Monday, August 21, 2006

Go 'Head On With The Packers

Continuing my Magnificent Montague theme, today's post centres around one of those legendary recording sessions of soul myth. Did Booker T & The MGs record a tune in LA while around them Watts burned?

In August 1965, Estelle Axton, joint owner of Stax Records, sent The MGs to do a tour of California. According to Steve Cropper, their last gig on the tour took place the night before the riots began (at the 5-4 Ballroom, which burnt down in the fires), and it was the liquor store next door that was set fire to next day at the start of the riots. Thus the rumour that the band recorded amidst the flames began, fanned by associations with the infamous catchphrase "Burn, baby! Burn!" of the MC for the Stax Revue gig and producer of the instrumental in question...

Of course, the recording took place elsewhere, as part of a session making jingles for Magnificent Montague's radio show. As he tells it, it "was another of those half-hour-left-in-the-studio throwaway jobs." Considering that writing and producing r&b instumentals was one of Montague's self-confessed money-making sidelines, and one he was good at too, it seems a little too convenient.

What was also too convenient was that Packy Axton, Estelle's son and estranged member of the Mar-Keys, and his friend Johnny Keyes, just happened to be in town, signed to Montague's Pure Soul Music label, and present at the studio, ready to play horn and congas respectively. Montague it should be noted, doesn't mention the contract which meant that he would own the recordings that day, mischievously describing Packy as just "Booker T's sax player"! Nothing can be proved, but nearly all of the principals involved assume that Estelle Axton was pulling strings for Packy to get another chance of a hit record, after he had fallen out with Jim Stewart over time-keeping and drinking.

The song recorded was Hole In The Wall, which was releaed as by The Packers, and was a No.5 R&B hit. Montague describes the genesis of the song:

"We finished the jingles, and then, jsut for fun, I started beating on my conga drum: one, two, bop-bop. I'd read it was what slaves used as a code beat, a warning at secret meetings that massa was coming; the change-up of rhythm was the signal to start their emotional dance and laughter, to fool massa that they were contented and happy."

The session over, the MGs left for home, all knowing that Packy and Montague had put one over on them, and the feelings were mixed, between respect for Montague's acumen, sympathy for their friend Packy, confusion about why Estelle would arrange it, and some annoyance at the lost earnings on what should have been released as another MGs hit. The MGs are listed alongside Nathan (Montague's real name is Nathaniel) as writers, but it is doubtful that they or Montague have seen much of the royalties as the masters have been sold on more than once.

Montague added some girls from Santa Monica doing background vocals, yelling and cheering for a 'live jam' feel, in the style of Ramsey Lewis. But now, Montague and Packy needed a b-side. Packy, Johnny Keyes and Leon Haywood came back to record another instrumental, which was titled Go 'Head On. Out of the two sides, I think it is actually my favourite at the moment.

Larry Grogan at Funky 16 Corners blog did a detailed detective investigation into the various line-ups of the Packers after this session, and into the mysterious reappearances of Hole In The Wall and Go 'Head On in other guises, back in April 2004 and again in January 2006. Strongly recommended for further fascinating facts!

The Packers - Go 'Head On (Pure Soul Music 45-1107) 1965

A CD of the Stax Revue tour or August 1965 at the 5-4 Ballroom is available here. Interestingly, it lists the Mar-Keys as playing 'Last Night' at the gig. So, if Packy had been playing some nights on the tour anyhow, and horns were needed, the MGs would have perhaps expected his presence at the recording session... You can listen and hear Magnificent Montague MCing at the Amazon web page.

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