The Royal Spades, l. to r.- Don Nix, Steve Cropper, Packy Axton, Duck Dunn, Terry Johnson, Ronnie Stoots and Wayne Jackson.
Packy (left) with Don Nix, Duck Dunn and Steve Cropper.
Packy Axton- final resting place.
Packy Axton (born Charles Axton, Febuary 17, 1941 in Memphis), was, as Jim Dickinson once put it– “one of the most transracial individuals I’ve ever met”. The son of Everett and Estelle Axton and nephew of Jim Stewart, his family owned and ran Stax (originally Satellite) Records. A white kid who loved R&B and rock’n’roll, Packy cut his teeth playing his tenor sax along with fellow Messick High School students Steve Cropper, Charlie Freeman, Duck Dunn, and Terry Johnson in a band called the Royal Spades (Axton trading in his guitar for a tenor saxophone to join because they already had two guitarists). The Royal Spades, who eventually configured into the group pictured above, where white kids in thrall of The “5” Royales (Cropper has just released a tribute to The “5” Royales album which I’ve not heard), the Midnighters, Jimmy Reed (Cropper with a harmonica on a rack for the Reed tunes), Ray Charles and other classic R&B acts of the era. When Packy Axton’s mom and uncle started up a record label and store in Memphis, the Royal Spades became the right guys in the right place at the right time. Cropper, Axton and who knows what other members of the group along with some local black session players ended up playing on Last Night, credited to the Mar-Keys, one of the all time great R&B instrumentals, basically just a dumb but funky riff played over and over again with a bridge thrown in (the master was spliced together from two takes), when it rocketed to the top of the charts in the summer of ’61, the Royal Spades (now with Smoochie Smith on piano and Wayne Jackson on trumpet, Freeman long gone) hit the road, becoming the Mar-Keys. The Mar-Keys hit the chitlin’ circuit and worked it for awhile until the group’s leader–Steve Cropper quit in a power struggle with Axton (to be replaced by Charlie Freeman), and returned to Memphis and work in the studio. He’d soon to form Booker T. & the M.G.’s whose Green Onions remains the high water mark for R&B instrumentals to this day. Axton carried on as leader of the Mar-Keys for a bit before handing the band over to Freeman.
All my way of introducing you to the best thing to come through the mail slot in ages– Charles ‘Packy’ Axton– Late Late Party 1965-67 (Light In The Attic), a collection of Packy’s best post Mar-Keys sides, seventeen Memphis soul instrumentals in the solid Booker T & the MG’s /Mar-Keys groove, and not a dud amongst them.
Post Mar-Keys, Packy was something of an outcast at Stax since he didn’t get along with Cropper or his uncle Jim Stewart, and in 1965, along with guitarist Bongo Johnny Keyes hit the west coast, where (oddly enough) with the Stax team in support scored a hit with the Packers’ Hole In The Wall (Pure Soul), then returned to Memphis to cuts sides as the Martinis’, including the inebriation classic Hung Over (24 Karat) where he can be heard barfing, the The Pack-Keys, and L.H. & the Memphis Sounds. The best of these post Stax recordings are collected on said disc including such rarities as Greasy Pumpkin by the Pac-Keys, Late Late Party by the Martinis and Out Of Control by L.H. & the Memphis Sounds.
Packy was a libertine and a wild man. “Packy was a playboy. He was a mama’s boy….Packy was allowed to do what Packy wanted to do” remembered Cropper. His inability to get along with Cropper, Jim Stewart and Chips Moman effectively made him persona non grata at Stax by the time the golden era arrived, and he never really got over it. Packy Axton drank himself into an early grave, he died in 1974. In Peter Guralnick’s Sweet Soul Music (Harper & Row, 1986), still the best book on the subject, he comes off as sort of an evil hipster, the devilish alter ego to the ambitious and pragmatic Cropper. This, the first CD issued under his own name stands proudly next to the best of the early Mar-Keys and Booker T. & the M.G.’s. Packy may not have been what you would call a great musician (is there anything duller?), but he had something; a flair, a style, and an ability to keep it simple (some times moronically so, in the best possible way), that made for great R&B sides.