Hole in the Wall
Magnificent Montague was one of the wildest deejays of the '50s and '60s, an energizing force at stations like WAAF in Chicago (where he discovered and bestowed his moniker upon The Magnificents, the R&B group that made its mark in 1956 with "Up on the Mountain") and WWRL in New York City. His career had begun in Houston, Texas in 1949 when he was 21, but he reached his peak of popularity years later during his mid-thirties. In February 1965 he invaded the L.A. airwaves at the city's longstanding R&B leader, KGFJ (Radio 1230, serving "Soul Angeles!"), capturing a large share of morning ratings with a passionate delivery and signature phrase "Burn, baby, burn!," which he'd been using for years to describe his favorite scorching soul hits. Montague had always been interested in the business side of things, spending off-air time discovering talent, occasionally writing songs and producing recording artists, and constantly hustling to achieve a higher profile for himself and the black music he loved.
Charles "Packy" Axton had a different perspective on his music of choice, coincidentally the same sounds that lit Magnificent Montague's fires. A tenor saxophonist obsessed with rhythm and blues since childhood and the son of Stax Records co-owner Estelle Axton, he joined The Mar-Keys in 1959 and played a role in the creation of the Memphis band's instrumental hit "Last Night" two years later. In 1965 the group was in Los Angeles as part of the Stax Revue with Booker T. and the MG's, Rufus and Carla Thomas, The Mad Lads, The Astors and William Bell. Montague hosted the show, held Saturday and Sunday, August 7th and 8th, at "The 5/4," a nightclub in the city's Watts district.
The Magnificent one set up a paid studio date with the MG's and Packy at Audio Arts in Hollywood the following day for the purpose of recording some theme jingles. Leon Haywood (who kicked off a long-running soul-singin' career at about the same time with "She's With Her Other Love") played organ, while Booker T. Jones took over the piano lead. After finishing the jingles, Montague began beating a conga drum (he regularly used one on his show, one of several things that set him apart from every other radio personality). Booker T. began tinkling the keys, while guitarist Steve Cropper and drummer Al Jackson of the MG's followed suit; the seemingly throwaway jam session was not to be forgotten. Montague saw an opportunity to compete with Ramsey Lewis's recent hit "The In Crowd," keeping Axton and Haywood around to cut another track after the MG's left. On the first track he added vocal sounds of people partying to give it a "live" feel, then released it on the Pure Soul Music label as "Hole in the Wall" by The Packers (based on Axton's nickname) with the other song, "Go 'Head On," on the flip. Writer credit for "Hole" went to Cropper, Jackson and Jones, in addition to "N. Nathan" (a pseudonym for Nathaniel Montague, the real name of the mastermind behind the operation).
Montague's signature "Burn, baby, burn!" took a bad turn just a couple of days later when the Watts riots broke out. The phrase became the rally cry of rioters and looters as images of burning buildings and military troops (the area was an inner-city war zone for a few days) kept us all glued to the TV news shows (I was particularly fascinated since I lived about ten miles from where the scary scene went down). M.M. was more than mildly distressed that his fun phrase, solely intended to describe an exciting piece of music, had taken on a negative connotation; to make things worse, some in the media blamed him for putting the idea into the minds of the rioters. As the '60s gave way to the '70s, the phrase took on an even stronger meaning when applied to the "Black Power" movement.
After the dust literally settled, "Hole in the Wall" took off in L.A., hitting the top ten in December on top 40 stations KFWB and KHJ and top five on KGFJ's "Very Important Platters" list. Nationally it just missed Billboard's top 40 but fared much better in Cash Box, reaching the top 30 just before Christmas. While Magnificent Montague counted his thick wad of hundred dollar bills, Booker T. and the guys were back in Memphis asking "What just happened?" - but at least they received songwriter royalties for their trouble. Packy, still hobnobbing with Montague in the City of Angels, recorded more instrumentals with Haywood and session players for the Hole in the Wall album, sporting a generic cover and Montague's liner notes, giving himself credit for "working on the idea for two years," though the actual time spent was closer to two weeks. Packy needed a band to tour with; Haywood supplied the organ riffs as he had on the record, while singer Johnny Keyes (a former member of the Magnificents and longtime friend of M.M.), who needed the work, had to learn to play congas, the only spot available. A follow-up single, "Pure Soul" backed with "I'm Converted," was pressed, this time showing Nathan as sole songwriter on both sides.
Axton and Keyes (who'd gotten the hang of the tom-tom beat) made records for the Hollywood label soon afterwards under the name The Pac-Keys; single releases were "Stone Fox" and "Greasy Pumpkin." They used the Packers name on singles for Ray Charles' Tangerine label and others. 45s for various labels bore the names L.H. and the Memphis Sounds and Martini's. Montague left KGFJ sometime in 1967 but reappeared in early '69 with another album by the Packers, this time for Imperial Records. He remained ambiguous about who was in the band in his liner notes for Hitch it Up, sticking with pure hype: "People of all ages will get with the vibrations the Packers send because it's on everybody's wave length." It's doubtful Packy had anything to do with this particular project. "Packin' it In," a final Imperial single not on the album, appeared in the spring, its title containing the ring of truth.
The real weirdness came when a single called "Right On! (The Cream)" by the mysterious Joe S. Maxey (credited as the "Little 14 Year Old and his 15 Piece Orchestra the City Flames") appeared on Lu Pine Records...yet it was the original version of "Hole in the Wall"! A 1972 U.K. rerelease of the Maxey record on the Action label retitled the song again as "Sign of the Crab." Details are sketchy as to how or why the Packers recording ended up on these bizarre reissues. Writer credit on both singles is shown as Cholly L. Williams and my guess is that it's another psedonym for Magnificent Montague, milking his hit record for as much cash as he could get. His radio career took a few turns in later years; he hosted a show on Mexican "border blaster" station XERB (also the home of popsicle-eating wildman Wolfman Jack) in 1969 and '70. By this time he had been collecting African-American memorabilia for more than a decade, amassing a large collection of rare and historic books, paintings, photographs, films on original reels and other unique items covering two centuries of black U.S. history. A few years later he moved to Palm Springs, left all the hustling behind, and started his own radio station.
By decade's end, Packy Axton's career had taken a nose dive. He stopped making records (without his mother and the fateful sessions with Montague he probably never would have been a recording artist) and for a time he ran the Satellite Record Shop (located at the front of Stax Records' theater-turned-recording studio) back in Memphis. Alcohol was a big part of his downfall; he had been a heavy drinker since his teens and developed serious liver problems as a result. He was 32 when he died in 1974. As for that solid soul instro by his sort-of group The Packers, it lives on in the grooves of cherished Pure Soul Music 45s as well as those mysterious repressings. Although it originally came out a couple of months after the infamous, devastating Watts riots, if there's one song that defines the disorder of August '65 for me, it's "Hole in the Wall," baby...it was created in part by Memphis musicians but is one instrumental jam that's all about the streets of L.A.