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‘A Do-Right Man’: Former Stax Executive Deanie Parker Pays Tribute to Jim Stewart

"The test of time shows that he had a freaking secret formula that nobody has been able to emulate. Even today the music just blows you away."

Deanie Parker was a high-school glee club member aiming to be a star when she first met Stax Records co-founder Jim Stewart in 1962. Instead, she ended up occupying a front row seat as one of Stax’s longtime executives, witnessing the storied label’s rise, fall and rise again. Appointed publicity coordinator in 1965, she advanced to director of publicity in 1967, director of publicity, artist relations and public relations in 1968 and then vp of public affairs in 1973. Now retired as the founding president/CEO of the Soulsville Foundation, located at the original site of the Memphis-based label, Parker pays tribute to Stewart in this as-told-to reflection

When I first met Jim Stewart in 1962, it had everything to do with my wanting to be on the road with Gladys Knight, Aretha Franklin, Patti LaBelle and Tina Turner — and to rival them. Of course, that never happened. Fortunately, both Jim and I were smart enough to know that I lacked the power and the tenacity. I also didn’t have Tina’s legs [laughs].

In the early ‘60s in Memphis, there was at least one talent show a week, mostly on Beale Street. A male group that was part of our high school glee club with me was looking for a lead vocalist. After we got together, the glee club teacher decided that we were good enough to enter one of the talent shows — the first prize being an audition for this new studio, Stax. We won first prize and auditioned for its founder, Jim. 

He signed us and we later had a regional hit, but nothing beyond that. At any rate, it wasn’t long after Jim signed us that he provided me with an opportunity to experience firsthand what it was like for a Black artist to be on the road and the conditions under which they had to perform. That’s when I recognized that I was never going to compete with Stax’s queen Carla Thomas or other women artists. I was no threat at all. So I decided to pursue the administrative side of the business, publicity and marketing. 

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Fortunately for me, Stax was in its infancy. We were viewed as a backwater town on the Mississippi River and didn’t have anyone to publicize or promote what the organization was doing or to help groom the artists for the wonderful media inquiries that we started receiving as the hits rolled out. We were with Atlantic at the time. Jim provided the opportunity for me to learn that skill set while getting on-the-job experience. 

I didn’t realize how much Jim was despised for what he was doing. People couldn’t get over the fact that he was providing opportunities for [Black] people who were being demeaned in every way that you could imagine. But the Stax philosophy was a welcoming one. Jim and Estelle [Axton, Jim’s sister and Stax co-founder] were not judgmental. Instead, they took the time to hear what it was we wanted to do, what we thought we could do and the commitments that we were prepared to make in order to make Stax better, to be part of an incredible organization that gave us this inimitable music.

Again, remember we’re in the South. Not only doesn’t anybody understand what the hell we’re doing, they don’t have any respect for it. Jim never talked about the hatred verbatim. But he was always very clear about the fact that as a country fiddler, when he first heard a Ray Charles song — I don’t remember which one now — his taste in music was never the same again. He knew then that what he wanted to do in Memphis was devote his time, attention and energy to recording his own music that would rival Charles’. He never hid that.

In terms of the racism and all of its tentacles that we were experiencing, what Jim did was take a very inflexible position about what was acceptable behavior and what would not be tolerated. He never ceased to remind us that anything that could be misconstrued as illegal would destroy us. Because the authorities and power structure in Memphis were waiting on an opportunity to take something that was uncommon in other places, perhaps, and use it against us to shut Stax’s doors. 

That was his way of acknowledging that he was experiencing the same things we were.  Like one day when he was standing outside underneath the marquee, talking to Isaac Hayes. A policeman came along and said, “You can’t be out here talking to Black people on the streets.” Jim tried to reason with him. But the policeman said, “I’ll take your ass down and lock you up.”

During the last 10 years, I had the opportunity to talk to Jim about how he dealt with all of that.

And he said, “My mother and father taught me something that worked and still works today that enabled me to press on and survive.” And that was the golden rule: treat people the way you want to be treated. Jim paid a hell of a price for his belief and determination in living up to that. 

His ability to assimilate into an environment that was predominantly Black was because he respected the fact that all of us have something that we can bring to the table. That’s part of what made Stax great. So was the fact that perhaps it was the only place in Memphis that was totally integrated — another lesson. Forget all the BS about why we shouldn’t get along or not like each other. If you find something that you can enjoy together, that makes you happy and you could make a living from it? Then throw away everything else and run to that something. The artists may not have been polished but they were authentic. Jim accepted them in all of their rawness. He appreciated, respected and loved them for allowing him to record what they had because he knew what they had was infectious.

What Jim looked and listened for with an artist was his big secret. Watching him trying to keep time to the beat was embarrassing [laughs]. Yet Jim had impeccable hearing and precise timing. When he got behind that console, he knew exactly what he was trying to hear and what he was trying to feel. It was innate; something that God placed in him when he was born. You couldn’t touch it. He could look through the control rooms’ glass window at Booker T. & the M.G.’s on the floor and he knew if you weren’t in the right tempo or out of key. The one thing you could see about Jim was that he was in his element being outside of his element. The test of time shows that he had a freaking secret formula that nobody has been able to emulate. Even today the music just blows you away.

When Atlantic threw him a curve [a contractual stipulation that Atlantic owned the masters to the Stax albums being distributed], I don’t know if he kicked the dog when he got home or not. You know what I’m saying? But in my presence, he never cursed about it. He was a soft-spoken person; reserved. I just know that he was unhappy. I’m sure that he was miserable; that his level of confidence in people, especially in the music business, was crushed. And I’m sure that he blamed himself in some ways for not having been more attentive and less trusting. There’s no way on God’s earth that you can make me believe that Atlantic’s legal department and Jerry Wexler didn’t know what they were doing. Jim was a handshake-on-the-deal kind of man. It was a bitter lesson.

However, if Jim hadn’t been a do-right man, the good Lord would not have introduced him to Al Bell. There wouldn’t have been a solution to the dilemma. Jim could have saved his own behind and forgotten about us but that’s not what he did. His attitude was that we were all in the boat together. And his solution was to get up, dust himself off, learn from it and find a plan. That’s when we moved away from Atlantic and began building a catalog. We turned Stax into a factory, working day and night to release the soul explosion of singles and albums that became the rebirth of Stax.

My most touching memory of Jim happened after my stepfather’s mother died in Chicago. He and my mother had just moved to Memphis and didn’t have the money to transport his mother’s body to Memphis for burial. So I asked Jim if Stax could loan me $300-$400 to transport her body. And he made it happen, which he didn’t have to do. I wasn’t making enough with my writer royalties or anything else for him to feel secure that I’d pay it back. But I did. He trusted me and I’ll never forget it.