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Booker T. & The M.G.’s

Known primarily for several soul-searching instrumental hits, included their perdurable piece de resistance, `Green Onions’, the all-embracing BOOKER T. & THE MGs (i.e. the Memphis Band) were the bees knees among the post-Be Bop beatniks of the early-to-late 60s. Cooler than cool, groovier than the grooves on each perfect platter they played, organist Booker T. Jones, guitarist Steve Cropper, drummer Al Jackson, Jr. and bassist Lewis Steinberg – although superseded by Donald “Duck” Dunn in 1964 – possessed a diversion for cats not into the British Invasion or the ambiguous pop industry – they kept it real tight, “up tight” in fact. Their rolling CV fomented through WILSON PICKETT, OTIS REDDING, CARLA THOMAS, ALBERT KING and SAM & DAVE.
Formed in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1962, when Stax Records’ in-house musicians – notably Steve Cropper of instrumental cousins The MAR-KEYS – cut a couple of tracks for label owner Jim Stewart. Having at first touted the sloth-ful `Behave Yourself’ as the promo track; it was the reverberating flip-side, the aforementioned `Green Onions’ (a result of a jam session while awaiting Memphis rocker BILLY LEE RILEY to arrive in the studio), that became a massive Top 3 smash and a subsequent mod floor-filler. This classic slice of lean, stinging R&B was a stunning showcase for the MG’s unique chemistry; Jones’ Hammond M3 organ stabbing and churning away over the taut rhythm section, while Cropper snaked in with his wiry Fender Telecaster playing. While continuing to work as part of the MAR-KEYS backing band in the early 60s, the mighty MGs also backed up a gamut of Stax stars, not least the legendary OTIS REDDING, who, himself, had started out as a session player at the label.
GREEN ONIONS (1962) {*8} – the Top 40 album – opened with the seminal title track, and alongside a few other self-penned instrumentals (the derivative `Mo’ Onions’ stretching the veggie theme even further), their objective here was to re-create a fresh vibe and tempo to the day’s hits such as `I Got A Woman’, `Twist And Shout’, `Stranger On The Shore’ and `Lonely Avenue’.
Unperturbed when their subsequent side-line singles (the highly derivative `Jelly Bread’, `Home Grown’ and `Chinese Checkers’) only hovered around the lower echelons of the Hot 100, BOOKER T. & THE MGs served up something a little more substantial on `Soul Dressing’. Forlornly, this too only just managed to hit #95 and, when `Can’t Be Still’ was criticised for being “a refrigerated Green Onions”, Steinberg’s berth was duly filled by another MAR-KEYS member, Donald “Duck” Dunn, for the most part of sophomore set, SOUL DRESSING (1965) {*6}; released on Atlantic Records in the UK. Basically a catch-up LP of their recent flops and “re-ad-dressing” some Green Onions-styled double-takes (`Big Train’ could be identified as blues number `My Babe’), at least the group were back on track, so to speak.
While it was extremely tough to penetrate the young minds of the saturised Brit-beat and folk-rock markets, BOOKER T. & THE MGs catered for older hipsters who’d thought Jones and Co were the coolest aces in the pack. Despite this, there was little in the way of large sales for third album, AND NOW! (1966) {*5}, or its attendant minor hit dirge `My Sweet Potato’; and where was the soul-stirring Top 60 entry, `Boot-Leg!’? And why oh why was the near simultaneously-released festive IN THE CHRISTMAS SPIRIT (1966) {*4} allowed to bury the Bookers in with all the other bells and baubles? God only knows.
As the 60s progressed, the band’s lock-tight R&B dance sound not only played a pivotal part in the emerging British mod culture, but regularly saw them hit the American charts, especially when a new psychedelic-soul embraced their Top 40 title track from the equally-chart-performing LP, HIP HUG-HER {*6}. In among its fashion-conscious pieces like `Carnaby St.’ (and covers of `Sunny’ reprised in the mould of “House Of The Rising Sun”, `Get Ready’, etc.), there was joy and adulation for the double-A-side chart-breakers, `Groovin’’ and `Slim Jenkins’ Place’. A live in-concert LP, BACK TO BACK {*7} – with stable-mates The MAR-KEYS – cemented their new-found affiliation with the buying public.
Whilst the anti-rock of the soul-themed DOIN’ OUR THING (1968) {*5} covered more than their fair share of hits of the day (here one could compare their organ-ic version of `You Keep Me Hanging On’ with that of prog-precursors VANILLA FUDGE), the buoyant Booker T boys were again struggling for another major hit.
Then, batted from out of the blue, the self-penned Caribbean-flavoured barn-stormer, `Soul-Limbo’ – soon-to-be used as the theme tune to BBC-TV’s cricket coverage – hit the charts for six, reaching #17 and No.30 in the US and UK respectively. SOUL LIMBO (1968) {*6} – the album – was just the ticket to bowl the Stax quartet back into contention, but once again their wide-ranging choice of contemporary cover re-takes (from the soul-stirring `Be Young, Be Foolish, Be Happy’ and `La La Means I Love You’ to the blues-fuelled `Born Under A Bad Sign’ and HENDRIX’s `Foxy Lady’ – LENNON & McCARTNEY’s `Eleanor Rigby’ squeezed somewhere in the middle), there was a fair smattering of finger-popping dirges.
