Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


BOOKER T. and the MGs

Soul instrumental 'Memphis Group' formed in 1961 by multi-instrumentalist Booker T. Jones (b 11 December 1944, Memphis TN) and guitarist Steve Cropper (b 21 October 1941, Willow Springs MO), then of the Mar-Keys; Jones had joined Stax the year before on sax, and the Mar-Keys were the Stax house band. They recruited Lewis Steinberg, bass; Al Jackson drums (ex-Roy Milton band; b 27 November 1935, Memphis; murdered there by an intruder 1 October 1975). Instant empathy made a hit of debut 'Green Onions', a sinuous understated twelve-bar instrumental led by Jones's organ: it shot to no. 3 '62. (The Mar-Keys had reached no. 3 the previous year with their similar 'Last Night'.) While Jones studied music at Indiana U. the band was also busy backing Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Rufus Thomas, William Bell, Wilson Pickett and other Stax/Atlantic soul legends; they were notable too for being interracial, despite the blackness of their sound. Steinberg was replaced '64 by Mar-Keys bassist Donald 'Duck' Dunn (b 24 November 1941, Memphis; d 13 May 2012 in Tokyo Japan after playing a gig); later the band adopted a lighter sound which brought hits: five top 40 singles from '67 including 'Hang 'Em High' (no. 9 '68) and 'Time Is Tight' (no. 6, no. 4 UK '69). The sound was based on a strong foundation of Dunn and Jackson, whose empathy let Jones's cool organ and Cropper's original insistent rhythms swap around on top.

Booker T. Jones could play almost any instrument, thought of himself as a guitarist and had started playing the Hammond B-3 because Satellite (the Memphis label that changed its name to Stax) needed somebody to play it. The MGs actually named themselves after Chips Moman's sports car. They broke up '71 when Jones married Rita Coolidge's sister Priscilla and moved west; tracks they made as a duo revealed him to have a good voice but the material was weak. He also went into production (e.g. with Bill Withers). The others were in demand sessioning with Rod Stewart, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Art Garfunkel, many others. A reunion, The MGs '73 disappointed, with Carson Whitsett, keyboards, Bobby Manuel, guitar replacing Jones and Cropper. Jones made a solo LP Evergreen '75, appeared in film A Star Is Born '76 as part of Kris Kristofferson's band, and had written the score for Uptight '68, the MGs appearing in the soundtrack. The MGs made Universal Language '76 for Asylum; both Stax and Jackson were gone: Willie Hall played drums. Jones played with Cropper and Dunn in Levon Helm's group RCO All Stars '77, and produced the hit Willie Nelson LP Stardust '79. Cropper and Dunn guested with the Blues Brothers '78, a loose group assembled to back actors Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi, who were keen to revive the Stax sound: the one-off stretched to several albums and the cult film of the same name. The survivors worked in the '80s with John Fogerty, Stephen 'Tin Tin' Duffy, etc, Jones having minor disco hit 'Don't Stop Your Love' '83. Jones, Cropper and Dunn re-formed for a European tour '90 with drummer Danny Gottlieb. The original version of 'Green Onions' has been used in films, made top ten UK '79 after exposure in Quadrophenia; '65 hit 'Soul Limbo' was used on UK TV as theme for cricket broadcasts. Original MGs LPs included Green Onions '62, And Now '66, Soul Limbo '68, McLemore Avenue '70.

The Grammy-winning producer Jones made his first solo album in 20 years, Potato Hole 2009 on Anti-Records, with the Drive-By Truckers, a 3-guitar band: some tracks had five guitars, Neil Young guesting throughout and Jones playing guitar on a few. The Road From Memphis 2011 on Anti was rousing and funky, backed by The Roots, the 'Late Night with Jummy Fallon' TV house band. A new album was Sound The Alarm in 2013.

Jones published one of the most delightful and musically literate of memoirs, Time Is Tight: My Life, Note by Note, in 2019. He was an only child, whose parents were very supportive. For a profile in the Wall Street Journal, he told Marc Myers, 'I knew I was lucky. Half my friends didn't have a father at home.'

Cropper is one of the most influential of guitarists. He had made eight solo albums, then released the first new one in a decade in 2021 at the age of 79: Fire It Up was made during the Covid pandemic, with vocals by singer/songwriter Roger C. Reale, who proposed to record them on an iPhone. Cropper was sceptical at first, but 'when he heard Mr Reale's first vocal tracks, he was convinced: "Where's this guy been all my life?" he thought.' (Alan Paul in the Wall Street Journal)