The Mar-Keys

The Mar-Keys were a group of excellent studio session musicians from Memphis who had one giant instrumental hit [and several smaller ones] of their own in the early 60's.

The group was formed in Memphis in 1958 as the Royal Spades. The members were Steve Cropper on guitar, bassist Donald "Duck" Dunn, Jerry Lee "Smoochie" Smith on keyboards, Don Nix on baritone sax, Charles "Packy" Axton on tenor sax, trumpet player Wayne Jackson, and drummer Terry Johnson. They were white kids who really enjoyed black music.

Packy Axton's mother Estelle Axton and her brother Jim Stewart formed the Satellite label in Memphis in 1960 to record local talent. They began to record songs by Rufus Thomas and his daughter, Carla Thomas. The erstwhile Royal Spades, now known as the Mar-Keys, were thrilled to serve as the musicians for the recording sessions. They came up with their own hit song, an instrumental that was written and arranged by Chips Moman. The song was called Last Night and it entered the charts in July, 1961 and rose to the number three position. Some of the members of the Mar-Keys were not yet out of their teens. It was one of the biggest hits ever on Satellite.

It was discovered that there was another record label on the West Coast known as "Satellite," so the label's name was changed to Stax, and later to Stax/Volt. The Mar-Keys, the house band for Stax/Volt, continued to record such songs as Pop-Eye Stroll, Morning After, and Philly Dog, but they would never again put a song in the top forty. In 1962 Steve Cropper went on to found another group, and Donald Dunn went with him. Together with drummer Al Jackson, Jr. and keyboard player Booker T. Jones, they became Booker T. & the MG's [MG meaning Memphis Group], another great act in the Stax/Volt stable of stars.

Stax/Volt came up with a star performer in Otis Redding. The Mar-Keys and Booker T. & the MG's would perform together on stage. They were the musicians in what came to be known as the now legendary Stax soul revues, backing artists such as Stax stars William Bell, the Thomases, Otis Redding, and Sam & Dave. Small studios such as Stax in Memphis and Fame Music in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, operated by amateur white management and using white musicians as house bands for some of the top black singers emerging in the early 60's, combined to produce an explosion on the music scene known as soul music. The Mar-Keys played their role in helping this phenomenon to evolve in the 60's.

Eventually the Mar-Keys name was dropped. Trumpeter Wayne Jackson joined with saxist Andrew Love and baritone Floyd Newman to form the Memphis Horns, and together they comprised an outstanding session group. Packy Axton formed the Packers, and they had a hit on the R&B charts in 1965 which sounded very much like something that might have been recorded by the Mar-Keys, Hole In The Wall. Don Nix went on to a solo career as a performer and songwriter before becoming a record producer for such acts as Jeff Beck, John Mayall and Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett.

Steve Cropper and Donald Dunn were recruited to work with the Blues Brothers, who were played by Stax/Volt fans John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd in the late 70's and early 80's. Cropper and Dunn appear in the film The Blues Brothers and on the soundtrack for the film, once again in their role as backup musicians.

Most Recent Update: April 20, 2000

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