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Review: Charles “Packy” Axton, “Late Late Party: 1965-67”

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Were there a Stax family portrait, label founders Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton would undoubtedly be surrounded by any number of the famed artists they shepherded to fame: Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, Steve Cropper, Booker T. Jones, Donald “Duck” Dunn, Eddie Floyd and the Wicked Wilson Pickett, to name a few.  And lurking somewhere near the corner of the frame, in the shadows, would be Charles “Packy” Axton, his saxophone in tow, looking for the nearest party.  Though Axton is far from a household name, those musical excavation specialists at Light in the Attic have made a substantial case that Charles “Packy” Axton is far more than a footnote to the Stax story.  Late Late Party: 1965-67 (LITA CD 067, 2011) brings together seventeen slices of greasy, delicious, deep Southern soul by largely unknown artists like The Martinis, Stacy Lane, L.H. and the Memphis Sounds and The Pac-Keys.  What do they all have in common?  It’s the sound of Packy Axton, wailing on his saxophone to wake the neighbors!

It’s appropriate that the vintage cover photo of Axton, Don Nix and Steve Cropper is in front of the Satellite Records address (later Stax), for Axton existed in the orbit of Stax, though none of this collection’s tracks were on that storied label.  Packy Axton was the son of Estelle Axton and nephew of her brother Jim Stewart, Stax co-founders.  He was musically at the ground floor of the label empire, too, playing on the Mar-Keys’ “Last Night.”  While he didn’t initially impress bandleader Steve Cropper, it was soon discovered that his mother owned a recording studio, and Packy was in the band!  Despite Stewart’s initial reluctance to release the track, “Last Night” went No. 2 R&B and No. 3 pop.  It positioned Stax on the road to success.  But Axton was ostracized from that inner circle, despite his mother having a role in calling the shots.  Stewart disapproved of his casual approach, eccentric manner and wild ways, and Packy found himself on the periphery of greatness.

What wild sounds will you find on Late Late Party?  Just hit the jump!

Seven of the seventeen tracks on Late Late Party (all recorded in a fertile three-year period for labels like Bar, U.S.A. and Hollywood) are the work of The Martinis, a group featuring Axton (sax), Lee Baker (guitar), Carl Cunningham (drums), Leroy Hodges (bass), Mabon “Teenie” Hodges (guitar) and Archie “Hubbie” Turner (keys).  One gathers, though, that the martinis weren’t particularly stiff, because these cats are loose!  “Holiday Cheer,” the album’s opening salvo, begins with a ringing doorbell, followed by pouring and then party sounds.  There’s Hodges’ jagged guitar, Turner’s insistent keys, sleigh bells – and of course, Packy’s sax, weaving in and out of it all.  It’s not hard to imagine a soused, soulful Santa, indulging on the night before Christmas!  What Axton lacked in virtuosity and technical precision, he more than made up for in feeling.  Its flipside, “Bullseye,” hits its target, with a groovy organ, while a variation, “South American Bullseye,” wouldn’t feel out of place alongside Santana’s “Black Magic Woman.”  It’s one of a number of previously-unreleased cuts making their first-ever appearance here, along with “Key Chain” and “I’ll Always Love You,” with Axton’s saxophone out front and in full melodic mode.

The Martinis’ appropriately titled “Hung Over” may be the most fascinating song unearthed here.  This slinky ode to the morning after is punctuated with grunts, and well, what sounds quite a bit like hurling!  It’s both dementedly fascinating and a sad reflection of the alcoholism that eventually claimed Packy’s life.  Almost as bizarre is The Pac-Keys’ “Hip Pocket,” marked by kazoos and mid-song chortles!

The most famous track on this set of largely unknown music is “Hole in the Wall” as performed by The Packers – Booker T. Jones (piano) , Steve Cropper (guitar), Al Jackson Jr. (drums), Packy, Earl Grant (bass), Leon Haywood (organ) and Magnificent Montague (congas).  “Hole in the Wall” was released on the Pure Soul Music label, which certainly offered truth in advertising!  The background shouts are mixed low and the driving piano mixed high, with Packy on hand to lend just the right amount of atmosphere.  Arguably his best-known single, it was born out of the 1965 Stax Revue gigs in Los Angeles, with those Stax legends moonlighting.  Controversy swirled back in Memphis about the track; did his mother Estelle Axton invest in Magnificent Montague’s Pure Soul label to gain distribution for the supposedly impromptu single that rescued Packy’s career?  Some mysteries aren’t meant to be solved.  But Packy remained persona non grata at Stax.  When he formed the Pac-Keys, riding the success of “Hole in the Wall,” most tracks were recorded at Royal (Willie Mitchell’s studio, located within close proximity to Stax) and Ardent.

Though the instrumentals are the heart and soul of Late Late Party, there are a number of vocal tracks that similarly soar. By virtue of the tracks included here, L.H. and the Memphis Sounds deserve to be better-known; their “House Full of Rooms” is a rare sweet interlude in the funk, with its smooth “oooh” backing vocals and L.H. White’s soft croon, “It’s a house, not a home.”   White’s “Out of Control” is, despite its title, actually quite tight and controlled with that percolating sound that could only come from Memphis!  Most unique is the crisp, polished doo-wop of their “I’m a Fool (In Love).”  It sounds unlike anything else on this set, but it’s completely delectable.

On the grittier side of things, Stacy Lane’s “No Ending’” is southern soul with fantastically dirty sax playing; there’s no gleam or gloss here.  The same singer’s “No Love Have I” is a slow burner that’s worthy of Wilson Pickett.  The combination of gospel-styled backing vocals and an ethereal soprano lingering in the background makes for a most unusual sound!

This tight anthology doesn’t wear out its welcome, and the sequence deftly blends the varying groups’ instrumentals along with the vocal tracks to create a seamless whole that doesn’t get bogged down in sameness.  This is raw, untamed, uninhibited party music with few concessions to the charts, revealing an artist who lived his life the same way he made his music, with reckless abandon.  The package is impressive, even by Light in the Attic’s lofty standards, with Andria Lisle’s comprehensive notes highlighting a 24-page full-color booklet.  It’s stuffed with vintage family photos, lending the booklet the style of a personal scrapbook.

This collection gives a belated happy ending to the story of Packy Axton, who died in January 1974, just a few weeks shy of 33 years of age.  Lisle’s notes point out that the Mar-Keys served as pallbearers at his funeral.  His mother, Estelle, adopted his son Chuck and had a rebirth of her own.  She and Stewart had sold off all of their remaining shares of Stax to Gulf and Western in 1969, and she was forced out of the company, signing a non-compete clause, as well.  When that clause elapsed in 1976, she scored another chart-topper with “Disco Duck.”

This is one compilation that is cause for celebration.  You’ll no doubt want to stick around till the wee small hours of the morning at this Late Late Party!

You can order Late Late Party here!

Written by Joe Marchese

August 31, 2011 at 13:51

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