The anchors of the Booker T. sound were guitarist Steve Cropper, whose slicing, economic riffs influenced many other guitar players, and organist Booker T. Jones, who provided much of the groove with his Hammond B-3's floating 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 Lewie Steinberg, they became Booker T. the MG's. Within a couple years, Steinberg was permanently replaced 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. The album of the same name contained all but one original and landed well inside the Top 40. For the next five years, they'd have trouble recapturing its commercial success, though the standard of their records -- 1965's Soul Dressing and 1966's And Now! and In the Christmas Spirit -- remained fairly high, and Stax's dependence upon them as its house band ensured a decent paycheck for each of the quartet's members.
From 1967 to 1969, the MG's regularly hit paydirt with charting singles including "Hip Hug-Her," "Groovin'," "Soul-Limbo," "Hang 'Em High," and "Time Is Tight." So too, the albums that housed them -- 1967's Hip Hug-Her, 1968's Doin' Our Thing and Soul Limbo, 1969's Up Tight! (a soundtrack featuring an original score by Jones), and The Booker T. Set -- also made the Top 200. As is the case with most instrumental rock bands of the period, their singles contained their best material, but their albums were far from inconsequential and were often ambitious. 1970's McLemore Avenue (titled for the Stax studio location) was an instrumental version of the Beatles' Abbey Road. It delighted all the Beatles, especially John Lennon, who had been a fan since "Green Onions."
Though they'd become established stars by the end of the decade, the group began finding it difficult to work together, not due to clashing personalities but to logistical difficulties. Cropper and Dunn were playing many sessions in Los Angeles, while Jones was often absent from Memphis as he finished his degrees in music studies at Indiana University. The band amicably split in 1971, but stayed in touch. They plotted a reunion album in mid-1975. In early October, just nine days before beginning to record, Jackson was murdered in his Memphis home by a burglar. The band eventually recorded what became 1977's Universal Language with drummer Willie Hall for Asylum. They didn't tour. The surviving members remained active as session musicians, with Cropper and Dunn joining the Blues Brothers during the late '70s and appearing as such in the 1980 film.
In 1986, Jerry Wexler, former co-owner of Atlantic Records, asked the group to serve as house band for the label's 40th anniversary celebration. Jones came down with food poisoning at the last minute and didn't make the gig, so Paul Shaffer stepped in as his replacement. The pre-show rehearsal lineup of Jones, Cropper, Dunn, and drummer Anton Fig went so well that the group decided to tour. The MG's were back in the spotlight in early 1992, when Bob Dylan requested them as his house band for his 30th anniversary tribute at Madison Square Garden. In 1993 they served as Neil Young's touring band and garnered nothing less than laudatory reviews; it was a tour that brought both them and Young high critical marks. In 1994, the MG's released the comeback album That's the Way It Should Be for Columbia. Produced in much the same way as their vintage sides, it proved the band's skills remained intact. The set didn't chart, but its single "Cruisin'" won the 1995 Grammy Award for Best Pop Instrumental Performance.
Jones continued with his own musical output throughout 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. In addition to studio work, Cropper served as an in-demand producer and songwriter. In 2008 he and the Rascals' Felix Cavaliere cut Nudge It Up a Notch, and followed it two years later with Midnight Flyer. He also recorded 2011's Dedicated: A Salute to the 5 Royales under his own name. Bassist Dunn, intermittently active with festival and tour appearances after 2000, toured Japan with Cropper and Eddie Floyd in May 2012, but died in his sleep in a Tokyo hotel. Cropper released Fire It Up for Provogue in 2021.
In the 2000s, Booker T. the MG's' records have been given the deluxe reissue treatment. In 2013, McLemore Avenue was remastered and reissued to better reviews than it originally received. In 2019, WEA re-released the band's album catalog between 1962 and 1968 as a streaming package. In 2019 Real Gone Music issued Complete Stax Singles, Vol. 1: 1962-1967 and followed it with Complete Stax Singles, Vol. 2: 1968-1974 in 2021. ~ Richie Unterberger & Thom Jurek, Rovi
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