Booker T & The M.G.'S

A musician's eye view of some of Stax Records' hit songs, from the men who played them

Booker T & The M.G.'S in 1968. Credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Three issues back, in Rolling Stone No. 16, we ran an extensive interview with one of the top Memphis bands, Stax recording artists Booker T. and the MG's. It was so extensive, in fact, that there wasn't room for all of it in that issue.

As promised, we are running the remainder. Guitarist Steve Cropper, drummer Al Jackson and bassist Duck Dunn comment on selected tracks. Here, then, is a musician's eye view.

"DRIVING WHEEL"
JUNIOR PARKER

Al: What can you say about a tune like that? It's there, all the ingredients are there. Junior is not an excitable singer. That's a good piece of material, that's a perfect tune. We need more tunes like that. I'd like to get a hold of more material like that. That's blues. I believe Wayne Bennett is on guitar and it sounds as though he is playing it at another speed. Like he recorded by himself, but he is really at another speed or maybe he's just that fast. I've only seen him a couple of times and he's a groovy guitar player. The rhythm is there, the arrangement is there, the lyrics are there and so is Junior. Beautiful.

Steve: That's the thing that relaxes you, the blues. When you run across a song that great it really turns you on. There's nothing bad you can say about that kind of music. The worst mistake in life would still be a smash record.

Duck: You know, it's a funny thing, they say you can dress up, put on your formals and all that, and go to a party and about 7:00 at night, when you get to the party you'll find real nice music and along about 11:00 or 12:00, when things start getting dry, they stop and they start putting on the blues.

Steve: They've got to because that's when they start becoming themselves. The whole world puts on an act until they get intoxicated and that's the time they really become themselves and that's where it's at.

"LOVE IS LIKE AN ITCHING IN MY HEART"
THE SUPREMES

Duck: They keep getting back to that Motown bass player, don't they? You know, I don't know. That's not the best thing I've ever heard Diana Ross and the Supremes do. I don't like what they're doing now either, but the old stuff I dig. Not so far back as "Baby Love" or any of that. Yeah, I did like "Baby Love." I think this one was too fast. They played it well but they just didn't have that, that melody to it that their other songs used to have, sing-along type things.
Diana Ross has got something in her voice though that just seems to be –– well, she just appeals to me, not in a particular name, she sings a little . . .

Al: She stresses sex in her voice.

Steve: But it's natural though.

Al: Yeah, the groove was there, you know, the same four stomp beat. It seemed to have been over-arranged at points and then while I waited for her to really say something, it was the baritone that took the solo which said nothing to me. I would rather have heard an ensemble, or some other instruments there, because it just laid there, it didn't really say anything. It didn't leave me with anything. The melody of the tune was running so, I don't know what she said.

Steve: Was that a single? Let me make this comment: Whoever mixed the stereo killed the record. I just now was thinking about "Itching In My Heart," some of the lyrics. I was trying to pick out what I heard in the song lyric-wise and then I recalled that was a single record. I didn't get that in the mix because they completely subdued every lyric in the whole song and the melody too.
Whoever mixed the stereo forgot that there was a lead singer on the track. It's just all music; it was beat from the word go, a constant stomp beat. The record did not sound that way, it had much more to offer, and the single, like Duck said, "let me sing along," but the sing-along was not mixed into that record like it is on a single.

Jann: I want to get back to what Al said just a minute ago. You were talking about Diana Ross's voice being sexy and in that song I recall the parts where she says in each chorus, "love is like an itching in my heart," and then she goes and "baby I can't scratch it." That's where she really gets into it, right there.

Al: Right!

Steve: Maybe I'm sitting in the wrong part of the room, I heard that but it was so underneath.

Al: It's so bare and –– like I don't remember the single but from hearing the stereo, they lost it somewhere in the mix. Like the drums are too high. It's a standard out there, he's only playing a stomp beat and it's there from beginning to end. But where is Diana? I can get her in spots like the "itch" part, but I don't really get a message there.

"I'M A MAN"
SPENCER DAVIS GROUP

Booker: Let me talk about the record first: Now that's a Detroit record, isn't it? It has Detroit sound to me: It has all that rhythm and bongos. Good riffs. It seems like a funky version of the Detroit thing. It's a little more funky. The organ player is good. He did his part. They had a hell of a rhythm section.

Steve: The basic feel of the record, like Booker said, the rhythm was real good. The one thing that ties it together is the guitar riff they keep repeating over and over which makes it simple. The things the organ player did definitely didn't get in the way with what was going on. It was done in good taste, very simply done, that's why Booker said it sounds like a good studio man. It sounds like a lot of overdubbed rhythm effects and so forth. That's probably why Booker connected it with the Motown records. I didn't particularly distinguish a Fender bass or anything; I'm sure there wasn't any. I could hear the organ foot pedals going through all the way; it gives the record a lot of bottom and gives all these other little rhythm effects that kind of open up and distinguish what's going on.

Jann: What about the vocal?

Steve: The intensity of it is very good. I've heard other records on the group where I like the content better. This particular song, I'm digging it from a rhythmic standpoint, simplicity. As far as the song, it didn't impress me as well as some of the other things they've done as far as melody and lyric.

Duck: I couldn't understand the words too much. In the rhythm and blues field they always look to understand the words because it is a song that gets to the people. I think it was the rhythm that got to the people here more than it was the song.

Steve: I hear it as an R & B pop tune.

