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Njårdhallen, Oslo, Norway; 7 April 1967.
It’s the next-to-last night of the Stax/Volt Revue, a Memphis record label’s debutante tour of Britain and Europe. The Revue’s backing band is called Booker T. and the MG’s. They open the show with songs of their own—“Red Beans and Rice” and “Green Onions.”
“Green Onions” is their first single, biggest hit, founding document, statement of principles; it’s why the band exists. In Oslo, they take it fast. Everyone does. The headliner, Otis Redding, has been pushing to kick up his tempos—audiences want to move, he says.
Going at a remorseless clip, they stretch it out, find more room in the song: it feels as if it could go for an hour. The drummer, Al Jackson Jr., does a tom fill as a controlled explosion, with a balletic turn of his torso. He plays his ride cymbal with sweeping, delicate swats of his forearm.
Norwegian state television films them. One camera, facing the stage, captures a striking visual for 1967. Two white Southern men stand between two seated black Southern men. A handful of years earlier, they couldn’t have eaten together in restaurants in their hometown.
House left is Jackson, set up on a riser; house right is the band’s namesake, Booker T. Jones, on organ. They’re sources of power, turbine engines. Center stage are Donald “Duck” Dunn and Steve Cropper, on bass and guitar, respectively. They stay in place, feet in first position, swaying, glancing left and right for cues. Cropper does a loping kick as he solos.
Another camera frames Booker T. and the MG’s from the side, in close-up—it’s a wings-eye view. Here the band is a four-headed unit, faces and bodies in a collective motion. They’re the gears of a clock.
The Backing Band
From Monterey Pop (Pennebaker, 1968)
Booker T. and the MG’s are heard more on other people’s records: a 1969 Ebony profile estimated that less than ten percent of their performances on Stax had been issued under their name. It’s Jones playing keyboards on William Bell’s “You Don’t Miss Your Water” and Albert King’s “Born Under a Bad Sign.” It’s Jackson spurring Otis Redding through “Try a Little Tenderness” and “Respect,” Cropper sliding a Zippo lighter along his strings on Sam and Dave’s “Soul Man,” Dunn tacking down Eddie Floyd’s “Knock on Wood.” It’s all of them backing Redding at Monterey Pop in 1967.
“We weren’t viewed as an artist…We weren’t even listed in the meetings as artists when [Stax] talked about what artists would be cutting,” Jones told Stax historian Rob Bowman. “Booker T. and the MG’s were not one of the viable artists at Stax. I think [co-owner Jim Stewart] was afraid of losing the house band.”
In the mid-Sixties, they were Stax’s house band—they were on salary, had titles, even offices at Stax’s studio/headquarters on McLemore Avenue in south Memphis. “You see, though we record under our own name, we’re really employees of the studio,” Jones told Record Mirror in 1967. “People figure we should get out more. But first and foremost we want the company’s records to sell.”
Booker T. and the MG’s records were sometimes afterthoughts, as the likes of Redding, Carla and Rufus Thomas, Eddie Floyd, and Sam and Dave dominated Stax’s roster. “We did the MG’s music when there was extra time,” Jones said. “When there was nothing else going on, ‘well, let’s work on Booker T. and the MG’s.’ That was the attitude.” Cropper recalled “always using the last thirty minutes of a session, or when somebody else had called for a demo and didn’t show.”
Until 1967, their post-“Green Onions” singles rarely troubled the charts. They had a measure of freedom on record, particularly on their albums: four session musicians sneaking out for a few hours, for a more exacting degree of work. Hard formalists, they spoke to each other in riffs and hooks; their music sounds distilled. “We made dance music. It was a lot easier sitting down and playing a track without having to worry about words,” Cropper said last year.
Each time the band kicks off a track, they look to make something new within the same shape. It’s a tectonic shift when a Cropper solo chorus is sixteen bars instead of twelve, or if Dunn uses roundwound strings on his bass (“Hip-Hug-Her”), or if Jones plays an eerie clavinet (“Eleanor Rigby”). They named songs after food or board games or states of mind—what mattered, what was key, was when Jackson’s drums came in, or if he’d slip in a fill midway through a chorus. Where Dunn would set up on the bottom. How Cropper and Jones, the melodic leads, would spar off this time. “We wrote sounds,” Jones told Bowman. “We thought a lot about sounds.”
“They’re so soulful without knowing it,” Pete Townshend raved about the band to Rolling Stone in 1968:
“It’s the truth, it’s the truth. They are playing exactly the right things. They are playing them straight and they are playing them off-the-cuff, as they come, the sounds which appeal to them and the sounds which go down with them, things which they groove to, things which they think other people will groove to, too. They just happen to be totally right. They don’t know this, because nobody expects to be totally right. We’re not as straight as they are—we try, but we’re not half as right as they are. And they’re so straight and they communicate.”
A common perception of Booker T. and the MG’s at the time: a straight-laced outfit, living in isolation, unaware of how good they were (their Canadian equivalent was The Band, of whom similar things were said). This ignored how much they did consider themselves artists, how meticulous they were about keeping their sound current.
Still, they showed up at Monterey with barbershop haircuts and chartreuse lounge suits (the writer Stanley Booth said they looked like “filling station attendants” when he first met them.) When Townshend introduced himself to Jones, in a fanboy gush of praise, Jones smiled, thanked him, and kindly said he had no idea who Townshend was. Jackson listened to a Dylan record for the first time for Rolling Stone in 1968 (“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.”) It was a half-intentional separation, Jones recalled to the AV Club in 2009. “On some level we knew we were doing something unique because we made a conscious effort to keep it pure.”
