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Booker T. & The M.G.'s

Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees Booker T. & the MG's originally served as the house band for Stax Records in Memphis, Tennessee. They became one of the most important, enduring factors in the label's sound and helped define the sound of Southern soul genre in the 1960s. Their tight, impeccable, funky grooves could be heard on classic hits by Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Carla Thomas, Albert King, and Sam & Dave among many others. In addition to their formidable session skills, they were a powerhouse instrumental recording outfit themselves. Undoubtedly a singles band, their debut 1962's "Green Onions," (and its bestselling album of the same title) kicked off a decade-long chart run for the band through 1972 that included era-defining hits such as "Hip Hug-Her," "Soul Limbo," "Time Is Tight," and "Hang 'em High." Of the dozen albums they released before 1971, only three missed the Top 200. They split in 1972 and reunited in 1975 for just over two years, during which time they issued the gritty, discofied Universal Language for Asylum. After being inducted into the Rock 'N' Roll Hall of Fame in 1994, they cut That's the Way It Should Be and served as the museum's house band for a time. The anchors of the Booker T. sound were guitarist Steve Cropper, whose slicing, economic riffs influenced many other guitar players, and organist Booker T. Jones himself, who provided much of the groove with his floating lines with his Hammond B-3. In 1960, Jones started working as a session man for Stax, where he met Cropper. Cropper had been in the Mar-Keys, famous for the 1961 instrumental hit "Last Night," which laid out the prototype for much of the MG's (and indeed Memphis soul's) sound with its organ-sax-guitar combo. With the addition of drummer Al Jackson and bassist Lewie Steinberg, they became Booker T. & the MG's. Within a couple years, Steinberg was replaced permanently by Donald "Duck" Dunn, who, like Cropper, had also played with the Mar-Keys. The band's first and biggest hit, "Green Onions" (a number three single in 1962), came about by accident. Jamming in the studio while fruitlessly waiting for Billy Lee Riley to show up for a session, they came up with a classic minor-key, bluesy soul instrumental, distinguished by its nervous organ bounce and ferocious bursts of guitar. The album bearing the same title contained all but one original and landed well inside the Top 40. For the next five years, they'd have trouble recapturing its commercial success, though the standard of their records -- 1965's Soul Dressing, 1966's And Now! and In the Christmas Spirit -- remained fairly high, and Stax's dependence upon them as the house band ensured a decent paycheck for each of the quartet's members. Form 1967-1969 the MG's hit pay dirt regularly with charting singles including "Hip Hug-Her," "Groovin'," "Soul-Limbo," "Hang 'em High," and "Time Is Tight". So too, the albums that housed them -- 1967's Hip Hug-Her, 1968's Doin' Our Thing and Soul Limbo, 1969's Up Tight (a soundtrack featuring an original score by Jones), and The Booker T. Set -- also made the Top 200. As is the case with most instrumental rock bands of the period, their singles contained their best material, but their albums from the period were far from inconsequential, and often ambitious. 1970's McLemore Avenue (titled for the Stax studio location) was an instrumental version of the Beatles' Abbey Road. It delighted all the Beatles, especially John Lennon, who had been a fan since "Green Onions." Though they'd become established stars by the end of the decade, the group began finding it difficult to work together, not due to clashing personalities, but logistical difficulties. Cropper and Dunn were playing many sessions in Los Angeles, while Jones was often absent from Memphis as he finished his degrees in music studies at Indiana University. The band amicably split in 1971, but stayed in touch. They plotted a reunion album in mid-1975. In early October, just nine days before beginning to record, Jackson was murdered in his Memphis home by a burglar. The band eventually recorded what became 1977's Universal Language with drummer Willie Hall for Asylum. They didn't tour. The surviving members remained active as session musicians, with Cropper and Dunn joining the Blues Brothers during the late '70s and appeared as such in the 1980 film. In 1986, Jerry Wexler, former co-owner of Atlantic Records, asked the group to serve as house band for the label's 40th anniversary celebration. Jones came down with food poisoning at the last minute and didn't make the gig. Paul Shaffer stepped in as his replacement. The pre-show rehearsal lineup of Jones, Cropper, Dunn, and drummer Anton Fig went so well the group decided to tour. The MG's got back into the spotlight in early 1992, when Bob Dylan requested them as house band for his 30th anniversary tribute at Madison Square Garden. In 1993 they served as the Neil Young's touring band, and garnered nothing less than laudatory reviews. one which brought both them (and Young) high critical marks. In 1994, the MG's released the comeback album, That's The Way It Should Be for Columbia. Produced in much the same way as their vintage sides, it proved the band's skills remained intact. The set didn't chart, but its single "Cruisin'" won the 1995 Grammy Award for Best Pop Instrumental Performance. Jones continued with his own musical output through the following decades, often lending his instrumental skills to other artists and occasionally issuing his own albums, such as the 2009 solo effort Potato Hole. In addition to studio work, Cropper served as an in- demand producer and songwriter. In 2008 he and the Rascals' Felix Cavaliere cut Nudge It Up A Notch, and followed it two years later with Midnight Flyer. He also recorded 2011's Dedicated: A Salute To The 5 Royales under his own name. Bassist Dunn, intermittently active with festival and tour appearances after 2000, toured Japan with Cropper and Eddie Floyd during May 2012, but died in his sleep in a Tokyo hotel. Cropper released Fire It Up for Provogue in 2021. In recent decades, Booker T. & the MG's have been given deluxe reissue treatment. In 2013, McLemore Avenue was remastered and reissued to better reviews than it received initially. In 2019, WEA re-released the band's album catalogue between 1962 and 1968 as a streaming package. In 2019 Real Gone Music issued Complete Stax Singles, Vol. 1: 1962-1967, and followed it with The Complete Stax Singles Vol. 2 (1968-1974) in 2021.
© Richie Unterberger, Thom Jurek /TiVo
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