As one of Stax Records' two founding partners (with his sister Estelle Axton), Jim Stewart helped create a golden age of Southern Soul music in the 1960s. Within a few years of the company's launch, Stax — based in a Memphis movie theater converted into a recording studio/office/record store — became a trend-setting hit factory where black and white music-makers collaborated to create a dizzying string of Soul classics. Stax's creative and commercial successes were all the more impressive in light of the fact that the company was based in racially segregated Memphis, while civil rights struggles and racial injustice were raging outside.
Raised on a farm in rural Middleton, Tenn., Stewart moved to Memphis in 1948, working at Sears and a local bank as well as playing fiddle in local Country groups. In 1957, Stewart and Axton launched their label, which was initially known as Satellite Records and originally specialized in Country records. In 1959, the label moved into the former Capitol Theatre on South McLemore Avenue, and released its first R&B discs.
In 1961, Satellite changed its name to Stax (combining the first two letters of Stewart's and Axton's surnames) and began a successful distribution arrangement with Atlantic Records, which turned Stax from a reasonably successful regional label into one with national influence. Over the next seven years, Stax would turn out landmark hits by such artists as Otis Redding, Eddie Floyd, William Bell, Rufus and Carla Thomas, Albert King, the Bar-Kays and the company's musically brilliant, racially integrated studio house band Booker T. and the MGs. Stax's gritty sound was so popular that Atlantic regularly sent its own artists, notably Sam and Dave and Wilson Pickett, to record there as well.
When Stax ended its distribution deal with Atlantic in 1968, it was discovered that Stewart had inadvertently signed away the rights to most of the label's catalog. Despite that disastrous turn, Stax (with new vice president Al Bell taking a more active role) bounced back impressively in the early 70s, with successful releases by Johnnie Taylor, the Staple Singers and longtime Stax songwriter/sideman turned artist Isaac Hayes. But a disastrous distribution deal with CBS threw Stax into financial turmoil, and Stewart's efforts to keep the company afloat ultimately resulted in him losing his home and fortune when Stax closed its doors at the end of 1975.
Stewart subsequently withdrew from the music business and has since kept a low public profile, rarely doing interviews or making public appearances. But his contributions to American Soul music speak for themselves.