Their world revolved around the studio on McLemore Avenue. Cutting takes, rehearsing, working up songs for others, twelve or fifteen hours a day. Listen to any MG’s track and you know where all four stand. The conservatory keyboardist (“Booker was a genius. He was the keyboard-player genius, and he would come in with ideas, and I’d turn them around and make them easy for myself,” Cropper said. “If Booker came up with something more complicated, we just put it into a dance rhythm.”), the groover jubilant of a bassist, the drummer you could set your watch by, and the guitarist who plays as though he’s being taxed by the note.
Booker T. (for Taliaferro) Jones, born in Memphis in 1944, was a musical prodigy. He started on oboe in fourth grade (“a C instrument: that’s how I got into the school band,” he recalled to Terry Gross), soon taking up clarinet (“a B-flat instrument!”), soon again piano (“another C instrument—it helped me to get the structure of music in my mind”). He learned trombone, saxophone and bass; by fourteen, he was playing bass at nightclubs on Beale Street and in West Memphis. “The bandleaders had to come to my house [and] persuade my mom and dad that they were okay,” Jones told Stax historian Robert Gordon (he once was called out of algebra class to play in a recording session.)
On stage, he was often paired with a drummer named Al Jackson Jr., who’d curse at him whenever Jones fell behind the beat. Jackson was older—he was in his late twenties when he started cutting Stax records—and was a scion of one of Memphis’ African American musical families. His father ran a swing band; Jackson was on stage with him by age five. By fourteen, he was in Willie Mitchell’s band (“I said to his father, ‘Hey, let’s use your son!’ He said, ‘Oh, man, he can’t play this shit!’” Mitchell told Traps in 2007. “He set up his kit—a cymbal, a snare drum, and a bass drum—and I kicked the thing off. And, man, that thing went off at 20 tempos!”).
Time only mattered when he was keeping it. Sometimes he had to be rousted from bed for a session, with Cropper gingerly prodding him awake with a broomstick (“Al was a real heavy sleeper, and Al was one of those sleepers that came up fighting.”) At Stax, a song had to prove itself worthy of him. Jackson would sit down at his kit only when something was ready to be cooked. “Let’s put a pocket on it,” he’d say. “You just had to kind of had to wait on him,” Dunn recalled. “He had such a delayed back beat that when he came down on a beat, it felt like it wasn’t going to get there….Al played like a singer.” Cropper compared him to a preacher; watching a session, Booth called Jackson an arranger by how he hit his drums. Few drummers impressed him—it’s a joy to see Jackson trying to puzzle out Charlie Watts’ performance on the Rolling Stones’ “Connection.” He used the butt end of his left stick (“I developed that from playing hard on gigs. I’ve tried to change but I can’t feel it any other way”); he tuned his snare by slapping down his thick billfold on it to dampen the tone; he’d only replace his drum heads when he broke them.
Steve Cropper first saw Jackson and Jones playing at the Flamingo Room, off Beale Street. Born in 1941 on a farm in the Ozark Mountains of southern Missouri, Cropper moved to Memphis in the Fifties. At the time, the city was two-fifths African American and greatly segregated. Cropper went to the all-white Messick High (Booker Jones went to the all-black Booker T. Washington High), where he formed a band called the Royal Spades—the sort of name that white teenage Southern hipsters would give their R&B band in the late Fifties.
“We would leave our job and go to the colored clubs and listen to those bands play. That’s really how we got started,” he said in 1967. As Jonathan Gould wrote, “whites could move with relative impunity through the black locales of Memphis…their presence not appreciated but tolerated.” (The reverse obviously wasn’t the case.) He took up guitar, soon favoring the Fender Telecaster. An early influence was Lowman Pauling, guitarist/composer of The “5” Royales, and like Pauling, Cropper’s playing was stamped by its restraint. To imagine Cropper noodling through an endless solo is to imagine a fish singing. He played “lead rhythm guitar,” working out tight riffs for turnarounds and intros, keeping notes to a minimum, using string bends to color chords. “I had to be two guys, because they couldn’t afford two guitar players,” he said in 2014. “So I played rhythm, and then I’d play a lick or what we call a fill, and then back to rhythm.”
Roughly around the same time, Cropper and Jones started hanging out at a record store/studio on McLemore Avenue, near Jones’ home. Cropper had helped to convert the building—an old movie theater, later a church—into a studio, making sound panels out of pegboard, hammering off floor bolts and laying down carpet. This was Satellite Records, soon renamed Stax after its owners, Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton.
Jones turned up after school; sometimes Cropper picked him up after band practice. At Stax, they became part of a coalescing group of session players that included bassist Lewis “Lewie” Steinberg. Like Jackson, Steinberg was nearing thirty and had a deep musical lineage—his father was a Beale Street pianist; his sister sang with Fats Waller; his brothers played with Lionel Hampton; his niece was a Memphis DJ. He’d come up in jazz, favored the upright bass and had a brisk, walking-centered style.
