The Mar-Keys

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Not to be confused with The Bar-Kays, a mid-1960s instrumental soul/funk band.

The Mar-Keys, formed in 1958, were an American studio session band for the Stax label from Memphis, Tennessee, in the 1960s. As the first house band for the label, their backing music formed the foundation for the early 1960s Stax sound.


The group began as The Royal Spades and had tried unsuccessfully to get a record made for the local Satellite Records even though tenor sax player Charles "Packy" Axton's mother and uncle owned that label. When they were finally able to get a record made, Axton's mother Estelle Axton convinced the group to change their name and they chose The Mar-Keys.[1] However, the live line-up of The Mar-Keys was not necessarily the band heard on the recordings.

Their first and most famous recording was the organ and saxophone oriented single "Last Night", a number-three hit nationally in the US in 1961.[2] It sold over one million copies, earning gold disc recognition.[3] The line-up for this recording included Royal Spades Steve Cropper (normally a guitarist, here playing second keyboard), Packy Axton (sax), Wayne Jackson (trumpet), and Jerry Lee "Smoochy" Smith (main keyboards, augmented by horn players Floyd Newman and Gilbert Caple and others.[3]

Singles and albums continued to appear under the Mar-Keys name throughout the 1960s, though none anywhere near as successful as "Last Night". The original all-white band continued to play live dates, but fairly quickly, in the studio, "The Mar-keys" became a de facto trade name for the racially integrated Stax Records house band, which had a floating membership. The most frequent Mar-keys studio players, subject to change from session to session:

These musicians, in addition to being the studio Mar-keys, served as the backing band on singles and albums by dozens of rock, R&B, and soul music stars who recorded at Stax studios, including Otis Redding, Carla Thomas, Wilson Pickett, and many others.

As well, while still involved with The Mar-Keys and Stax studio work, Cropper, Steinberg, Jones and Al Jackson also began recording as Booker T. & the M.G.'s in 1962. Consequently, for a time through 1966 instrumental music recorded by the Stax house band above was issued using either the Mar-keys or Booker T. & the M.G.'s band name, depending on the type of recording. In general, tracks featuring a horn section were credited to the Mar-keys -- those without were credited to Booker T. & the M.G.'s.

Dunn officially replaced Steinberg as an M.G. in 1964, and had already played both live and in the studio with the Mar-keys for several years at that point.

Ironically, the demise of the group as a singles act occurred due to the success of several of its members. By the time of the 1965 recording "Boot-Leg", singles credited to Booker T. & the M.G.'s were far outselling recordings credited to the Mar-Keys, who had failed to chart in years. Therefore, the decision was made to issue the horn driven "Boot-Leg" track (co-written by Packy Axton) as by Booker T. & the M.G.'s ... even though it had been conceived of as a Mar-keys track and Booker T. Jones himself did not actually play on it.

With Boot-Leg's top 40 chart success, by the end of 1966, the Mar-Keys name was no longer appearing on singles. Still, the name had a certain amount of marketability, and in the late 1960s the Mar-Keys name was used whenever horn players Andrew Love and Wayne Jackson (later known as the Memphis Horns) teamed with Booker T & the MG's in live performances. The two groups shared billing on a live album in 1967, Back to Back, from a concert in Paris.

For the 1969 album Damifiknow!, the Mar-Keys were back in the studio, and were explicitly identified in the album credits as a sextet of Cropper, Jones, Dunn, Love and the two unrelated Jacksons. But for the group's final 1971 album, Memphis Experience, Stax simply assembled a number of instrumental cuts from various sources, with no regard to group continuity. Three of the album's seven cuts were outtakes from sessions by members of the long-standing Stax house band, while the other cuts were performed by various uncredited Memphis musicians with no other ties to the Mar-keys' past.

The legacy of the Mar-Keys was that of having been key players in the development of soul music styles like Southern soul and Memphis soul.

The Mar-Keys recently[when?] regrouped with a lineup consisting of former M.G. Lewis Steinberg, original members Floyd Newman, Smoochie Smith, Don Nix, Terry Johnson and Wayne Jackson and original member Packy Axton's son Chuck.[4]




  • 1961 Last Night! (Atlantic 8055)
  • 1962 Do The Pop-Eye (Atlantic 8062)
  • 1966 The Great Memphis Sound (Stax S707)
  • 1967 Back to Back (Stax S720) - With Booker T. & the M.G.'s
  • 1969 Damifiknow! (Stax S2025)
  • 1971 Memphis Experience (Stax S2036)


  • 1961 "Last Night" / "Night Before" (Satellite 107)
  • 1962 "Morning After" / "Diana" (Stax 112)
  • 1962 "About Noon" / "Sack O-Woe" (Stax 114)
  • 1962 "Foxy" / "One Degree North" (Stax 115)
  • 1962 "Popeye Stroll" / "Po-Dunk" (Stax 121)
  • 1962 "What's Happenin'" / "You Got It" (Stax 124)
  • 1962 "Sack O Woe" / "Sailor Man Waltz" (Stax 129)
  • 1963 "Bo-Time" / "The Dribble" (Stax 133)
  • 1964 "Bush Bash" / "Beach Bash" (Stax 156)
  • 1965 "Banana Juice" / "The Shovel" (Stax 166)
  • 1965 "Grab This Thing Part 1" / "Grab This Thing Part 2" (Stax 181)
  • 1966 "Philly Dog" / "Honey Pot" (Stax 185)
  • 1969 "Double or Nothing" / "Knock On Wood" (Stax 0029)


  1. ^ Soulsville, U.S.A.: The Story of Stax Records - Rob Bowman, Bowman, Robert M. J. (Robert Maxwell James) - Google Books. Retrieved 2012-11-12. 
  2. ^ Tobler, John (1992). NME Rock 'N' Roll Years (1st ed.). London: Reed International Books Ltd. p. 96. CN 5585. 
  3. ^ a b Murrells, Joseph (1978). The Book of Golden Discs (2nd ed.). London: Barrie and Jenkins Ltd. p. 137. ISBN 0-214-20512-6. 
  4. ^ Patrick Montier. "STAX TODAY 18". Retrieved 2012-11-12. 

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