Booker T. & The MG's - Biography
By J Poet
Booker T & the MGs were the best, most influential soul band of the 1960s. While they had hits of their own, including “Green Onions” and “Hip Hug-Her,” it was their work as the house band at the mighty Stax/Volt label that assured their place in music history. They played on the hits of Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Carla Thomas, Albert King, and Sam & Dave, to name just a few, making an indelible mark on the sound of soul music. They were one of the first integrated bands in America and were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992. They received a special Lifetime Achievement Grammy in 2007.
Booker T. Jones was a child prodigy and played oboe, saxophone, trombone, and piano in grammar school. He played organ at church on Sundays and by the time he was 16, he was a professional musician. He was hired by Willie Mitchell, who went on to fame as house producer at Hi Records, to play sax. Lewie Steinberg played bass in the group and Al Jackson Jr. was the band’s drummer. At 27, Jackson already had been playing professionally for almost 20 years. He’d started drumming in his father’s swing band when he was five.
Jones hung out at Satellite Records, the store run by Estelle Axton and her brother Jim Stewart, who were to soon found the Stax label. At his first recording session, Jones played sax behind Rufus Thomas and Carla Thomas on their hit “Cause I Love You.” Guitarist Steve Cropper worked behind the counter at Satellite. He’d been playing since he was 14, and was in a band called the Royal Spades with Donald “Duck” Dunn when he met Jones. The Spades were hired to play sessions at Stax and changed their names to the Mar-Keys and scored a hit with the instrumental “Last Night.”
In 1962, just after Stax was founded, they signed former Sun Records star Billy Lee Riley; Jones, Cropper, Steinberg, and Jackson were hired to back him up. Between takes, they started jamming on a tune Jones had written called “Green Onions.” Jim Stewart hit record and decided to release the impromptu session. Reuben Washington, a DJ at Memphis radio station WLOK played the side before it had even been released and it caused a sensation. The band needed a name and chose to name themselves after the MG driven by their friend Chips Moman, although later on Stewart claimed the name stood for Memphis Group. “Green Onions.” Shot to #1 on the R&B charts and they quickly recorded the funky all instrumental Green Onions (1962 Stax/Atlantic, 2002 Sundazed) to capitalize on it. The MGs made two more albums with Steinberg, Soul Dressing (1965 Stax, 2005 Atlantic) and And Now! Booker T & the MGs (1965 Stax, 2005 Atlantic), but they never duplicated the success of “Green Onions”
Meanwhile, they’d become the de fact house band at Stax, often working with Donald “Duck” Dunn, Isaac Hayes and assorted horn players. They backed up Rufus Thomas on “Walking the Dog,” Otis Redding on “I've Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now)” and “Try a Little Tenderness,” Sam & Dave on “Soul Man,’ Albert King on “Born Under a Bad Sign” which Jones co-wrote with William Bell, and Johnnie Taylor on “Who's Making Love,” as well as sessions with Eddie Floyd, The Staple Singers, Wilson Pickett, Delaney & Bonnie and others. Between sessions Jones was studying music at Indiana University.
In 1967 they were the backing band on the legendary Hit the Road, Stax! Tour of Europe that produced Otis Redding: Live In Europe (1967 Stax), possibly the best live album ever recorded. The band is smoking and Redding turns in an amazing performance. The album was reissued in an expanded edition as Live! in London and Paris (Stax/Concord) in 2008.
In late 65, Steinberg left the MGs and “Duck” Dunn stepped in for Hip Hug-Her (1968 Stax, 2002 Sundazed), with Jones playing the big Hammond B3 on a cover of The Rascals’ “Grooving’” and the hit title track, Doin’ Our Thing (1968 Stax, 1992 Rhino), Soul Limbo (1968 Stax, 2001 Stax/Fantasy) a more jazzy outing, Uptight (1969 Stax, 2002 Stax/Fantasy) the soundtrack to the Jules Dassin movie about the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., The Booker T Set (1969 Stax), McLemore Avenue (1971 Stax, 2004 Stax/Fantasy) the band’s tribute to The Beatles and Melting Pot (1971 Stax, 2007 Stax/Fantasy) a soulful, underrated classic.
Jones and Cropper were increasingly dissatisfied with the pay they got from Stax. The label treated them as hired hands rather than the first class musicians they were. In 1971 they left the label and the MGs dissolved. Jackson went on to do session work at Hi and played on many of Al Green’s hits including “Call Me,” which he co-wrote.
Jackson and Dunn briefly reform The MGs in 1973 with guitarist Bobby Manuel and Carson Whitsett on organ. The made one obscure album, The MGs (1973 MG), on their own indie label, but it flopped. Cropper became an in demand session player and Jones moved to LA and started producing albums including Willie Nelson’s classic Stardust (1978 Columbia, 2008 Legacy) and Booker T. and Priscilla (1971 A&M) a two disc set he made with then wife Priscilla Coolidge.
By 1975 Cropper and Jones who were then living in LA, asked Jackson and Dunn to collaborate on a new MGs album. After their first recording session, Jackson was murdered in his home. The band brought in drummer Willie Hall from Al Green’s band, and made Universal Language (1977 Asylum) as a tribute to their fallen comrade.
In 1977, Cropper and Dunn became part of The Blues Brothers Band for a US tour, Briefcase Full of Blues (1978 Atlantic), and with Willie Hall, The Blues Brothers (movie soundtrack) (1980 Atlantic.) The MGs reformed to become the House Band at the Atlantic Records' 40th Anniversary Celebration at Madison Square Garden in 1988, the House Band for Bob Dylan’s 30th Anniversary Concert at the same venue in 1992, and backed Neil Young on his world tour of 1993.
They cut That's The Way It Should Be (1994 Columbia) to celebrate their successful reunion and continue to play select dates today.