"STEPPING STONE"
STEVE MILLER BAND

Steve: I'll start by saying they're been studying their blues. Someone in that band has been listening to blues records for quite some time. When it first came on I was trying to remember what it was; basically I think it was just some changes of some tunes we knew years ago. It has the feel and the line of "Lucille" but it was done on the piano, just kind of a reverse thing. In the end I think they got closer to more recent blues like "Killin' Floor." The singer sounds pretty good. He sounds like he's got a lot of intensity, a lot of feeling, and a lot going for him. Guitar player sounds very good. The organist really didn't stand out as much, I don't think, as the guitar and the bass player, because the line was so definite, it dominated the whole thing. It's what you got out of it, everything else was so subdued, even the drum. It was good enough, they were there keeping time and that's what counts. The whole thing was based on the line, the bass guitar; the double line.

Al: I would have to listen to it over and over again to really get the complete story. It had a good groove. I agree with Steve on "Lucille" and the Little Richard things. I think it was well put together.

Steve: You could overdub "Lucille" right on the top of it and everybody would think it was "Lucille."

Al: Steve, why don't you use your wah-wah peddle?

Steve: Well, the first one I got, remember, Vox let me down, and it took three months to get another one. It knocked me out when I first heard it and now it's kind of a gimmick, because everybody's using it.
I think it can be used in a more simple way and if we use it, we'll probably do something that within its line creates its own feel, even though its produced by a wah-wah peddle. I think it'll be something that will stand out as a particular function. The times I've heard it on just about every record, I think it was over used.

"CONNECTION"
ROLLING STONES

Steve: Sounds like the group to me.

Duck: There's that little thing again, the sing along: "All I want to do is get back with you." You know when they got to that part, you could sing it right with them.

Steve: The thing I'm digging about that tune, there's so many pop groups that say, "I want to play R&B." This is their main goal, so they use these wild arrangements and things to get on to R&B." That particular one didn't sound like they were trying to reproduce R&B. I dig the group when they stand on an individual basis, and that's good. It had good parts to it. There's things probably Al would say, "Well, like the rhythm didn't fit here, it didn't fit there," but that's the way they feel. They are not concerned with if it fits or not; if it's good, it's good. If it sounds good that's where you go. I dig it and I think that song is much better on their own than a rendition of somebody else's song.
If it's a standard song that everybody knows and they break it, and leave it, then whoever is listening relates it to the original. If they're doing something they wrote, all the public hears is the final cut. They don't know what they went through to get it, how many times they changed it, so every time they change it it's their rendition of it and that's good and it's injecting their feeling, and I dig it.
I saw Al curling in a couple of spots, not from music but from feeling. He felt like it didn't fit and I could see it in his face.

Al: There was something missing in the rhythm. The tambourine had the half-time thing going, but as far as the melody is concerned it was running. In spots the tom-tom was beautiful. But you really miss it after hearing the triplets on the tom; something should have taken over on that four to hold it steady, because all that was left was the two-four and in spots it sort of rambled. It didn't hold it through which is very easy to do because you have no triplets or no four or something carrying it through so all he had was the two fours. I would have approached it different. What he did with it was beautiful. I dug what he did but I would have added to that. Maybe I wouldn't have had the same idea to go to the triplets on the tom, you know, on the title line but I would have added something else besides the two-four, even if it was just the triplets on the bass.

"I'LL BE YOUR BABY TONIGHT"
BOB DYLAN

Steve: I've always dug Dylan. The first thing I ever heard him do was "Like a Rolling Stone." The first time I heard it was when we went to LA. It was number one in LA. I'd never heard of the song and I'd never heard of Bob Dylan. We were driving down Hollywood Blvd. or somewhere and the song comes out. We were with a whole bunch of people and everybody started screaming and I said "What's this all about" and they said turn up the radio and it just grabbed me immediately and I still dig it today.
I'm sorry to say that I don't have a collection of Dylan's albums, but I'd love to get a collection. The reason I don't is because if I did I wouldn't have time to listen to them anyway, but I love picking up on everything he does.
I once coined something about Dylan: I think he's a soul brother's soul brother and Otis was always partial to Bob. I don't know if they knew each other, or how well they knew each other. I'm glad to see Dylan coming back and making records.

Jann: You were talking about how he sounded like Johnny Cash.

Steve: I don't think he sounds like Johnny Cash, but just listening to this particular track he did a couple of phrases that sounded like "Give My Love to Rosalie," the little bends that Johnny does all the time. That's a country soul brother, too. Has been for a long time. I think Bob broke the gap between all types of music. He molds them into one. I think Bob appeals internationally to everybody. This is why I dig it so much.

Duck: Yeah, I think Dylan does things. You might hear one thing and say, "Well, I don't like it," but somebody else might not like it and then he does another that you'll like but somebody else might not like what you'll like. But he's got to be a great songwriter. To tell you the truth I lost out, I've got a lot of his albums but I lost out on what's happened to him recently, they say he's been in hiding or something.

Steve: He's so far ahead, I think that's partly why he wanted to get away from people. When he writes a song and puts it out and people dig it, then his next step is so much ahead of what he's done. I've never met him personally so I can't say this is fact, but I imagine he finds people sometimes dumb. He'd have to because he's thinking so far ahead of everybody, which is good. He's a song writer's song writer, too.

Al: I'm sorry to say I know nothing of the man. I have never listened to him before. Being so wrapped up in what we are doing, a lot of times what you are listening for can be right around the corner and you overlook it. I dig what I just heard. To me, it was little in the country and western thing. I don't really know him, which doesn't mean I don't dig him. I'm just not up to him on that. I think everything as far as the arrangements and the musicians that he used everything was proper –– the mood, the feel was all there. To me he was carrying the whole thing. But everything else fits in beautifully.