Jim Stewart, founder of soul-R&B powerhouse Stax Records, dies at 92

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By Steve Gorman

(Reuters) – Jim Stewart, the white country fiddler whose powerhouse R&B-soul label Stax Records launched such stars as Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes and Sam & Dave, has died at age 92 in Memphis, Tennessee, where he started the label in the 1950s in an in-law’s garage.

Stewart, widely credited as a trailblazer for his role in helping integrate American pop music at a time of strict racial segregation in the Deep South, died on Monday at a Memphis hospital.

His death was confirmed to Reuters on Tuesday by Tim Sampson, a spokesperson for the Memphis-based Stax Museum of American Soul Music. Sampson said the Stewart family did not disclose a cause of death.

Between 1959 and 1975, the label released 800 singles and 300 albums, among them Hayes’ soundtrack for the 1971 movie “Shaft,” which won him an Oscar.

The talent roster included the Staples Singers, the Emotions, the Soul Children, and Booker T. & the MG’s, which served as a house band for Redding, Sam and Dave and scores of other Stax artists.

Redding’s signature hit “(Sittin’ On) the Dock of the Bay,” was recorded at Stax. And Wilson Pickett’s breakthrough single, “In the Midnight Hour” was recorded there as an outside production for Atlantic Records.

The Stax label amassed a total of eight Grammy Awards, produced three No. 1 hits, a dozen top-10 hits and 167 top-100 singles. Stewart himself was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002.

Through the 1960s and early ’70s, the label lived up to its “Soulsville, USA” moniker, offering a grittier alternative to the larger, assembly line hits machine of Motown Records.

‘HILLBILLY FIDDLER’

As noted in an appreciation of Stewart published in the Memphis Commercial Appeal newspaper, it was an unlikely twist of fate that “the greatest, funkiest soul label in the world, one of the most powerful outlets for Black expression, was started by a white hillbilly fiddler named Jim Stewart.”

Stewart grew up in the Tennessee farming town of Middleton and moved to Memphis at age 18 to attend college, later taking jobs as a store clerk and bank teller while performing with various country music bands after hours, according to a biography published by the Stax Museum.

Inspired by the success of Memphis-based Sun Records founder Sam Phillips with the likes of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis, Stewart began recording country artists on a tape machine in the garage of his wife’s uncle in the mid-1950s, founding a label he named Satellite in 1957.

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His sister, Estelle Axton, mortgaged her home a year later to help Stewart buy some recording equipment and joined him in the studio venture they later moved into a converted movie theater.

Stewart turned his focus from country to rhythm-and-blues music after scoring a regional R&B hit with a single by Rufus Thomas and his then-teenage daughter, Carla, “Cause I Love You.” Of the label’s transformation, Stewart later recounted: “It was like a blind man who could suddenly see.”

With the advent of their first million-selling record, Stewart and Axton learned of a California-based label already called Satellite Records, prompting the siblings to rebrand their label as STAX – combining the first two letters of their last names.

Renowned for its integrated staff and talent roster, Stax cranked out hits and launched the careers of numerous artists over the next 15 years before being forced into involuntary bankruptcy in 1975.

The label’s assets and master recordings were sold to film mogul Saul Zaentz’s Fantasy Records at auction for $1.3 million, and the original studio was razed in 1989 by a church that bought the property for $10.

Los Angeles-based Concord Music Group acquired Stax as part of its purchase of Fantasy in 2004 and announced two years later it was reactivating the long-dormant soul label, launching efforts to woo artists and rebuild its catalog. Stewart’s sister died in 2004.

(By Steve Gorman; Editing by Robert Birsel)