Around late 1964, Steinberg was replaced by Donald “Duck” Dunn. Allegedly more comfortable on electric bass, Dunn was nearly a decade younger than Steinberg and looked it. He was a dynamo on stage, and ambitious—he’d buy a couple new 45s each week and spend his few hours at home learning the basslines. Most essentially, Dunn was Cropper’s high school friend and former bandmate (that was the main reason, Steinberg believed. “Every time Stax would get a hit record, I would be the one that would put the bass to it…and every time it comes out, someone else is reaping the benefits,” he said in 1999).
The bassman swap happened while Booker T. and the MG’s were a provisional concept. Jones was at college in Indiana from fall 1962 through spring 1966—some piano and organ parts on MG’s singles of the period are by another Stax mainstay, Isaac Hayes. The band was a foremost a studio outfit (live, “Booker T. and the MG’s” were whoever got on stage under that name—David Porter sometimes sang with them). For a long time, they were that group that did “Green Onions.”
No music gives me as much pleasure as listening to Booker T., like “Green Onions” is my ultimate record of all time, practically, and the guitar work is so tasteful; it’s everything that I want to do. Pete Townshend, 1968.
An occupational hazard if you’re Steve Cropper is that if you go to a blues bar, you’ll be asked up on stage to play “Green Onions.” Cropper’s fine with it. It’s just that bar bands get “Green Onions” wrong.
They know how to play his lines and the bassline, but the drummer never nails Al Jackson’s part. “Green Onions” is in 2/4, but “the ride is playing straight fours, the kick is going dom dom da-dom dom—it’s a sort of half-shuffle thing in the foot,” Cropper told Jim Payne. And keyboardists play it like a second-string church organist, all splayed fingers and heavy-handed chording. But Jones glides and pivots, his fingers dancing down the treble end of the organ’s upper keyboard, playing sets of fifths for the theme/bassline. It’s as if he’s consoling his notes while he’s sounding them.
He credits it to his childhood piano teacher, who taught him to keep his fingers arched and to “crawl”—hold down one key while moving your other fingers to their next positions, so there’s always a drone note to cotton the melody’s progress. (You can see him demonstrate it to Keyboard in this video.)
It’s a Sunday afternoon, sometime in July 1962. The session is for a radio jingle, or prospective single, by fading rockabilly star Billy Lee Riley. It’s a bust (Riley’s too drunk or hung over to sing, or fails to show up—memories are cloudy, as it was a lifetime ago). The band put together for the session—Jones, Cropper, Steinberg, Jackson—hasn’t all played together before. Jackson’s recently begun working at Stax, thanks to Jones’ lobbying.
There are some hours to fill, so they might as well cut something.
Jones is playing a Hammond M spinet organ. It’s in the studio thanks to Jim Stewart, who found it in an old woman’s living room and took pity on it. It has cheap plastic pedals and an eight-inch speaker at knee-height. Cropper picks up on Jones’ riff—he and Jones have been working on it, inspired by something they’d heard on the radio while driving to Stax. But Jones has only played it on piano before. This is the first time he tries the riff on organ. It’s different. The speaker cages the riff, gives it attitude—it sounds more urgent.
Booker T. gets an award from his high school bandmaster (Jet, 1 November 1962).
They start working it out: a 12-bar blues in F minor with tricks in it—while Jones starts on the F minor home chord, he substitutes major IV and V chords (Bb and C) while Cropper plays major chords for his staccato counterpoint. “I’m just playing a four major to a one major, four-one, four-one, on my intro,” Cropper said. “Booker’s in a minor and I’m in a major. It works because the bassline supports all of it.” (Jesse Gress argues that Cropper’s in two keys at once, playing “three-note, second-inversion major triads a fourth higher than each chord in the progression,” hence playing Bb chords over Jones’ tonic Fm figures and Eb and F triads in Jones’ Bb and C bars.)
It’s an unintended bitonality—these are green musicians, fresh out of school, and going by what sounds right on their strings and keys. But Jones and Cropper already know how to orient against each other. Each takes two solo choruses. Jones’ are precise, sharp-edged, playing descending variations on the riff or building it out; Cropper’s are bristling, hooking into a juicy repetition for his second chorus. Their chords work in service to Jackson’s drum pattern, with its hard judgement.
Steinberg makes it swing: he’s the dance floor’s advocate. “All three of us, bass, guitar and organ, were all playing the bassline,” he told Uncut in 2006. “When one soloed, the other two would take up the bottom of it. And…we never made Jackson turn around in it. It just kept flowing right on through. Wasn’t no blahblahblahblah from him, then go into the next 12 bars. No, no. It just pulled right on through.”
Booker T.’s opening organ riff (song transposed to Gm)
As Jones ends his solo, someone in the room yells before Cropper rolls in. One of this makeshift quartet, playing in a former movie hall whose floors slope down to where a screen once stood, looks up and catches what’s happening. Hey!
At playback, Cropper thinks it’s the best dance track he’s ever heard. They cast about for names. Steinberg suggests “Funky Onions.” That’s a bit low-class, a bit too close to “Fucking Onions.” So instead they honor green onions, those stinky, not-fully-grown scrubs you’d find in any Southern backyard. Stax makes a pressing, Cropper takes it around to the local stations and the phones light up. “Green Onions” hits #1 R&B and #3 pop in 1962, sells over a million copies, and every bar band in America still plays it, if not well.
Mo’ & Mo’ Onions
(Bill Carrier, ca. 1962).
