Booker T. and the MG’s contributed so much to the popularity of Memphis’s Stax Records in the ‘60s, and were so fundamental to the label’s sound – sharp, soulful, and classy, never flashy – it’s impossible to separate the histories of the two.
The group coalesced from young session players at the Stax Records studios – Booker T. Jones (organ, piano), Steve Cropper (guitar), Lewie Steinberg (bass, replaced by Donald “Duck” Dunn in ‘64), and Al Jackson Jr. (drums) – really only becoming an official unit after the success of their iconic instrumental “Green Onions.” In turn, the group helped make Stax a ‘60s powerhouse soul label – just behind Motown – and stars of many the label’s roster – Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Johnny Taylor, Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas.
It wasn’t just that Booker T. and the MG’s were racially integrated at an inauspicious moment in Southern history. It wasn’t just that they were sensitive accompanists, either, or that their sound or their guitar-bass-drums-organ line-up was unprecedented. Simply, it was that they consistently hipper and funkier than anyone that had come before them, playing with an impeccable economy that skirted minimalism. Even on their records like “Time Is Tight,” “Hip Hug-Her,” or, of course “Green Onions” – terrific sides as successful as the Stax headline artists they backed – they were brilliant strategists, never playing two notes where one would do.
Just as every hit inspires a dozen hopeful homegrown soundalikes and variations, all of this did not go noticed by American musicians, this week’s included. America itself seemed to prefer its Memphis instrumentals straight from the source, however (Willie Mitchell perhaps being the notable exception), and Booker T. and the MG’s would continue to oblige, producing hits from one end of the ‘60s (“Green Onions,” 1962) to the other (“Melting Pot,” 1971). Our guys didn’t have the same luck, but they had nothing to worry about in retrospect. There’d always be more room for their kind around here on Office Naps.
1. Del-Rays, Night Prowl (R and H)
The Del-Rays were one of several white R&B-based; groups who percolated out of northwestern Alabama in the late ‘50s.
It was a surreal scene. They came from surrounding Alabama towns, young white kids nursed on country music and crazy for R&B; and rock ‘n’ roll. Crazy, period. Early on, in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, the Del-Rays were working an improbable circuit of Southern fraternity parties alongside like-minded groups like Dan Penn & the Pallbearers, the Mystics and Hollis Dixon. When they weren’t confounding the brothers from Phi Kappa Theta with manic versions of “Baby, What You Want Me to Do” or “Kansas City,” these musicians gravitated to the FAME recording facilities.
Started in the late ‘50s, FAME (short for Florence Alabama Music Enterprises) was the quixotic vision of local Florence character Tom Stafford and young musicians Billy Sherrill and Rick Hall. Commandeered by the ambitious Hall in the early ‘60s, and moved to nearby Muscle Shoals, the FAME studios would become the region’s galvanizing force of soul music. Arthur Alexander recorded “You Better Move On” there in 1961, and Jimmy Hughes “Steal Away” in 1963. By the mid-‘60s, Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin had recorded there. By 1971, so had the Osmonds: FAME had come a long way.
As part of the studio’s house band, the Del-Rays – or at least several members – would play a significant role in FAME’s success along the way. In 1964, however, when “Night Prowl” was recorded, the Del-Rays were another working-touring group, hanging around the FAME Studios but still a few months away from becoming full-time session musicians there.
The influence of Stax Records – a mere hundred miles to the west, but sort of in a different league at this point – is clear on this selection. Lean and mean, like “Green Onions,” perhaps even more so, a title like “Night Prowl” promises much, and the song delivers – the greatest thing to hit street brawling since Thunderbird Wine. “Night Prowl” would be the second of four 45s by the group, who at this point included guitarist Jimmy Johnson, saxophonist Billy Cofield, organist Billy Scott and drummer Roger Hawkins. (The Del-Rays’ debut was 1959’s “Hot Toddy”; the two later 45s – one on R and H, and one on Atco Records – were more rock ‘n’ roll-oriented, with vocals by Jimmy Ray Hunter.)
Not long after “Night Prowl,” Johnson, Cofield and Hawkins would join FAME as the studio’s second, and most storied, house band. Along with organist Spooner Oldham, bassist Albert “Junior” Lowe, guitarist Marlin Greene, trumpeter Jack Peck and saxophonist Don “Rim” Pollard, this band would back Pickett, for instance, on “Mustang Sally” and Aretha Franklin on the original version of “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You).”
In 1969, Johnson and Hawkins – along with fellow Muscle Shoals musicians David Hood and Barry Beckett – left FAME. They formed the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, and would became partners in the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, an immensely successful recording studio in ensuing years.
