There's a new exhibit at the Stax Museum of American Soul Music titled "The Grammy Goes to Memphis" that is both interesting and revealing. The actual Grammy statues presented to Elvis, Otis Redding, Bobby "Blue" Bland, and others are collected and displayed for the first time. A highlight film of Memphis-area Grammy winning moments is featured, along with a wall listing all the great artists from the Memphis area who have received the coveted award.
Full disclosure requires me to tell you that the Stax Museum is also my place of employment, but it explains why I've had the chance to sit and stare at that wall for several hours at a time. All the names you would expect are there: Sam Phillips, Johnny Cash, Al Green, even Sheryl Crow from Sikeston, Missouri. An impressive number of Grammy awards have been bestowed upon the Stax family of artists, including Isaac Hayes, Booker T. & the MGs, The Staples Singers, and Sam and Dave. The prestigious Grammy Trustees' Award has gone to Stax President Al Bell and company co-founder Estelle Axton. There is one glaring omission, however: Jim Stewart. I first thought it was an oversight and hastened to try and correct the error, but the co-founder and contributor of the first two letters of the name "Stax," has never been recognized or celebrated by the Recording Academy.
Perhaps Stewart prefers it that way, since I understand that he is a private person, but it seems odd that his sister, Estelle, and his partner, Bell, would each receive one of the Academy's highest awards, and he wouldn't.
I don't know Stewart personally and have only met him once, so I have no axe to grind here for anyone, but if not for Stewart, all those famous names on that Grammy wall would have never been known. Stewart and Axton's leasing of the Capitol Theatre in South Memphis in 1958 and opening the doors to the talent in the neighborhood began a renaissance in soul music that still reverberates in popular culture. The former banker and country fiddler who fell in love with Ray Charles' music, supervised and produced some of the most unique sounding recordings of the 20th century. And he did it by working with musicians, singers, talent, and administrators who were white and black, right in the middle of the Jim Crow era in the South.
For people like me, who grew up under segregation but never understood it, this rich and untried collaborative effort was and is a source of great pride. Watching films of the MGs and the Memphis Horns backing up the Stax stars and driving audiences crazy all over the world is still a thrilling experience. It's not just the Recording Academy that owes Stewart long overdue accolades and appreciation; the city of Memphis does too.
Stewart's contributions to popular music have not gone unrecognized. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002, but sent two granddaughters to receive the award on his behalf. This may be of great interest to visitors of the Cleveland museum, but what about the old hometown? Along with Sun Records scion Knox Phillips, Stewart's efforts were instrumental in bringing the chapter of the National Association of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) to Memphis, which celebrated its 20th anniversary last year. The local organization also recognizes its most vibrant and vital contributors to what has become known as the "Memphis Sound." In annual programs and ceremonies over the years, NARAS Memphis has paid special tribute to Rufus and Carla Thomas, Eddie Floyd, Albert King, and the legacies of both Sun and Hi Records. It's highest honor, the Governor's Award, has been presented to Rufus Thomas and Axton, but not Stewart. The man who produced Otis Redding's "Respect," can't seem to get any from the same chapter he helped establish. Either Stewart called and personally insisted that he not be further involved in these awards, or somebody's asleep at the switch.
In Robert Gordon's perfectly pitched, new Stax biography, "Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion," he describes Stewart's selling his interest in Stax to Bell in 1972. Yet two years later, when the company began feeling a financial squeeze from all quarters, Stewart reinvested his assets in an attempt to save what he had helped create. In the resulting bankruptcy and padlocking of Stax by the same bank for which Stewart once worked, he lost his fortune and his home. Stewart has remained retired from the music business and semi-reclusive in his private life, yet he attended the opening of the Stax Music Academy and has generously advised and assisted the young musical talents who were not yet born during Stax's heyday.
I have always believed in sending flowers to the living, because afterward, they can't smell them. Axton's Trustee's Award from the Recording Academy was given posthumously. Stewart is 84 years old. A man who has touched so many lives and literally altered the social fabric of the cosmos deserves at least an "attaboy" from his acolytes. Can I get a witness?
Randy Haspel writes the Born-Again Hippies blog, where a version of this column first appeared.