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Booker T & The MGs

Biography

Booker T & The MGs
Michael Ochs Archive/Getty

The Memphis-based quartet Booker T. & the MG's is one of the most important studio bands in the history of American popular music. On their own, the MG's are best known for their 1962 instrumental hit "Green Onions" (Number Three, Pop, Number One, R&B), but the group is remembered more today for its work as the house band at Stax Records, where they played behind a string of hits by heavyweight soul acts including Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Sam & Dave and the Staple Singers.

The band formed by accident one day in 1962, when seventeen-year-old keyboard player Booker T. Jones was in a Memphis studio waiting for rockabilly singer Billy Lee Riley to arrive to a recording session. He and drummer Al Jackson, bassist Lewie Steinberg and guitarist Steve Cropper began jamming on the melody that would become "Green Onions." Stax Records president Jim Stewart liked the tune so much he decided to record it and put it out as a single. The band needed a name, so Jackson suggested the MG's, for the popular early-sixties sports car. Eventually, MG's came to stand for Memphis Group. The style of the song — a bouncy, organ-driven R&B melody with blasts of trebly, country-rock guitar over a swinging, laid-back bass-and-drums groove — became the signature musical foundation for Southern soul.

Jones had been working as a session man for Stax since 1960. Cropper was a one-time member of the Mar-Keys, a band known for its proto-MG's instrumental hit "Last Night." Jackson was a veteran of the Memphis jazz scene. After two albums with the MG's — 1962's Green Onions and 1965's Soul Dressing — Steinberg was replaced by another former Mar-Keys member, bassist Donald "Duck" Dunn. The MG's were prolific throughout Sixties, recording their own albums in addition to their work as the Stax house band. Their string of hits include "Boot-leg" (Number Ten R&B, Number 58 pop, 1965), "Groovin'" (Number Ten R&B, Number 21, Pop, 1967), "Hip Hug-Her" (Number Six R&B, Number 37, Pop, 1967), "Soul Limbo" (Number 17 Pop, 1968), Hang 'Em High" (Number Nine Pop, Number 35 R&B, 1969) and "Time is Tight" (Number Six Pop, Number Seven R&B, 1969). Although mostly known for their hip singles, the MG's stretched out on the ambitious McLemore Avenue (#19 R&B, 1970), the band's funky, instrumental version of the Beatles' Abbey Road in its entirety.

As important as their music, Booker T. & the MG's — two black members and two white members — became a symbol of racial integration in the South during the civil rights years. As the individual members began getting session work in other cities, they had less and less time for their work as the MG's, and the group called it quits in 1971. Their final album, released that year, was the aptly named Melting Pot. In 1975, the band had begun work on a reunion album when Al Jackson was shot and killed by a burglar at his home in Memphis. Three years later, Cropper and Dunn backed the Blues Brothers — Saturday Night Live's John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd's semi-serious send-up of an R&B band — for the Number One album Briefcase Full of Blues, which included a cover of the Sam & Dave hit "Soul Man" that reached Number 14 on the Pop chart. The project was so popular that Cropper and Dunn worked with Belushi and Aykroyd on a 1980 film of the same name.

The two also continued their work as session musicians. Cropper worked with artists ranging from Rod Stewart and Dolly Parton to southern power pop pioneers Big Star and The Band's drummer Levon Helm. Dunn recorded with Helm, Peter Frampton, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan and others. Jones released four solo albums and played on sessions with the likes of Dylan, Willie Nelson, Rodney Crowell, Carlos Santana and John Lee Hooker.

In 1986, Atlantic Records co-owner Jerry Wexler asked the MG's to reform for the company's fortieth anniversary. Jones was unable to attend because he fell ill, but the show, with a replacement keyboardist, went on. It inspired with group to reform, along with Jones, for other dates including a 1992 concert commemorating Bob Dylan's thirtieth anniversary in the music business. For that show, the group backed a string of artists ranging from Dylan, Johnny Cash, Eric Clapton and Stevie Wonder to Eddie Vedder.

That same year, Booker T. & the MG's were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. When the Hall opened its doors in Cleveland three years later, the MG's backed featured attendees Aretha Franklin, Al Green, Sam Moore of Sam & Dave and Creedence Clearwater Revival's John Fogerty. In 1994, the group — with drummers Steve Jordan and James Gadson filling Jackson's shoes — followed all the recent activity with an album of new material, That's the Way It Should Be, on Columbia Records. Since then, the members have continued to work as session players. In 1998, Cropper and Dunn reprised their roles in the movie Blues Brothers 2000. In 2007, Booker T. & the MG's received the Grammys' Lifetime Achievement Award.

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