedian Richard Pryor was a Stax artist, having been signed to the label’s Partee subsidiary. House songwriter and sideman Isaac Hayes became a star in his own right with a series of albums released on Stax’s Enterprise subsidiary, including the #1 Shaft soundtrack.
Jim Stewart sold his interest in Stax to Al Bell in 1972, and the company continued until forced into bankruptcy in 1976. Interest in the label and its legacy were rekindled in the Nineties with the release of three massive box sets, comprising 28 CDs between them, that include every single released on Stax and its subsidiaries. In April 2001, further recognition of Stax’s legacy came in the form of a groundbreaking for the Stax Museum of American Music and the adjoining Stax Academy and Performing Arts Center on East McLemore Avenue in Memphis. “It’s been a long time coming,” guitarist Steve Cropper noted with understatement.
The label begun by Jim Stewart back in the late Fifties is finally being recognized as a priceless institution that contributed substantially to America’s musical culture.
Inductee: Jim Stewart (record executive; born July 29, 1930)