Primary Instrument: Band/orchestra
Booker T & the MG’s - band/ensemble
There are few instrumental songs that have the instant recognition factor, combined with enduring popularity as the 1962 classic hit “Green Onions,” by Booker T & the MG’s.
As the house rhythm section at Stax Records, Booker T. & the MGs all but single-handedly shaped the course of Southern soul music in the Sixties. Besides providing solid, consistently creative backing for the Memphis label’s legion of great soul singers as Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Carla Thomas, Sam & Dave, and bluesman Albert King, whom they backed on his 1967 classic “Born Under A Bad Sign” The quartet created a body of instrumental recordings that defined the genre and era.
The originators of the Booker T. sound were guitarist Steve Cropper, whose slicing, economic riffs influenced a generation of other guitar players, and Booker T. Jones himself, who provided much of the groove with his floating organ lines. 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 sound with its organ-sax-guitar combo. With the addition of drummer Al Jackson and bassist Lewis Steinberg, they became Booker T. & the MG's. In a couple years, Steinberg would be 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 in 1962, came about while jamming in the studio 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. For the next five years, they'd have trouble recapturing its commercial success, though the standard of their records remained fairly high, and Stax's dependence upon them as the house band ensured a decent living.
In the late '60s, the MG's really hit their stride with Hip Hug-Her, Groovin', Soul-Limbo, Hang 'em High, and Time Is Tight, all of which were Top 40 charters between 1967 and 1969. As a band that featured two Blacks and two Whites playing as tightly together as possible, they also set a somewhat underappreciated example of both how integrated, self-contained bands could succeed, and how both Black and White musicians could play funky soul music. As is the case with most instrumental rock bands, their singles contained their best material, and they're best appreciated via anthologies. But their albums were not inconsequential, and occasionally ambitious. They did an entire instrumental version of the Beatles' Abbey Road, which they titled “McLemore Avenue” in honor of the location of Stax's studios. For those of us who like both bands, it’s a gas to listen to.
Though they'd become established stars by the end of the decade, the group began finding it difficult to work together, not so much because of personnel problems, but because of logistical difficulties. Cropper was often playing sessions in Los Angeles, and Jones was often absent from Memphis while he finished his music studies at Indiana University.
Released in 1971, “Melting Pot” was the final album by the finest soul instrumental combo of all time: the original Booker T. & the MGs. The disc, from which an edited version of the title track became a hit R&B single, is one of the group's crowning achievements, in the words of Stax historian Rob Bowman. Indeed, it is the quartet's most jazz-oriented and boldly experimental work. Sadly, the four musicians would never play together again. Drummer Al Jackson, Jr. was murdered in 1975. The remaining members have been active as recording artists and session musicians since, Cropper and Dunn joining the Blues Brothers for a while in the late '70s.
Though Booker T & the MG’s only released eight albums in their time together, there are many best of compilations available the best of which is “Time Is Tight.” Contained herein are all of the band's major hits--from Green Onions in 1962 to Melting Pot in 1971plus many classic album tracks, rare B-sides, and a cross-section of the reunited group's work in the Nineties. Highly recommended.