Stacy Lane - "No Ending" (Late Late Party 1965-67)
There are almost too many southern soul comps to count, but Light in the Attic’s 17-track single-disc set from Memphis sideman Packy Axton, Late Late Party, takes a genuinely novel approach to sorting through the masses of wax coming out of Memphis and its environs in the mid-to-late 1960s. While Axton might not stack up to the likes of Isaac Hayes, Dan Penn or Steve Cropper in terms of his behind-the-scenes contributions to the Memphis Sound, his legacy is a nice reminder of the essential contributions of wild cards, odd balls and outcasts to the true heart of a music scene.
The name Packy Axton might not be familiar to the passing soul music fan, but he’s not a completely obscure figure, either. Brought to life for a popular audience in Robert Gordon’s alternative history of the Memphis music scene, It Came from Memphis and Peter Guralnick’s essential volume Sweet Soul Music, the general picture one gets of Axton (reinforced, here in the set’s liner notes) is of a fun-loving and impassioned music fan that was just a little too unhinged to mind the family store. The family store, in this case, being Stax Records: Axton’s mother, Estelle, was the label’s cofounder and ran it with her brother, Jim Stewart.
Axton’s musical pedigree is about as impeccable as they come. He cut his teeth as the saxophonist and leader of the legendry Mar-Keys, the instrumental outfit that gave the fledgling Stax label its first national exposure, via the 1961 single “Last Night” (technically released on the pre-Stax Satellite label). The Mar-Keys would later evolve into Booker & the M.G.’s, but by that point, Packy had been relegated to black sheep status in the Stax family. A penchant for booze and all that goes along with it, and an inability to make nice with the label brass (particularly his uncle Jim and task master and former band-mate Steve Cropper), left Packy on the outside of one of the most powerful R&B labels in the country. Yet, Axton continued with his own writing and recording; if he wasn’t welcomed with open arms at Stax studios, he could always take his business down the road to Ardent.
And that’s precisely what he did. Late Late Party gathers these maverick sides under one cover and very succinctly encapsulates Axton’s contributions to a shadow music scene just beyond the reach of the increasingly corporatized label run by his family.
It’s nearly impossible to argue that the Stax sound of the 1960s was polished or formulaic (particularly when compared to its biggest rival in the R&B market at the time, Motown), but it was certainly smoother than the stuff Packy was working on. Late Late Party is filled with prime Memphis grease -- rough around the edges yet imbued with a keen sense of songwriting and an even more well-honed sense of fun. Instrumentals such as “Key Chain,” “Bullseye” and “Stone Fox” make for classic party music. Sure, they don’t have the staying power of “Try a Little Tenderness,” yet neither were they intended to -- after the kazoo solo on “Hip Pocket,” you can hear actual, genuine laughter. With the exception of the occasional ballad (see Stacy Lane’s splendid “No Love Have I”), the majority of the tracks are propelled by Axton’s dirty, honking sax. Indeed, this is a midnight-hour night stomp that has, strangely, all but vanished from the popular landscape despite its infectious nature.
But Paxton also stands as a notable talisman through the dizzying depth and breadth of one of American pop music’s most fertile artistic moments. Consider “Hungover,” recorded in 1966 by the aptly named Martinis and featuring a then 20-year-old Mabon “Teenie” Hodges on guitar — less than a decade later he would record “Take Me To the River” with Al Green. It’s fair to say Packy didn’t walk among giants; the giants sat down and hung out with him.