An Oral History of Charles “Packy” Axton’s Late Late Party

Dan Epstein

By Dan Epstein

on 10.06.11 in Interviews

Though Charles “Packy” Axton’s name means little to most folks outside of Memphis, he remains one of the more fascinating characters and tragic figures to emerge from a city that’s had no shortage of either. A wild kid with a rebellious streak as wide as his mischievous grin, Packy was a key figure in the birth of what would become Stax Records, but his hard-partying ways would lead to his exile from the pioneering soul label, as well as to a tragically early death.

A member of the Mar-Keys, Packy played tenor saxophone on “Last Night,” the Memphis instrumental group’s surprise 1961 smash on Satellite Records. Satellite was a tiny label run by Packy’s mother Estelle Axton, and his uncle Jim Stewart; Estelle and Stewart would soon change the name of their label to Stax, and it was the success of “Last Night” that essentially put their imprint on the map. But while Mar-Keys bandmates like guitarist Steve Cropper and trumpeter Wayne Jackson became major players (literally and figuratively) at Stax, Packy’s profligate behavior put him at odds with his straight-laced uncle, who eventually banned him from the Stax HQ at 926 East McLemore Avenue.

Late Late Party, a collection recently released by Light In The Attic, focuses on the music Packy made after parting ways with Stax. The compilation’s centerpiece is “Hole In The Wall,” a fine-as-wine 1965 instro groove cut on the sly with help from three-quarters of the MGs, and released on the Pure Soul label under the name The Packers. Widely rumored to have been bankrolled by Estelle Axton as a means to restart her son’s music career, “Hole In The Wall” did indeed offer Packy a new musical lease on life. Throughout the next two years, he and collaborator Johnny Keyes waxed a prolific number of instrumentals as The Martinis and The Pac-Keys, while also finding time to produce vocal sides for soul acts Stacy Lane and L.H. & The Memphis Sounds. The Martinis’ “Hung Over,” which is punctuated by the sound of Packy either (depending on who you ask) grunting or throwing up, is probably the other best-known cut on the comp, but all of the Axton/Keyes collaborations on Late Late Party exude a distinct “Stax by any other name” sound and groove, making an excellent case for Packy’s talents. But since they were released via indie labels like Hollywood, Bar and USA, none of these singles benefitted from the sort of nationwide distribution or attention that that Stax releases regularly received.

Packy died in early 1974, many years before his music would be rediscovered and reappraised by DJs and soul collectors, but Late Late Party makes for a fine musical epitaph. To learn a little bit more about the man behind the grooves, we spoke with Wayne Jackson, Johnny Keyes, and Packy’s sister Doris Fredrick.

When did Packy first pick up a horn?

Doris Fredrick: Packy didn’t really get into music until he was a teenager. He decided he wanted to play the sax, so mom got him one and he started playing. He got into it, he got into the band, and they started playing around.

Wayne Jackson: Packy was a natural horn player. He could play. I don’t know where he got it; I don’t know where he’d heard a saxophone player who played like that. His style was kind of “Yakety Sax,” but more blues. Packy was one of the sweetest, nicest people you ever met, and it came through in his playing; his playing was sweet and nice, and he had a great tone.

Wayne, is it true that you and Packy were the only actual Mar-Keys on “Last Night”?

Jackson: It’s true. I don’t really remember how that worked out. Me and Packy were there, and we had some good musicians in the studio, but I don’t remember anyone saying, “You stand there and play, and you go home!” It’s just two notes, that song, but we were having so much fun playing, and I think that came through on the tape. But who knew “Last Night” would become a No. 1 record? Nobody! I don’t think Miss Axton knew it, either; but she sure did get on Jim’s case [to release the record], and really made his life hard until he put it out. She was our advocate, and I always loved her.

Fredrick: Mother fought for that one. My Uncle Jim didn’t care for it, but it turned out that it went big. My mother had mortgaged our little house to help Jim with his label, and I think she did it because she wanted to help Packy; she wanted to see him do music, and she wanted something for herself, too.

Packy and Jim Stewart had an extremely acrimonious relationship, which eventually resulted in Jim banning him from Stax. What was at the root of their problem?

Jackson: They hated each other. Packy drank and Jim Stewart didn’t like that; he didn’t want anyone to drink. But Packy drank every day. We would get a few dollars a day on tour, and Packy would drink his up. Packy was having such a good time with it; drinking would loosen him up and he would play better, I think. Of course, the rewards of drinking Thunderbird wine are not good.