BOOKER T and his Stax-driven Memphis Group were now cooking with gas at this stage, having just scored their biggest for years, with a Baroque organ treatment of Dominic Frontiere’s them from `Hang `Em High’ (also from their previous set!).
UP TIGHT! (1969) {*7} was to be a cinematic tour de force of their own making which would supply them with a transatlantic Top 5-ish follow-up. Rolling in on Steve’s itchy guitar and Booker’s banks of climactic keys, `Time Is Tight’ still remains, if only in terms of sheer feel-good simplicity, one of the era’s greatest dancefloor instrumentals. It formed the centrepiece of the M.G.’s only soundtrack, one which arrived too early to be grouped under Blaxploitation but which packed a gritty, soulful punch all the same. And while the famous quartet had split the writing credits in the past, here Jones – save for the aforementioned smash – took full responsibility for the trackwriting, as well as the production and arrangements. He even sang on jazzy lead track, `Johnny, I Love You’ (and hummed the languid melody to `Blues In The Gutter’), revealing a bluesy, versatile voice which begged the question of why the concept wasn’t committed to vinyl more often. The late JUDY CLAY – an unsung sessioneer who scored a hit with WILLIAM BELL and recorded a series of Northern Soul gems under her own steam – turned in one of the album’s best performances on the ominously spiritual, `Children, Don’t Get Weary’; her raw-as-uncured-leather vocal calling down Jones’ funereal, `House Of The Rising Sun’-esque organ lines. The M.G.’s flexed their sonic economy on dynamic interstices like `We’ve Got Johnny Wells’ and the conga-driven `Cleveland Now’, whilst the carnival-like groove of `Deadwood Dick’ underscored their versatility, even if it didn’t quite gel with their Southern pedigree.
With their Top 40 interpretation of SIMON & GARFUKEL’s `Mrs. Robinson’ on board, THE BOOKER T. SET (1969) {*5} spun out some other AM Pop-friendly segments of Southern soul; `Lady Madonna’ and `Michelle’ interspersed alongside a re-imagined The DOORS’ `Light My Fire’, `This Guy’s In Love With You’, etc. Changing trends mattered not to a band who were still steering the R&B movement into directions unusual at the time.
Having previously covered a handful of BEATLES tracks, and with permission to pay full homage to the Liverpool legends by way of their Abbey Road set-list, the BOOKER T fab four crossed all roads leading to McLEMORE AVENUE (1970) {*7} – the street equivalent to where the strolling MGs recorded their seamless instrumentals – to segue into shape all and sundry; only the minor-hit single, `Something’, stood alone.
As Stax foundered in the aftermath of the self-produced/self-scribed MELTING POT (1971) {*7} – containing a fully-extended swansong salvo of the title track hit – their grooves had hit an impass. All duly returning to their session-man day jobs, although Dunn and Jackson (plus guitarist Bobby Manuel and keyboardist Carson Whitsett) carried the can for one further eponymous THE MG’S {*4} Stax album in 1973, their time was up.
While BOOKER T. JONES married Priscilla Coolidge (sister of singer Rita) and recorded a number of albums with her, CROPPER went on to co-write a string of soul cues, although none would match his heavenly collaboration with the ill-fated OTIS REDDING for `(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay’. Tragically, Jackson was not part of the intermittent BOOKER T. & THE M.G.’s reunions, having been shot dead by a burglar at his home on October 1, 1975; Willie Hall of The BAR-KAYS would slide into his drum-stool on 1977’s “comeback” LP, UNIVERSAL LANGUAGE {*4}.
Unfruitful in their attempts to claw their back from a decade and a half of ups and downs, Cropper and Dunn chose their next venture wisely and, as it turned out, they were in the backing band that featured in the film, The Blues Brothers; they continued to work in session/production; BOOKER T. JONES went solo again.
In 1994 (after contributing to a DYLAN tribute at Madison Square Garden), the solid triumvirate of Jones, Cropper and Dunn recruited seasoned drummer Steve Jordan (ex-STEVIE WONDER band, ex-BLUES BROTHERS, ex-KEITH RICHARDS X-Pensive Winos) to turn up the heat on the easy-on-the-ear Columbia Records comeback, THAT’S THE WAY IT SHOULD BE {*5}. They’d lost none of their panache and precision and a hook-up with NEIL YOUNG on tour, guaranteed fans old and young to their `Slip Slidin’ `Cruisin’ (two tracks in fact from the set). Sadly, both bassists Dunn and Steinberg passed away; the former in May 13, 2012 after performing a double-day stint in Tokyo, Japan, and the latter on July 21, 2016.
© MC Strong 1994-2008/GRD-LCS/BG // rev-up MCS Sep2016

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