Flush with the success of their first top-ten single, “Gee Whiz” by Carla Thomas, the focus of Jim Stewart and the folks at Satellite Records was on cashing in with a follow-up album. Carla was off attending Tennessee State, so there was much back-and-forth between Memphis and Nashville as Carla learned to juggle Freshman English 1010 with a non-credit hands-on lab in applied pop star studies. In the background of this flurry of activity lurked the single which would not only set the direction of the emerging label’s sound, but also force it to change its name.
Stewart’s sister, Estelle Axton, left her bank job to run the Satellite Record store, which had outgrown the former theater’s candy counter and expanded to fill the vacant King Barber Shop space next door to the studio. The record store had been a fixture of Satellite even in Brunswick, but on McLemore, had become the hip-and-cool neighborhood hangout. Teens were welcome to come in and listen for free to all the latest sounds. And the discerning ears of young customers such as Booker T. Jones furtively strained to hear the sounds coming from the studio down the hall. The record shop also provided market research in its rawest form. There was immediate feedback on which sounds sold and which sounds stiffed, measured in nickels, dimes, quarters and dollars.
Another fixture dating back to the days in Brunswick was Estelle’s son’s group. Packy Axton loved R&B music, had started playing sax, and wanted to join the band his classmates had started at Messick High. His classmates happened to be Steve Cropper, Charles Freeman, Terry Johnson and Donald “Duck” Dunn. The original lineup wasn’t that keen on adding horns, but after all, Packy’s mom and uncle owned a recording studio and a record label. Taking on the sobriquet “The Royal Spades,” the bunch would load up and make the trek out to Brunswick every weekend to practice and hone their sound. Rounding out the horn section out were Wayne Jackson and Don Nix, and Ronnie Angel belted the vocals. As the sound came together, the band got busy playing clubs and frats; but still the main aim was to cut a record. That didn’t happen until the move to McLemore.
Ms. Axton felt a name change would do them good, and after batting around possibilities, the winner was a pun on the noble title “marquis.” To avoid mispronunciation, and to add a musical pun, they spelled out the name M-a-r-k-e-y-s; keys, there, as in piano keys. Jim Stewart was tied up working on the Carla Thomas album, and foisted his nephew’s band off on producer Chips Moman.
Chips came to work one day with a musical riff he and pianist “Smoochy” Smith invented at a gig the night before. As the idea got kicked around, a horn part got added here, a sax solo there, and a host of hands touched the song that would wind up on tape. Over the course of at least a week, untold numbers of takes with varying lineups of talent took their shot at the song. By the time the finished product hit the speakers, few actual Mar-Keys played on the track. It’s pretty well accepted that the master session featured Curtis Green on drums, and bassist Lewie Steinberg. Gilbert Caple took the tenor sax solo. Baritone sax veteran Floyd Newman peppered the instrumental with the vocal interjections that provided the title, “Last Night.” Note that with the inclusion of band members Packy Axton and Wayne Jackson, plus Steve Cropper (not playing guitar but assisting on keyboards), this was a ground-breaking interracial session that would be a key to the future sound of Memphis.
Estelle believed in the record from the start, and sneaking an advance copy to WLOK was astounded at the traffic coming into the record shop requesting to buy the song. She would have to plead, cajole, cry and cuss to get her brother to release the single. Once he did, “Last Night” propelled the Mar-Keys all the way to number two on the R&B charts, and number three pop in the summer of ‘61.
The success of this single drew the ire of another Satellite Records company in California. Rather than fight, Jim gladly switched the emerging label’s name to a melding of the first letters from his and his sister’s names. From Stewart and Axton came ST-AX, Stax Records.