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Stax Records Co-Founder Jim Stewart died Monday at age 92

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The founder of one of the great American record labels has died. Jim Stewart founded Stax Records with his sister in 1957, originally as Satellite Records. He produced this hit.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOLD ON I'M COMING")

SAM AND DAVE: (Singing) Don't you ever be sad. Lean on me when times are bad.

KELLY: Stewart died this week at the age of 92. Stax produced some of the most memorable soul and R&B music of the 20th century. NPR's Neda Ulaby has our remembrance.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Jim Stewart was a white, blue-eyed Tennessee farm boy who wanted his label to release music like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TRUCK DRIVER'S HEAVEN")

ROGER HALLMARK: (Vocalizing).

ULABY: Stewart was a fiddle player. He did not know anything about Black music. He loved Elvis Presley and thought maybe another local label could share Sun Records' success. But he set up in a mostly Black Memphis neighborhood and recorded a local personality who walked in with his talented teenage daughter.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "'CAUSE I LOVE YOU")

CARLA THOMAS: (Singing) The way you lied about me - you lied about Louise, too.

RUFUS THOMAS: (Singing) Oh, no. Oh, no.

C THOMAS: (Singing) Yeah.

ULABY: Rufus and Carla Thomas were the first Stax stars. Playing alongside them was a high school student named Booker T. Jones. Much later, Jones told WHYY's Fresh Air what made the Stax sound special.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BOOKER T JONES: The supple, earthy sound born out of blues, country and jazz roots and also gospel. It was a sound that we consciously tried to keep simple and with a lot of feeling.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BAR-KAYS SONG, "SOUL FINGER")

ULABY: For Stax, Memphis was a cultural crossroads, influenced by Nashville, New Orleans and the Mississippi Delta. Unlike Motown in Detroit and most Southern institutions at the time, it was integrated. White and Black musicians played together, and it was the same behind the scenes.

DEANIE PARKER: You know, I did almost everything at Stax Records during those days that was legal to do.

ULABY: Deanie Parker went from selling records to becoming an executive and ran the Stax Museum. In 2003, she told NPR about all the musicians she'd worked with.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

PARKER: Johnnie Taylor and Albert King, Booker T and M.G.'s, Isaac Hayes and the Bar-Kays, and the list goes on and on.

ULABY: Stax had more than 200 R&B hits through the 1960s. Eventually, Jim Stewart shared its ownership with its Black head of promotions. But in 1967, Otis Redding died in a plane crash, along with five other Stax musicians. The next year, Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated just a mile from the studios at the Lorraine Hotel, a home away from home for Stax talent. Soon after, the company crumbled.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SITTING ON THE DOCK OF THE BAY")

OTIS REDDING: (Singing) Sitting on the dock of the bay, wasting time.

ULABY: As Deanie Parker explained, Stax relied on Atlantic Records for distribution.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

PARKER: There was a handshake deal, if you will, between Jim Stewart and the administrators with Atlantic Records that resulted in Atlantic Records being able to maintain our catalog.

ULABY: By maintain, she means own. Atlantic got sold to Warner in 1967, and Stax lost its masters. The label filed for bankruptcy in 1975. Jim Stewart never recovered. But when Booker T. Jones and the M.G.'s were added to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1992, Stewart introduced them, remembering making the song "Behave Yourself."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JIM STEWART: I let the tape roll, and after one take, "Behave Yourself" was complete. And we all got very excited.

ULABY: But the record needed a B-side, so they improvised around a little song called "Green Onions."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEWART: I think we almost wore the tape out that night listening to it. It was a day that I'll always remember.

ULABY: Jim Stewart helped bring the world music it will always remember.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOOKER T AND THE M.G.'S' "GREEN ONIONS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.