As the house band at Stax Records in Memphis, Tennessee, Booker T. & the MG’s may have been the single greatest factor in the lasting value of that label’s soul music, not to mention Southern soul as a whole. Their tight, impeccable grooves could be heard on classic hits by Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Carla Thomas, Albert King, and Sam & Dave, and for that reason alone, they would deserve their subsequent induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. But in addition to their formidable skills as a house band, on their own they were one of the top instrumental outfits of the rock era, cutting classics like “Green Onions,” “Time Is Tight,” and “Hang ’em High.”
The anchors of the Booker T. sound were Steve Cropper, whose slicing, economic riffs influenced many 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 (and indeed Memphis soul’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. Within a couple years, Steinberg was 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” (a number three single in 1962), came about by accident. Jamming in the studio while fruitlessly 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.
Abbey Road 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. Since the presence of black and white musicians made them a biracial band, the MG’s set a somewhat under-appreciated 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 the band’s music is now best appreciated via anthologies. But their albums were far from inconsequential, and occasionally veered into ambitious territory (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).
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. The band decided to break up in 1971, but were working on a reunion album in 1975 when Al Jackson was tragically shot and killed in his Memphis home by a burglar. The remaining members were active as recording artists and session musicians in the following years, with Cropper and Dunn joining the Blues Brothers for a stint in the late ’70s.
Potato Holethe MG’s got back into the spotlight in early 1992, when they were the house band for an extravagant Bob Dylan tribute at Madison Square Garden. More significantly, in 1993 they served as the backup band for a Neil Young tour, one which brought both them (and Young) high critical marks. The following year, they released a comeback album, arranged in much the style of their vintage ’60s sides, which proved that their instrumental skills were still intact. Like most such efforts, though, it ultimately failed to re-create the spark and spontaneity it so obviously wanted to achieve. Jones continued with his own musical output through the following decades, often lending his instrumental skills to other artists and occasionally issuing his own albums, such as the 2009 solo effort Potato Hole. Bassist Dunn, intermittently active with festival and tour appearances after the turn of the millennium, had been touring with Cropper and Eddie Floyd in Japan during May 2012 when he died in his sleep in a Tokyo hotel.