2. The Pac-Keys, Dig In (Hollywood)
Like “Night Prowl,” this selection encapsulates a certain aspect of Southern R&B; history. The Pac-Keys in this case were the vehicle of Charles “Packy” Axton, a saxophonist known as both a founding member of the Mar-Keys, and the son of Estelle Axton, the early co-owner of Stax Records, a label which her brother Jim Stewart – Packy’s uncle – founded.
The early chapters of Stax Records are inextricable from Packy Axton. The label, founded as Satellite Records in 1957 (the name changed to Stax in 1961) had some early success with 1960 records by legendary R&B; father-daughter team Rufus and Carla Thomas. It would be one of Axton’s early records with the Mar-Keys, however, that brought his family’s record business to national attention. 1961’s “Last Night” (hear excerpt here) was just as significant for its popularity – charting at number three – as it was for its lean, soulful motif, which set an early precedent for the Stax sound, and the sound of Memphis soul in general.
Other members of the Mar-Keys (Steve Cropper and Donald “Duck” Dunn) would disembark for even greater fortune as Booker T. and the MG’s. Axton’s own would not follow down the same path, however. A wild man, his tendency towards dissolution increasingly marginalized him from the shifting rosters of the Mar-Keys (who, either way, were largely overshadowed by Booker T. and co. by the mid-‘60s) as well as the Stax staff in general, despite his mother’s fierce loyalty.
It wouldn’t be the last of Axton, though, who relocated to Los Angeles in 1965. There he recorded the moddish instrumental “Hole in the Wall” with, oddly enough, members of Booker T. and the MG’s, who were then touring the West Coast as part of the Stax Revue. Released on infamous Los Angeles DJ and promoter Magnificent Montague’s Pure Soul label, and credited as the Packers, “Hole in the Wall” would be a surprise number five R&B; and a top fifty pop hit in the fall of 1965.
More records hastily followed for the Packers, whose shifting members revolved around the erratic stewardship of Axton and percussion player Bongo Johnny Keyes, one of Montague’s old friends. There was a flurry of releases on various indie labels – HBR, Imperial, Tangerine, Soul Baby and Pure Soul – as the Packers; there were also several releases under different names – the Martinis, L.H. and the Memphis Sounds, and, finally, the Pac-Keys.
These records are hip, if a bit unmemorable, R&B; instrumentals. The thumpingly great “Dig In” was recorded back in Memphis at Hi Records with James Alexander (bass), Jimmie King (guitar) and Carl Cunningham (drums) – all members of the Bar-Kays, another famed Stax instrumental group. “Dig In” is by far the most impressive of these records, clocking in at a scant 1:51, which only meant you could hear it again that much sooner.
Released on Hollywood Records – a former Los Angeles R&B; label then operating as a scaled-back subsidiary of the country Starday label – neither “Stone Fox,” nor its follow-up “Greasy Pumpkin,” nor any of the various Packers releases, recaptured the success of “Hole in the Wall.”
Axton would drift further into obscurity, and deeper into his cups, alas, as the ‘60s wore on. He died of a heart attack in 1974 at age thirty-two.
3. Lorenzo the Hat and the Mad Hatters, Fun-Key (Space)
This week’s mystery selection, Lorenzo the Hat was either one Lorenzo Mandley, according to the label credits, or one Lorenzo Monley, according to BMI. Either way, this may be Lorenzo Manley, a Los Angeles singer who released a good soul 45 in early 1967, “(I’m Gonna) Swoop Down on You” on Original Sound Records. Again, just speculation.
Recorded around 1967, “Fun-Key” is a funky jam that rotates around the guitar fill from Booker T.’s “Hip-Hug Her” (hear excerpt here). Many great ‘60s instrumentals – think “Wipe Out,” or for that matter, “Green Onions” – followed this pattern: barely rehearsed sketches that started out interesting melody and wound up chart-topping hit. “Fun-Key” sounds awesome with its electric piano and wicked drumming, but it is not, in retrospect, a case of should-have-been-a-hit. “Fun-Key” is so loose it is clearly stoned, not the sort of thing to capture the public’s imagination. To be fair, its flipside “The Hat’s Back,” another stylish instrumental, has much more in the way of convention – a clearly defined beginning, middle, and end, for one.
Space Records was a subsidiary of Kris, an independent Los Angeles record label founded by singer-turned-DJ-turned-entrepreneur Mel Alexander. Kris issued a lot of excellent Los Angeles R&B; and soul throughout the 1960s on its subsidiaries (Space as well as Car-A-Mel and New Breed), though Space’s would be the coolest label design.