Booker T. & the M.G.'s

From Academic Kids

Booker T. & the M.G.'s is a soul band, most prominent in the 1960s and 1970s. They are most commonly associated with Stax Records and are often placed in the subgenre of Memphis soul. They are probably best known for their hit instrumental "Green Onions" and for being the "house band" for many Stax Records performers. As originators of the unique Stax sound, the group was one of the most prolific, respected and imitated of their era: By the mid-1960s, bands on both sides of the Atlantic were trying to sound like Booker T. & the MG's.

Core members of the group include Booker T. Jones (organ, piano), Steve Cropper (guitar), Donald "Duck" Dunn or Lewie Steinberg (bass), and Al Jackson Jr. (drums). Isaac Hayes, Carson Whitsett, and Willie Hall have also been part of the group.

Early History

In the summer of 1962, seventeen-year-old keyboardist Booker T. Jones, twenty-year-old guitarist Steve Cropper, bass player Lewie Steinberg and Al Jackson, a drummer making his debut with the company were in the Memphis studio to back up former Sun Records star Billy Lee Riley. During downtime, the four started playing around with a bluesy little organ ditty reminiscent of Ray Charles. Jim Stewart, the president of Stax, liked what he heard and hit the record button. He liked the finished product enough to want to release it. Now, they just needed a B-side.

Cropper remembered a riff that Jones had come up with weeks before and before long, they had a second song. The group, of course, now needed a name. Another Stax band featuring Jones, called The Triumphs, had succeeded with a regional hit called "Burnt Biscuits." Jackson suggested another car name, The MG's. Stax even contacted the automobile makers in an effort to somehow cross-promote each other, but according to legend, the car company did not want to be associated with such music. Everybody liked Jackson's name, so MG became "Memphis Group."

Stewart wanted to release the single with the first song, titled "Behave Yourself" as the A-side and the second song as the B-side. Steve Cropper and radio disc jockeys thought otherwise, so soon, Stax released Booker T. & the MG's "Green Onions" backed with "Behave Yourself." It went to number one on the R&B charts and hit number three on the Pop charts. They soon after released a solid, if unspectacular, all instrumental album entitled Green Onions.

Over the next couple of years, Cropper, Jackson, Jones, and Steinberg, along with Cropper's bandmate from The Mar-Keys, bassist Donald "Duck" Dunn, as well as keyboardist Isaac Hayes and various horn players, would set the standard for soul music. Where the sign outside of Detroit's pop-soaked Motown Records aptly read, "Hitsville U.S.A.," the marquee outside of the movie theatre where Stax was located proclaimed, "Soulsville U.S.A."

Lewie Steinberg, a solid bass player from a family of musicians, recorded one more album with the band. Released in 1965, Soul Dressing was a much better album than their debut, highlighted by the great title track and Cropper's raw guitar work. Where the Green Onions album had consisted of mostly covers and arguably filler, every song but one on Soul Dressing was an original. But the chemistry — musically and personally — wasn't quite right. Steinberg stepped aside, and Dunn became the group's full-time bassist.

This outstanding line-up of Cropper, Dunn, Jackson, and Jones would go on to back up Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Albert King, Johnnie Taylor, Eddie Floyd, The Staple Singers, and jumpstart Wilson Pickett's solo career. They played on and produced hundreds of records, including classics like "Walkin' the Dog," "Hold On! (I'm Coming)" (on which the multi-instrumentalist Jones played tuba over Dunn's bass line), "Soul Man," "Who's Making Love," "I've Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now)," and "Try a Little Tenderness," among others. They defined much of what was expected from soul music — especially "southern soul" — where "the groove" was most important, the lyrics sometimes being inconsequential.

As artists on their own, they really began to gel with 1967's Hip Hug-Her album. Surprisingly, "Hip Hug-Her" was the first single released with Jones playing a Hammond B-3 organ, the sound that made him a legend. They had hits with the title track, and also with their cover of The Rascals' "Groovin'."

Also in 1967, they joined the now famed Stax European tour. Dubbed "Hit the Road, Stax!" they performed and backed up the label's stars. In June of that year, they, along with Otis Redding, stole the show at Monterey Pop, taking musicians like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, The Who, and Jefferson Airplane, and the West Coast audience to soul music heaven. They were also later invited to play Woodstock, but Al Jackson was worried about the helicopter needed to deliver them to the site, and so they decided not to play.

The tremendous Hip Hug-Her album was followed by the excellent Doin' Our Thing and Soul Limbo albums. The song "Soul Limbo" was a hit (later used by BBC-TV as their Cricket theme), as was their now classic version of "Hang 'Em High." And in 1969, they scored their second biggest hit with "Time Is Tight," from the soundtrack to the movie Uptight.

