Under The Bridge, Fulham
30 June 2011
Click an image to enlarge.
The birth of Booker T. & the M.G.’s, one of the hottest
r&b soul bands of the 1960s, began by accident. It started in
the recording studio of Stax Records in Memphis, Tennessee on a
sweltering summer afternoon in 1962. A group of studio musicians
were assembled waiting for white rocker Billy Lee Riley to show.
He had a recording session. Some say that he was too drunk to show
up. In any case, he never arrived. So the musicians in the studio
began jamming with a blues progression. Amazed by what they were
playing, Stax owner and recording engineer, Jim Stewart, quickly
switched on the recording machines. The resulting songs were “Behave
Yourself” and its flip side “Green Onions.” When
released, the song “Green Onions” became a smash radio
hit and a tune adopted by both white and black Americans. It hit
number one on Billboard’s Rhythm & Blues charts and number
three on the pop charts. Knowing a great gifthorse when he saw one,
Jim Stewart began recording more of Booker T. and his M.G.’s.
Songs such as “Mo’ Green Onions,” “Soul
Dressing,” “Boot-Leg,” “My Sweet Potato,”
“Hip-Hug Her,” “Groovin’,” “Soul
Limbo,” “Hang ‘Em High,” “Time is
Tight,” “Mrs. Robinson,” “Something,”
and “Melting Pot,” hit the charts as the group became
a symbol as one of the coolest and hippest sounds of the era.
Three-fourths of the M.G.’s came from an earlier band called
the Mar-Keys. What later became known as Booker T. & the M.G.’s
had an initial lineup with Steve Cropper on guitar, Donald “Duck”
Gunn on drums, Al Jackson on drums, Booker T. Jones on keyboards,
and Lewis Steinberg on bass. This group was also unique in that
it was a fully integrated band which existed in the South during
the 1960s. Along with their own releases, the group remained the
“house band” for Stax Records. They continued to back
up practically every soul artist who recorded for both Stax and
Volt Records, including musical great, Otis Redding. Guitarist Cropper
was the one who co-write Reading's classic anthem “(Sittin’
On) The Dock of the Bay”, he also co-wrote the song “Midnight
Hour” with Wilson Pickett, Sam & Dave's “Soul Man”,
Eddie Floyd's “Knock On Wood”, and Albert King’s
“Born Under a Bad Sign.”
Booker T. Jones grew up with a special love for music. He was inspired
by the gospel sounds of the Southern churches of his neighbourhood.
He studied piano but later switched to electric keyboards and, when
he was old enough, sought work as a studio musician. He was hired
by Stax Records and began his rise as a successful studio musician.
Steve Cropper came from Willow Springs, Missouri. His family moved
to Tennessee while Cropper was still young. While he was growing
up, he learned to not only master the guitar, but develop a unique
playing style which would serve him quite well in later years.
Memphis native Donald “Duck” Dunn attended the same
school as Cropper and Don Nix. As teenagers, the trio fell in love
with the rhythm and blues music being played in the black nightclubs
of West Memphis. They started a group called The Royal Spades with
horn players Packy Axton and Wayne Jackson, percussionist Terry
Johnson, and keyboardist Jerry Lee “Smoochie” Smith,
and began performing wherever they could find work. This included
playing in a lot of rowdy roadhouses and nightclubs in the greater
Memphis area. Later, they changed their band name to the Mar-Keys
and had a hit with the tune “Last Night”, which was
released by Satellite Records, the record company that would later
change ownership and be renamed Stax Records.
The Mar-Keys were a hit on the local club circuits. They also toured
across the country, playing at teen dances and various other venues.
They tried to follow up with three more hits to the song “Last
Night” but couldn’t quite recapture the magic of that
first song. Three years later, they disbanded. Dunn and Cropper
resumed doing their studio work at Stax. Dunn’s distinctive
“heavy bottom” bass lines were used on most of the classic
Stax hits. 1962 would become the turn around for the Mar-Keys. Fate
seemed to intervene with Riley’s no-show and Booker T. &
the M.G.’s became known world over as the hottest hippest
soul group on vinyl. All the while they were recording as a group,
each musician still contributed their talents as session men for
the whole host of Stax and Volt artists. Cropper began arranging
and Dunn went on to become a staff producer and part owner of the
label's publishing business.