So begins Booker T. and the MG’s. The name came from the car, though to avoid copyright hassles they always said it meant “Memphis Group” (“M.G.’s” or “MG’s” varied throughout their history; they were at the mercy of art directors). They cut the Green Onions LP in a day in August 1962. It has trebly covers of performers now mostly remembered by God (Acker Bilk, Dave “Baby” Cortez), contemporary Motown (Mary Wells’ “The One Who Really Loves You,” where Jones ornaments Smokey Robinson’s melody as he would the Beatles years later) and older Atlantic sides. On Ray Charles’ “Lonely Avenue,” Jones elaborates a keyboard technique he’d done on “Behave Yourself,” a slow blues originally slated as the A-side of “Green Onions.” It’s a telegraph-fast repetition of a note or two, a pointillist flurry, as if he’s boring into the song (you hear it throughout the MG’s lifespan—see “Pigmy” or “Heads or Tails”).
The LP’s only fresh original was “Mo’ Onions,” a bald attempt to reuse the formula. They kept at it on subsequent singles, their Onions Variations, in which a band invents itself. “Jelly Bread” has Cropper’s guitar as gruff lead figure while Jones plots against him; its B-side “Aw’ Mercy” is Jackson as centerpiece, keeping a cha-cha rhythm on cymbals, rumbling on his toms, punctuating lines with a snare fill. “Home Grown” has a slow menace of an organ groove, with Steinberg as undertow; on “Chinese Checkers” the Memphis Horns play organ riffs while Jones does a guitar line on organ; on “Plum Nellie,” the Hammond’s pedals make Jones sound like he’s playing in a well, while the horns sound phased.
These singles (mostly compiled on 1965’s Soul Dressing) are the continuing education of Booker T. Jones during his time at Indiana University (he’d drive back to Memphis in the car he’d bought from his share of “Green Onions”). “I could play my little theory chords with Steve, Al and Lewie…they had the expertise with the rhythm…all I had to do was play my little chords and it came together,” he said. Once in a while, he’d pull off a steal: “Big Train” nicks from Little Walter’s “My Babe“; “MG Party” is a more subtle reworking of it.
Working with Otis Redding narrowed Cropper’s already-minimalist tendencies. “Even when I take a solo, you’ll notice I don’t play a lot of notes. I just play something very bluesy,” he said to Hit Parader in 1967. “Even the solo is mainly rhythm, what you call block form phrases.” He became a secondary percussionist. “I treated the guitar…like I would a set of drums, picking up from the little things you do on the hi-hat, on the cymbals, and little stabs and rim shots,” he told Gordon. “I would weave in and out of Al and play when he didn’t and lay out when he did.” See “Tic-Tac-Toe,” where Cropper and Jackson are competing fronts while Jones sends out distress calls on organ, or “Soul Dressing,” whose rim-shot drumline started with Cropper messing around on the studio drum kit, Jackson translating the pattern for public consumption.
Some of Dunn’s bassline on “Hip-Hug-Her” (from Tim Tindall’s What Duck Done)
With Dunn, the band got yet another percussive dimension. “I stick with pure syncopation. Upbeat is the thing now,” he said in 1967. It was a survival tactic—early on, Jackson had warned him “don’t ever play before me!,” meaning that he didn’t want to hear a bass note before he came down on the one. “I listen to the foot,” Dunn said. “You can’t get in the way of that foot or you’re in trouble.” He lived in the off-beats—on “Time Is Tight,” his bassline in a typical bar is a note on the downbeat, a pair on the “&” of “two & three,” three notes starting on the “&” of “three & four,” and a last after the fourth beat.
He was a syncopation agent, keeping close to the beat but parrying around it, digging into easy, repetitive patterns. He finger-picked, alternating quarter and eighth notes to parallel Jackson’s shifts between kick and snare, and a signature move was to slide a sixth note between his root-fifth movements. “Be My Lady,” a late 1965 single, is a Dunn showcase—the rest of the MG’s cha-cha in support. It’s so rhythm-drunk that a tambourine is a lead voice.
Shindig, August 1965
Having signed a distribution agreement with Atlantic—Stax became their regional soul wholesaler—in August 1965, Stax arranged a West Coast promotional tour, centered on LA television shows and clubs.
Booker T. and the MG’s did a ferocious performance of “Green Onions” at the 5/4 Ballroom in Watts days before the riots started. Cropper sounds like he’s chopping through metal. “They were holding lighters and matches and saying ‘burn baby burn’ and we thought they just loved us to death, but, naw, they were talking about something else,” he recalled to Gordon.
They also appeared on Hollywood a Go-go and Shindig! The latter performance, where dancers multiply like Tribbles with each camera change, is psychedelic vaudeville. Jackson’s in the rear and Dunn and Cropper are on pedestals up front. Jones sits at his organ between them. But for his college deferment, he’d likely have been in Vietnam that summer (he was in ROTC in high school: “I could dismantle an M1 [rifle] blindfolded by the time I cut ‘Green Onions'”). On stage, Jones is always quietly observing, craning his neck, looking out across the crowd, surveying his band. He’s a ship’s pilot.
Sweet Potato Hip-Hugger
Tour program for the UK Stax/Volt Revue, March-April 1967
At Indiana U, where he’d lived with “the old masters” from Bach to Stravinsky, Jones learned to read and write music, dug into counterpoint and fugue (he majored in trombone). For his post-graduate work, he had his R&B band.
