Booker T and The MGs

As the house band at Stax Records in Memphis, Booker T. & the MGs 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 can be heard on classic hits by Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Carla Thomas, Albert King, and Sam & Dave, just to name the very most prominent examples. For that reason alone, they would deserve their spot in Rock 'n' Roll's 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 a generation of 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 MGs (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 MGs. In a couple years or so, Steinberg would be 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" (number three, 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.

In the late '60s, the MGs really hit their stride with "Hip Hug-Her" (#37), "Groovin'" (#23), "Soul-Limbo" (#17), "Hang 'em High" (#9), "Time Is Tight" (#6) and "Mrs. Robinson" (#37), all of which were Top 40 charters between 1967 and 1969. As a band that featured two Blacks and two Whites playing as tightly together as possible, they also set a somewhat underappreciated 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 they are best appreciated via anthologies. But their albums were not inconsequential, and occasionally ambitious (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 stayed active as recording artists and session musicians with Cropper and Dunn joining The Blues Brothers for a while in the late '70s.

The MGs 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, proving that their instrumental skills were still intact. Like most such efforts, though, it ultimately failed to recreate the spark and spontaneity it so obviously wanted to achieve.

In 1994, the group recorded its first album in 17 years, called "That's The Way It Should Be". The following year, when the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame opened its museum in Cleveland, Ohio, the MGs served as the house band for the opening ceremonies, playing behind Aretha Franklin, Sam Moore, John Fogerty and Al Green, as well as performing themselves.

Jones and Dunn backed Neil Young on his 2002 album "Are You Passionate?". In 2007, Booker T. & the MGs received the Grammys' Lifetime Achievement Award and in early 2008 they toured with Australian singer Guy Sebastian in Australia on a sold-out tour. On April 21, 2009, Booker T. released "Potato Hole", a new album in collaboration with the band Drive-By Truckers and featuring Neil Young on guitar. Jones went on to release the Grammy Award winning "The Road from Memphis" in 2011. Sadly, on May 13, 2012, Donald Dunn died following two concerts in Tokyo and original bassist Lewie Steinberg passed away on July 21, 2016. He appeared on the first two Booker T & the MGs albums, "Green Onions" and "Soul Dressing".