Fredrick: Packy got into the alcohol, and then he wouldn’t show up for sessions. And when Packy would show up, he wouldn’t be sober, or he would be hung over. Jim was a very businesslike man and he said, “You’re out. You cannot come in here!” Packy was banned from Stax, and it was his fault; I’m putting the blame on Packy, not on Jim. Packy said, “My mother owns part of this studio, and I’m gonna do what I’m gonna do.” And Jim said, “You’re not!” And that was it. [Laughs] So he found other outlets for his music. That’s how all these records [on Late Late Party] came about.

While Los Angeles DJ “The Magnificent Montague” organized and played congas on the session for The Packers’ “Hole In The Wall,” there were rumors that Estelle Axton paid for the session and was a silent partner in Pure Soul — which would have been a conflict of interest, since the record prominently featured several Stax musicians, but wasn’t released on Stax.

Fredrick: You know, I think she was very involved, but she never talked about it. But then, it was not a good thing to do. Jim didn’t like it, anyway. [Laughs] But Packy was her son, and she was going to do what she could to help him, even if he wasn’t capable of helping himself.

Johnny Keyes: Montague called me in Chicago and said for me to come out to L.A., because he had this record called “Hole in the Wall.” He told me about Packy Axton; he told me about the whole thing. I said, “What can I do?” He said, “Well, you play conga drum, so just play conga drum on the thing.” One thing led to another, and Packy and I wound up going back to Memphis and putting a band together there. Otis Redding gave us a piano player — the worst piano player in the world. [Laughs] We went on tour with Otis, Joe Tex, Wilson Pickett, all of them. And when we got through with that, Packy said, “Why don’t you stick around in Memphis? We can do some things.” So that’s where that started.

All of the Pac-Keys and Martinis songs have a loose, party-like vibe, almost like they’re being cooked up on the spot. How much actual planning and preparation went into them?

Keyes: We’d sit up in the middle of the night and put the stuff together. The only time we really winged it was on “Hip Pocket.” I had a kazoo, and after the band ran through it, I said, “OK, I’ve got an idea. I’m not gonna play the conga drum on this; I’ve gonna try something else.” I couldn’t keep from laughing! Everything we did was “in the pocket.” I got that from Al Jackson; Al Jackson told Carl Cunningham, who was a young drummer at the time with the Bar-Kays, “Stay in the pocket, man, and don’t worry ’bout a thing. All you gotta do is stay in the pocket, and they’ll dance.” That’s what the Stax things was — they kept it in the pocket. And that’s what we did, too.

Packy regularly socialized with black people, which was pretty atypical (and potentially dangerous) behavior for a white man in a city as segregated as Memphis was at the time. Was this another act of rebellion, or did Packy really just feel more comfortable on the black side of town?

Fredrick: You know, there was always an unspoken thing between Mother and I that we wouldn’t talk about that. But I always felt that the white people let him down, didn’t accept him or understand him, so he went to the other side.

Keyes: During the riots after Dr. King got killed, everybody was like, “I’m gonna go break a window out and get me some shoes!” Packy was like, “Yeah, I’m gonna get something!” Miss Axton hit him so hard in the chest, boom! She told him, “You’re not gonna be stealing anything!” [Laughs] But yeah, he liked nothing but black girls. He did not like white girls. He did not like ‘em! After the riots, guys were buying guns out of pawn shops and going around selling ‘em. Packy and I bought two long-barreled pistols for 20 bucks apiece. What were we gonna do with those? [Laughs] Packy was going with a black girl at the time, and she was pretending like she had a baby that belonged to him. She pulled up one morning, and took a knife, and punched holes in the trunk of his car. That did it! Packy went and got that big pistol; she saw that and cut out, but he fired every bullet in the gun at her. It’s lucky nobody got killed! I had to hide the gun when he wasn’t looking. He was a character. We had so many adventures, man.

Jackson: Sure. He could have done anything he wanted to do over there [at Stax], but he didn’t want to do any of that. He was always gonna do his own thing, no matter what anybody said. And his mother supported him; no matter what he wanted to do or didn’t want to do, his mama was there for him. We never got a chance to see how far his talent would take him, but he was very talented. He looked good on stage, played good onstage, and women loved him. Packy was the rock ‘n’ roller of the group — he was the one with the turned-up collar and the Beatle boots.

Fredrick: I remember thinking at his funeral that, “At least his music will live on.” I’m so pleased that he’s receiving some attention from this. I think he’d get a little grin out of it all.