An early sign of his ambitions is the MG’s take on “Summertime,” cut in summer 1965 but held over for a year. It’s one of their slowest-tempo performances on record—the band moves as if sleep-stung, Jackson’s cymbals and Dunn’s bass a foundation for Jones’ elongations of Gershwin’s melody. The fruition was And Now! (1966), their first cohesive album, the first that Jones cut as a full-time Stax employee. On “My Sweet Potato,” Jones moves to piano—he’s changed into a dress suit, doing his take on Vince Guaraldi—while Cropper’s guitar is absent (he’s on bass, while Dunn plays claves). It’s a Jones solo piece with Jackson’s annotations.
“Jericho” is a Cropper and Jones mind-meld, playing the theme in unison on organ and guitar, Cropper echoing Jones down an octave, Jones darting off on variations while Cropper keeps to his riffs. Jackson snaps in as if to settle a tab. “No Matter What Shape” (a quintessential MG’s song title) has Cropper as bristling counterpart to Jackson’s ride and snare patterns—Jones is a free agent. “One Mint Julep” starts as yet another take on “My Babe” and yet another “Green Onions” remake, but then it flashes into the contemporary—the four-bar bookend riff between Cropper solos all but quotes the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction,” as covered by Otis Redding and most of the MG’s not long before.
Cover: George Rosenblatt. H-H-H began a brief period in which models replaced the band on their LP covers (see also Doin’ Our Thing, which the MG’s aren’t.)
Jones wrote much of “Hip-Hug-Her” in Indiana. “I remember the way I was voicing the chords,” he told Bowman. “Knowing for sure what those notes were that I was playing gave me a confidence I didn’t have when I recorded ‘Green Onions.'” One key to “Hip-Hug-Her” was an upgrade in gear—by now, Jones had moved to the more resonant Hammond B3.
Each of the MG’s stake outs a position on the first downbeat and bang! they shift, counter, push around; it’s a four-man chess game. Cropper’s descending riff is answered by Dunn’s bass, whose notes have a brighter timbre thanks to his change of strings—he sounds like he’s about to blow out his amp. Jackson’s killer beat (later sampled by the Jungle Brothers, among others) is the rotating stage for Jones’s theme melody. Cropper’s twelve-bar solo is him elbowing onto a packed dance floor; he pulls shapes, bows out.
There’s a trick in the song’s turnarounds, with their augmented chords (the first chord that Jones plays is likely a F7 suspended, but Cropper’s bending his strings up to nearly sound Ab and Db notes, making the harmony a thicket). Every second of “Hip-Hug-Her” is soul-clasped to rhythm, to shakes and riffs and breaks, to riffs within riffs—it spins like a top, a perfect dance record. It can still shake down a house.
Recording in London, 1967. Carla Thomas far right.
The album was nearly as good. “Soul Sanction,” with its irregular structure (the theme sections are either thirteen or eleven bars); “Carnaby Street,” where Cropper listens to the Byrds and does a perfect variation on them for the intro; “Double or Nothing,” an Al Jackson monument; “Slim Jenkin’s Joint,” where Jones plays a looping figure on piano to rival John Cale.
Recording at Stax ca. late 1968. Ebony, April 1969.
Within four months, Otis Redding died in a plane crash, Martin Luther King was murdered at a Memphis hotel that Stax used for business meetings, and whatever racial harmony existed at Stax (albeit the sort of harmony where white people owned the business) was over.
Jackson, hearing a rumor that Dunn had used a racial slur, stopped talking to him for a time (Dunn swore on his life it wasn’t true). Though Cropper in 2017 claimed “we said it back then, and we’re saying it now: there was no color at Stax Records,” Rufus Thomas and Sam Moore recalled otherwise in interviews (as per Thomas, Cropper “had that white thing that said because you’re black, you’re supposed to do exactly what this white man says”). Musicians started bringing guns to the studio, as they were getting harassed while parking their cars. Jones got kidnapping threats.
Stax’s relationship with Atlantic ended and, in a corporate ruthlessness, Atlantic took ownership of all Stax’s released masters (Jim Stewart hadn’t read the fine print). In 1968, Stax was an independent again, with no catalog. So it made a new one. Al Bell, the label’s new driving force (and eventually its owner, as he bought out Axton and, later, Stewart), turned Stax into a round-the-clock hit factory. Thirty albums and singles would be released at once.
With Redding dead and Atlantic artists like Sam and Dave no longer available, Booker T. and the MG’s became a priority for Stax. It was a devil’s bargain—they got more promotional attention and got worked into the ground. Signing with Gulf & Western for its new distributor/backer, Stax caught conglomerate disease—more administrative staff, more offices, more outside producers and studios, more formalized sessions. The latter in particular irked Jones. “We were getting memos as to what time to have the sessions, and at one point they had us operating in shifts…three shifts with Stax? We started as a company that had trouble getting the drummer to the studio at noon,” he told Gordon. “It wasn’t the same company. The music was coming from a different place.”
Booker T. and the MG’s released three albums in roughly the span of a year, relying on covers and dusted-off outtakes. The latter included “Soul Limbo,” a shelved MG’s track given a fresh marimba overdub (Cropper experimented with spoons on glasses for one take) that would sell 470,000 copies.
By 1968, they worried they were looking out of date. “We had trouble getting airplay because disc jockeys did not like playing songs without vocals on them…they finally pushed every instrumental band in the country out of business,” Cropper recalled to Bowman. As early as 1965, Jones was saying they needed vocals: “in the future we would like to try a record other than an instrumental.”
