Despite scoring only one national hit, the 1961 instrumental smash “Last Night,” the Mar-Keys remain one of the most important groups ever to emerge from the Memphis music scene. As the first house band for the legendary Stax label, they appeared on some of the greatest records in soul history, with their ranks also producing such renowned musicians as guitarist Steve Cropper and bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn. the Mar-Keys formed in 1958 and included drummer Terry Johnson, pianist Jerry Lee “Smoochie” Smith, saxophonists Don Nix and Charles Axton, and trumpeterWayne Jackson in addition to Cropper and Dunn.
Originally dubbed the Royal Spades, in 1960 the group joined the staff at Axton’s mother Estelle’s Satellite label, backing artists that included Rufus Thomas and his daughter Carla. A year later, the Mar-Keys headlined the Chips Moman-penned “Last Night,” which reached the number three spot in the summer of 1961. When Satellite changed its name to Stax, the Mar-Keys remained on board, laying the foundation for the classic Memphis soul sound through with their funky, sophisticated grooves; concurrently they recorded a series of singles including “Pop-Eye Stroll,” “The Morning After,” and “Philly Dog,” although none repeated the commercial success of “Last Night.”
In 1962 Cropper and Dunn left the lineup to co-found the famed Booker T. and the MG’s. Other personnel changes followed, although the Mar-Keys continued on for several more years before the name was eventually dropped. Jackson then formed another top-notch session group, the Memphis Horns, while Axton led the Packers, scoring a 1965 hit with “Hole in the Wall.” Nix, meanwhile, mounted a solo career, also producing records for artists including Freddie King, Jeff Beck, and Furry Lewis.