In 1969, Duck Dunn and Booker T. Jones, in particular, had become enamored with The Beatles, especially their work on the Abbey Road album. The appreciation was mutual, as The Beatles had patterned a lot of what they did on the MG's. John Lennon was a huge Stax fan who fondly called the group, "Book a Table and the Maitre D's." Also, Paul McCartney, like Dunn, played bass melodically, without straying from the rhythm or the groove. It was obvious through each of their playing that they admired one another. And as the story goes, after being locked away in the Memphis studio, when the company embarked on the "Hit the Road, Stax" tour of 1967, The Beatles sent limos to the airport and bent down to kiss Steve Cropper's ring. The MG's had no idea, till then, of the impact they were having on the rest of the world.

Jones, Dunn, and Jackson recorded McLemore Avenue, named for the street where Stax was located. Jones later taught Cropper, who had not heard Abbey Road, what to play. Released in 1970, the album stands on its own as a masterpiece, while also showing what great composers The Beatles were. They blazed through thirteen of Abbey Road's songs, condensing twelve of the songs into three different epic medleys, and released their superb cover of George Harrison's "Something." They followed that up in 1971 with what would unfortunately be their last single, the amazing "Melting Pot," and their last album, of the same name, featuring eight originals.

Before the Melting Pot album was recorded, Booker T. Jones had left Stax and, in fact, part of the album was recorded in New York, not the legendary Stax studio. Also becoming unhappy with new business affairs at Stax was Steve Cropper and shortly after, he would also leave. Dunn and Jackson remained on and did session and producing work. Jackson, who had been in Hi Records producer Willie Mitchell's band, played on and wrote many of Al Green's biggest hits.

In 1973, Dunn and Stax session guitarist Bobby Manuel recruited B-3 organ phenomenon Carson Whitsett to be part of a band that was to back up a promising new Stax artist named Stefan Anderson. Their drummer was not quite working out, so they brought in Al Jackson. The project, for whatever reason, didn't go anywhere, but rehearsals were obviously promising, prompting Jackson and Dunn to reform the MG's.

The 1973 album entitled The MG's, with Manuel and Whitsett replacing Cropper and Jones, was not commercially successful, and it didn't have a song that jumped out as a single. However, the playing was top-notch, the writing and arrangements were excellent, and of course, it had Duck Dunn and Al Jackson supplying the backbone. Carson Whitsett would go on to back up greats such as Bobby Blue Bland, Little Milton, and Kathy Mattea, and have his songs recorded by the likes of Johnnie Taylor, Solomon Burke, B.B. King, Etta James, Conway Twitty, and Lorrie Morgan. Bobby Manuel would become a staple of the Memphis music scene and later founded HighStacks Records in tribute to Stax and Hi Records.

After a promising meeting in late September 1975, Jones and Cropper, who were now living in Los Angeles, and Jackson and Dunn, still in Memphis, decided to give each other three months to finish up all of their projects. They would then devote three years to Booker T. & the MG's. Nine days later, on October 1st, Al Jackson, the drummer who had been a key to the sounds of both Stax and Hi Records, was murdered in his home.

Later career

Over the next decade, all three remaining members remained very active, producing, writing, and playing with other artists. In 1986, former co-owner of Atlantic Records Jerry Wexler (who was in the studio when the MG's cut Cropper's and Wilson Pickett's "In the Midnight Hour") asked the group to be the "house band" for Atlantic Records' 40th anniversary. The night before, Booker T. Jones came down with food poisoning, so Paul Shaffer stepped in at the last minute. The rehearsals with Jones, Cropper, and Dunn, along with the great powerhouse drummer Anton Fig (of Shaffer's Late Show with David Letterman band), went so well that the group decided to play some dates together.

Over the next few years, they played together occasionally and in 1992, Bob Dylan asked them to again serve as house band. This time, at the commemoration for his thirty years in the music business. There, they backed up Dylan, Stevie Wonder, Johnny Cash, Eric Clapton, and even Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder, showing they could still be anyone's band. While there, Neil Young asked the group to back him up on his world tour the following year.

Also in 1992, the MG's were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame. In 1995, when the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame opened its museum in Cleveland, Ohio, the MG's served as the house band once more, playing behind Aretha Franklin, Sam Moore, John Fogerty, and Al Green, as well as performing themselves.

Booker T. Jones, Donald "Duck" Dunn, and Steve Cropper moved into the 21st century as active as ever. Jones, Dunn, and Al Jackson's cousin, drummer Steve Potts supplied the music for Neil Young's 2002 album Are You Passionate?. Cropper, along with Isaac Hayes and Sam Moore, welcomed Stax president Jim Stewart into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame in 2002. The MG's, usually with Steve Potts, still play select dates. The three remaining members still play their classic instrumentals, sounding as fresh and exciting as the first time they played them.

This racially integrated group who came to prominence during the United States' civil rights movement, when the melting pot South was leaving a former age of racial segregation, were one of several integrated groups forming in Memphis in the period who helped move the nation's culture ahead progressively through soulful and spiritual performances. With four, distinct personalities brought together by the universal force of music, the group's telepathic interplay and the individual prowess of each member resulted in timeless collaborations known all over the world.

For other people known as Booker T, see Booker T.

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