Stax resisted. It saw them as a group that, after Redding’s death, was one of their biggest crossover acts to white record buyers. The MG’s were being lauded and interviewed in the newly-launched Rolling Stone; they appeared with Pink Floyd and The Who on a French TV special full of dancers who seem cast by Antonioni; the Velvet Underground had a song called “Booker T.” Would whites keep buying Booker T. records if he started singing on them? Don’t mess with the formula.
Beachcomber MG’s, their strangest incarnation
Of their 1968-1969 “formula” albums, Doin’ Our Thing‘s heart is in its covers: the Association’s “Never My Love,” where Cropper takes the lead, with Jones challenging him on the bridge and later in the second verse; an “Ode to Billy Joe” where Jones barely keeps to the melody, slowly musing around it, with a spectral echo on his Hammond. It also has one of the more teetotal versions of “Let’s Go Get Stoned” ever recorded.
Soul Limbo’s peaks, along with the title track and “Over Easy,” whose looser structure and terse piano/guitar dialogues previews their last records, were more interpretations: a cold funk “Eleanor Rigby“; “Willow Weep For Me,” with the MG’s becoming a jazz quartet for four minutes. And another hit single—“Hang Em High,” the soundtrack theme of a Clint Eastwood western. With a magnificent Dunn bassline as its spine, “Hang ‘Em High” shape-shifts in each verse—Jackson moving from a snaking hi-hat pattern to snare; Cropper’s riffing becoming fanatic; stop-time sections in the bridge and outro, where Cropper solos into faded-out oblivion.
Commissioned for Stax’s spring 1969 sales conference, as if to show Stax could produce MOR as well as any label, The Booker T. Set was almost all covers of contemporary pop and rock (“Michelle,” “Love Child,” “This Guy’s In Love With You,” “Sing a Simple Song”). Dunn’s in good form, taking a solo on “The Horse” and playing a crafty line on “Mrs. Robinson.” But much of it’s embalming fluid music, the sort of thing heard in a Playboy Club in Des Moines at four in the afternoon.
Jones saw a future of drowning in session work and churning out Herb Alpert-lite albums to a timetable (the cream of this period were B-sides— “Meditation” and “Sunday Sermon.“) So he quit Stax, moved to California, wanted the band to follow him. Cropper eventually did, leaving Stax in 1970. Jackson and Dunn stayed in Memphis, though Jackson was more often found a few blocks over from Stax, working at Royal Studios with Hi Records’ rising star Al Green, for whom Jackson co-wrote “Let’s Stay Together,” “You Ought To Be With Me” and “Look What You’ve Done For Me,” and alternated on drums with his disciple Willie Grimes.
East on McLemore
Cover shot: Joel Brodsky. Google Street View of E. McLemore today, with the rebuilt Stax on left
For a time, Jones kept recording at Stax, on his terms. First his soundtrack for Uptight, Jules Dassin’s remake of John Ford’s The Informer, set in Cleveland with a mostly black cast. Taking notes from Quincy Jones, whom he met out in California (they were in the hospital at the same time), Jones crafted an understated score with the MG’s—you can hear him process through interests like Antonio Carlos Jobim. At last, he got vocals on his tracks, both his (“Johnny I Love You”) and Judy Clay’s (“Children Don’t Get Weary”). Though it had a hit single (“Time Is Tight,” used in the film’s climactic sequence), Uptight is greatly overlooked today.
“We would love to record with Booker T. and the MG’s.” John Lennon, Beatles press conference, Memphis, 19 August 1966.
In late 1969, Jones made a four-movement symphony of the Beatles’ Abbey Road, tethering the “Golden Slumbers—The End” sequence to “Here Comes the Sun” (the latter two songs align in key, both in A major) and “Come Together.” He made “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” the closer of the “Sun King”—“She Came In Through the Bathroom Window” sequence (another harmonic choice, with Jones matching an A major piece with an A minor one, though you could also read the sequence as someone becoming obsessed with the woman who came in through their bathroom window).
Their most inspired take was on “Something,” where after moving the bridge to follow the first verse, the MG’s run through solo chorus after solo chorus—Cropper first playing George Harrison’s lead lines, then doing variations on them, working against Jones’ piano, Jones soloing against him—until they break Harrison’s song into pieces.
McLemore Avenue was an ironic title, as it’s the first MG’s album not entirely recorded at Stax. As Cropper was working in New York when the rest of the band cut backing tracks in Memphis, he did his guitar overdubs with Jones in California—he’d never heard Abbey Road before he sat down to play.
“It was a tenacious struggle to get that music recorded,” Jones said of the album. “Stax had become more corporate and they didn’t see the need.” He’d seen in the Beatles a convex mirror image of his band. “‘I Saw Her Standing There’ was very soulful. That’s an R&B melody. Eventually, they might be the R&B group and we’ll be the pop group,” he said to Hit Parader in 1967. And the Beatles were equal admirers, so taken with “Booker Table and the Maitre’ds,” in a Lennonism, that they cut a clunking would-be “Green Onions” during the Rubber Soul sessions and wanted to make Revolver at Stax until, per a 1966 George Harrison letter, “too many people get insane with money ideas at the mention of the word ‘Beatles’, so it fell through.”