In 1968, Stax Records was sold to different owners and Booker
T. & the M.G.’s decided to take a long hiatus and go their
own separate ways. It wasn’t an official dissolution of the
group but each member wanted to explore their own different musical
horizons. Booker T. left for California, where he began a very successful
career there. He arranged, produced, and recorded for Bill Withers
such hits as “Use Me” and "Ain't No Sunshine."
He also worked with the Jeff Beck Group, Rita Coolidge, Jose Feliciano,
Al Green, Willie Nelson, and many others. Cropper left Stax soon
after Booker T. and set up his own recording label called Trans
Maximus. When Stax Records folded in the 1970s, Dunn parlayed his
recording experience becoming an in-demand session man for various
artists in the industry. During the 1970s and ‘80s he worked
on albums for Roy Buchanan, Bob Dylan, Rod Stewart, and Muddy Waters.
In 1975 tragedy struck as drummer Al Jackson was murdered in front
of his own home during some very unusual circumstances.
A brief Booker T. & the M.G.’s reunion happened in 1977.
Alumni Willie Hall filled in for the departed Al Jackson, and the
M.G.’s once again began recording. They released the album
Universal Language on Electra/Asylum Records. Not long after that,
both Cropper and Dunn signed up with Levon Helm's RCO All-Stars
Band. It was during this period that they received a phone call
from John Belushi and Dan Akroyd and the group became known as The
Blues Brothers Band. Cropper and Dunn were some of the musicians
who appeared as part of the Blues Brothers Band in the first Blues
Brothers movie. Together with Belushi and Akroyd, they recorded
and released three albums, with their first effort One Briefcase
Full of Blues soaring to number one. At the same time, Booker T.
was working on a solo career. He hit the charts with “I Want
You” in 1981.
Another brief Booker T. & the M.G.’s reunion occurred
as they reunited for Atlantic Record's 40th Anniversary concert
at Madison Square Garden. This second reunion was marred by Booker
T. who suddenly came down with food poisoning before his appearance.
He was replaced by David Letterman's Paul Shaffer. The third get-together
proved more successful. A new addition to the group, drummer Steve
Jordan, filled the spot occupied by the late Al Jackson. A newly
re-energized band showed up at the Montreaux Jazz Festival in 1987.
Following reunions proved equally rousing. They were house band
for Bob Dylan’s Madison Square Garden concert in October of
1992. This spectacle had the group playing alongside a who’s
who in pop music, including Eric Clapton, Mike McCready, George
Harrison, Lou Reed, Eddie Vedderand Neil Young. The M.G.’s
performance inspired Neil Young to ask them to join his 1993 world
tour. It was during this time that they released the first album
in 17 years. “That’s The Way It Should Be” in
1994. “The biggest challenge,” said Steve Cropper
to Columbia Records Press, “was to sound like Booker T.
and the M.G.’s. It might seem easy but how do you sound like
you did thirty years ago and still have it fresh, up to date, and
technically together? I’d lay a rhythm pattern and Booker
would put a melody on top of the pattern and then Duck would come
in and put an incredible bass on it. Somehow we did it. We believed
in it and it happened.” Cropper added, “This
latest album is something which comes from the heart. I think it’s
one of the best things we've ever done. It's all mint. It’s
very honest stuff and I think it has validity. We’re not out
there to try and rip people off; we're not selling some elixir.
This is just the real guys playing the real stuff.” According
to Booker T. Jones, “As far as I’m concerned, the music
is speaking. It’s saying the things I want it to say. I feel
really happy and fortunate that we can do that.”
Currently, each member of the M.G.’s are pursuing their
individual careers. They occasionally still get together to record.
In 1992, Booker T. & the M. G. ‘s were inducted into the
rock and roll hall of fame.