Booker T. and the MG’s remake the Beatles in their image, a set of fearsome line editors. There’s little of Lennon’s abrasive rhythm guitar in Cropper’s work; Jackson’s forever straightening Ringo Starr lines—see the needle-precise tom fills on “Something” or his lightning-strike of a solo on “The End” (“Al could actually play anything … but he couldn’t play it raggedy,” Willie Mitchell once said); Dunn makes quick work of McCartney’s showy bass fills on “I Want You,” then gets on with things.
For another year, Booker T. and the MG’s held together, mostly existing as a live act, touring at times with Creedence Clearwater Revival. Jones now refused to record at Stax. Per usual, their next album, Melting Pot, was cut on stolen time—afternoons or evenings between gigs, mostly in New York.
“The actual album was cut over a period of a year,” Cropper told Blues & Soul in 1971. “The melodies are very different though the rhythm creations are still basically the MG’s but because we wrote it, it’s more exciting to us. We don’t have to follow a rhythm or melody that someone else has set down. The music on it is much freer and we’re not so restricted. You know, when we’re cutting a Top 40 tune, we usually do two verses of the melody with Booker playing, then they’ll say: ‘O.K., Cropper, you’ve got an eight-bar solo,’ and it has to fit in with the context of the song. On this album, though, I played when I felt it was right and Booker did the same.”
They’d started some songs years before, pieces Stax hadn’t considered commercial. The eight-minute-plus title track is up there with “Hip-Hug-Her” in its group dynamics—a dramatic shift hinges on Jackson’s move from a shuffle pattern to playing straight fours. What’s new is the time and freedom they have, no longer feeling the pressure to pack in every single bar. You can play “Melting Pot” four times in a row and focus each time on a different player—Dunn playing one of his all-time basslines, Cropper’s hard funk rhythm lines, Jackson’s subtle changes at the kit, Jones moving against all of them at once.
Melting Pot was the finest Booker T. & the MG’s album, particularly its first side, which has “Back Home,” with its mid-song blues piano breakdown, the temple-of-riffs “Fuquawi,” and “Chicken Pox,” where Cropper serves up a riff as if he’s in a tennis match while Dunn plays a wild, tenth-spanning bassline. The second side is lesser only because, as Robert Christgau aptly described it, there’s “a Vegas-jazz boop-de-doo chorus” on two tracks—the Pepper Singers, a Memphis group who did ad jingles.
The closer was “Sunny Monday.” Cropper starts with an acoustic guitar figure that sounds as if he’d recently played Forever Changes, while Jackson keeps a constant pulse on his cymbals; Jones harmonizes Cropper’s riff on piano. Apart from a 16-bar bridge, much of the track is devoted to wrapping itself around the guitar figure, with strings as another harmony. But for the fade, “Sunny Monday” could keep moving outward, shedding skins, bringing in more players, twisting into new shapes. It’s the sound of a future, one they weren’t allotted.
“We’d like to go out cool instead of dying slowly,” Al Jackson had said in 1969.
Ca. 1970 (David Redfern)
They had another album in the works. Half was cut already, or they were waiting on Booker, depending on who reporters spoke to. Years passed. Jones produced Bill Withers, Dunn and Jackson did a half-MG’s record. Then in 1975, Cropper, Jones, Dunn, and Jackson decided to settle some obligations, then devote solid months to an album. No more cutting tracks between gigs or on other people’s time. They’d move towards where Melting Pot had pointed.
On 30 September 1975, Jackson was in Memphis. He was supposed to fly to Detroit that night but stuck around to watch the Ali/Frazier fight, then went home. There, he was shot five times in the back, point-blank. His wife Barbara, who was there that night, told the police that he’d walked in on a robbery. It remains an open case. Jackson was brutally murdered in his house and forty-five years later, no one knows, or will say, who did it (Barbara Jackson had shot Al in the chest that summer during an argument; another possible suspect was killed by a policeman in Seattle in 1976—Andria Lisle’s 1997 piece for Grand Royal is a thorough account of a murky story).
Jones, visiting his father that night, walked into the house and saw the name of his band on the TV news. “That’s how I learned Al had been killed.”
Stax was gone, too. Deep in litigation with its former partners, distributors, and lenders, the label was forced into involuntary bankruptcy at the end of 1975. The studio was padlocked and sold for ten dollars to a church, who tore it down in 1989.
(Dennis Keeley, promo for That’s the Way It Should Be, 1994).
The bereft MG’s made a reunion record in 1977, with Willie Hall—it was minor (Dunn’s expression in its NSFW photo shoot says it all). A final album, 1994’s That’s the Way It Should Be, mostly lived up to its name. When the three of them played together, they usually were the backing band again: at Bob Dylan’s 30th anniversary concert, or with Neil Young on tour in 1993.
Dunn, touring in a Stax Revue in May 2012, went to bed after a double show at the Blue Note in Tokyo and died in his sleep. He was 70. (Steinberg died at age 82, in 2016.) Left is the original pair, the kids from Messick and Booker T. Washington High. Cropper, always happy to be in the band, as he says. Jones, still restless and curious (he’s taken on “Hey Ya!” and Gnarls Barkley on recent solo LPs, and worked with the Drive-By Truckers), a gracious, reserved presence in interviews. His memoir is coming out later this year.
Oakland Coliseum, CA; 31 January 1970.
In January 1970, Creedence Clearwater Revival throws a homecoming at the Oakland Coliseum, and asks Booker T. and the MG’s to make a guest spot.
“The best that the MG’s ever played, as far as I can remember,” Jones told the East Bay Express in 2015, “was in Oakland, at the Coliseum. We had been rehearsing with Creedence Clearwater. And we went on stage to play “Time Is Tight.” Cropper started that song, and it’s the best that he, and I think the whole band, ever played the song… I don’t know, I guess because we were trying to impress [CCR] or something—we had spent the week with them, we had become really good friends—it was inspirational. It’s still inspirational.”
He’d written “Time Is Tight” in Paris, in May 1968 (he’d left one convulsing city for another). Its structure was free-flowing, a series of tensions and releases. “For so many years, all of our melodies had been eight bars or twelve bars,” he told Bowman. “I wanted something that was six bars or ten bars, just so the melody changed on a different bar of the sequence.”
In Oakland, Jones plays the opening strain of “Time Is Tight,” his chords drifting like nighttime clouds. Everyone watches him: Jackson, standing before his kit as if planning to auction it off; CCR’s Doug Clifford and John Fogerty, beaming from the wings.
Cropper takes his turn, slowly pulling the melody from his strings. A breath and a nod and he digs into a riff, doubled by Dunn’s bass (Dunn’s stage right, genial and looking a bit high, but he’s right there when they need him). Cropper grips his guitar as if he’s reeling in a fish—at times, he seems to be standing at a forty-five degree angle.
On stage, the band tended to increase their tempos—“Green Onions” could be breakneck. But here, “Time is Tight” moves slower than its studio take and feels even looser: there’s a welcoming yet fragile groove—a pact that any one of them could choose to break.
A pattern establishes—Cropper and Dunn doubling a bassline, Jackson conducting with his cymbal hand, Jones with his funk church chords, pounding the swell pedals. Cropper solos, Jones filling nooks between Cropper’s notes with his own. Jones moves rightward on his upper keyboard, sounding higher and higher notes, answered by Cropper, who looks like his nerves have been tightened by a peg. Dunn is a happy gravity field, Jackson sings along to his drum fills. It builds and builds and then it breaks. Jackson stands up in one quick motion, striding away from his drums.
Jones is alone again, musing aloud, but right as he sweeps across the keyboard to sound a great intoning chord, Dunn and Jackson are back with him. Cropper’s swept up, wrangling out rhythm lines, swerving and swaying. The beat becomes a stampede, with Jackson a percussion orchestra, Dunn dodging around him. It builds, it breaks again, and it ends.
It’s a dedication to the present, to these few minutes on stage—there’s a devotion in their playing, as if they knew they didn’t have much longer to go. This night, this song, this break, this refrain, this chord here—this is what they have to stake themselves. A joy flashes and flares among the four of them, like a lightning storm at sea.
“We pushed each other to stay true to our own formula, our own simple formula,” Jones recalled a decade ago. “To stay funky, to stay straight ahead. That was our only sort of unspoken creed.” They’re so straight and they communicate, and there’s been nothing quite like them ever since.
14 thoughts on “1. Booker T. and the MG’s”
oh my, this is going to be a fantastic series!
Not only is this the best appreciation of Booker T. & the MGs I’ve ever read, this is one of the finest pieces of music writing I’ve ever encountered. You nailed it. All of it. Especially the end part about “Time Is Tight” – the Oakland version is the greatest testimony to the power of playing music I’ve ever witnessed and you gave it its proper due. Essays on 50 year old instrumental quartets aren’t supposed to bring tears to the reader’s eyes. This one did. Thank you so much for writing this.
What a wonderful birthday present for yours truly: a massive new O’Leary piece. Congrats on the new blog, Chris. My knowledge of Booker T and The Mgs was previously confined to their rep as the Stax house band, and to Green Onions and Hip Hug Her (which, needless to say, are both ace). This was about as good and moving an intro to their history and aesthetic as I could ask for. Thank you for your sterling work. Cheers!
The VU had a “Booker T.” song? One of the many nuggets I got from this fantastic piece. I love how it shifts seamlessly from music analysis to social context and everything in between, just like the Bowie work. Thanks Chris!
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Well, that was just fantastic. What an enjoyable afternoon, reading your fine words, listening to the Booker T playlist, and holy cow, did I learn a lot. Thank you Chris. I’m going to love this new project, obviously.
This is wonderful, Chris. As a Bowie fan I wondered whether I’d continue reading when you moved onto other subjects but this just makes me want to run out and buy Booker T and the MGs records.
By the way, did you know that probably their best known track in Britain is Soul Limbo, as it has been the theme music for the BBC’s cricket coverage for several decades?
Fantastic and so educational. Thanks, Chris!
Speaking as both a muso and professional writer, this is an outstanding essay, structured and played like a great song. Totally looking forward to more work in this groove.
When can we expect the next instalment? This is brilliant and I need more! (No pressure…)
aiming to do one every month or so, depending on length of entry (next one is another long one). as I’ve said, the more people who chip in on the patreon, the more time I can devote to this
I put this aside till I knew I’d have time to go down the rabbit hole, but it was deeper than I expected. Ended up exploring not just the MGs, but the Booker T and Priscilla albums, his 70s and 80s solo albums… what a career that man has had. And he’s still at it…
Thanks for this Chris. Now I’m a little afraid of the next one. It’s right in my wheelhouse and I might never come out the other side.
But am smiling right now because I just remembered the Meters are a quartet.
Minor technical correction: the Hammond M-3 used for Green Onions has a 12″ speaker, not 8″. But besides that, great article. There are details about the band not found anywhere else here.
thanks! i’ll correct that.