Booker T. & The MG's
Reviewed on this page:
Green Onions - Soul Dressing - Hip Hug Her -
Back To Back - Soul Limbo - The Booker T. Set -
That's The Way It Should Be - Potato Hole
While Motown's house band was probably more influential, Booker T. and the MG's were without a doubt the most famous backing band of the 60s. In between supporting
the whole Stax/Volt roster - Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Carla Thomas, Eddie Floyd - the band crafted a long string of
instrumentals that showcased their understated, amazingly precise brand of soul. Steve Cropper's tight Telecaster bursts were hugely influential, and Booker T. Jones's Hammond organ approach
practically defines cool R&B. Compared to James Brown or the funk bands of the 70s, the MG's may seem unbearably
tepid and polite, but if you're in the mood for subtle soul grooving, there's no one like 'em. And as the first prominent interracial pop/soul band, they also did their bit for peace and love.
Though they wrote an impressive number of hit singles, the MG's relied heavily on remakes of current pop hits, and while in a few cases they rearranged and reinvented the tune ("Eleanor Rigby"),
far more often they just ran it through the organ-heavy Stax assembly line ("Light My Fire"). As a general rule, the more covers, the less essential the record.
The band broke up in the early 1970s, and reformed in the late 80s.
Jones released some solo efforts in the 70s, some of them with his wife Priscilla Jones - we may review some of those eventually.
Guest appearances by one or more of the MGs:
- Jeff Beck, The Jeff Beck Group (Cropper, producer)
- Eric Clapton, 461 Ocean Boulevard (Jackson); Money And Cigarettes (Dunn)
- Bob Dylan, Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid; (Jones); Shot Of Love; Behind The Sun (Dunn)
- Aretha Franklin, Young, Gifted and Black
- Albert King, Born Under A Bad Sign
- Poco, From The Inside (Cropper, producer)
- Otis Redding, basically everything
- Rod Stewart, Atlantic Crossing (Cropper, Dunn, Jackson)
- Steve Stills, "Cherokee" (Jones)
Booker T. Jones, organ, piano; Steve Cropper, guitar; Lewis Steinberg, bass; Al Jackson, Jr., drums. Steinberg replaced by Donald "Duck" Dunn, circa 1963.
Band broke up, 1971. Jackson shot and killed, 1975. Band reformed, late 80s, I don't know who their drummer was, but by 1994 it was Steve Jordan.
Green Onions (1962)
The Stax/Volt rhythm section found itself with some spare studio time, and improvised the soulful riff tune "Behave Yourself." The
producer on duty asked them to make up something for the B-side, and they responded with the title track, a spare,
captivating organ-led blues that captured the essence of the band's professional, laid-back sound. It became a massive crossover hit,
and two months later the MG's cranked out a cash-in LP. Without much material to go on, they fall back on unimaginative covers,
including two early Ray Charles hits ("I Got A Woman" and "Lonely Avenue"), the Isleys' "Twist And Shout,"
and Mary Wells' "The One Who Really Loves You." One standout is the contemplative, melodic "Stranger On The
Shore" by Acker Bild and Robert Mellin, which I assume is from a film soundtrack. The only original besides the two sides of the
earlier single is a blatant ripoff, "Mo' Onions," and the overall effect is soul muzak. For trivia buffs, Lewis Steinberg is the bassist here. (DBW)
Soul Dressing (1965)
The MG's second album is a collection of failed single sides recorded between 1962 and 1964; only the title track hit the Hot
100, climbing to #95. The originals don't have the complexity or variety of later successes, they're just minimal meandering on
blues changes ("Jellybread"), but it's still a notch more interesting than all the covers of the previous disc, and "Chinese Checkers" is infectious fun. Like the
previous disc the running time is barely half an hour. The only cover here is Don Covay's "Mercy Mercy," also recorded by the Rolling Stones. Steinberg plays bass on the earlier tracks, otherwise it's Donald "Duck" Dunn, though there's
not much difference between 'em. (DBW)
And Now! (1966)
Covers include "One Mint Julep," Wilson Pickett's "In The Midnight Hour," "Working In The Coal Mine" and "Summertime."
Hip Hug Her (1967)
The title track is the band at its best: attention-grabbing guitar hook, soothing organ melody, razor-sharp interlocking-groove performance. Their cover of the Young Rascals' "Groovin'" - a
Jones organ showpiece - was also a hit single. There are relatively few covers, and they're fun (the Temptations' "Get Ready," Bobby Hebb's "Sunny").
And for once, the minor album tracks kick butt: "Double Or Nothing" is a full-throttle R&B workout; "Slim Jenkin's Joint" is sly and bluesy; "Booker's Notion" is an amusing stride piano exercise.
Back To Back (The Mar-Keys & Booker T. & The MG's: 1967)
This is the famous Stax-Volt house band in all its glory - the Booker T. combo augmented on three tracks by the Mar-Keys/Memphis Horns horn section. It's a live show recorded in Paris with
Dowd at the controls, released concurrently with an Otis Redding album distilled from the same tour. The running time is short, with merely ten concisely recreated
instrumentals like 1962's "Green Onions" and the just-released "Hip Hug-Her." They also do a speedy take on "Gimme Some Lovin'," a big radio hit for the Spencer Davis Group back when this was
recorded. Without a vocalist to support, the band focuses throughout on putting across the most danceable R & B groove you can imagine; it's one chugging 4/4 riff after another.
Booker T., guitarist Steve Cropper, bassist "Duck" Dunn, and drummer Al Jackson keep up a high standard of professionalism, but none of them were egotistical enough to really grab the spotlight,
making you feel like something's missing (so where is Otis when you need him?). Only a few tracks like the sinuous "Booker-loo" are ornate enough to stand close scrutiny. In sum, this is
the kind of record that makes great background music whenever you're in a light-hearted mood to start with. (JA)
Soul Limbo (1968)
Many of the group's best compositions are collected here - the firey "Heads Or Tails," the proto-salsa title track, the dramatic piano ballad "Over Easy,"
"Born Under A Bad Sign" (written by Jones for Albert King) - and on that basis it's worth a listen.
But most of the disc is covers, and while a couple are interesting (the funky, wah-wah'd "Eleanor Rigby"), the rest range from solid but unsurprising
("(Sweet, Sweet Baby) Since You've Been Gone," "La La Means I Love You") to tacky ("Foxey Lady," just as silly as you'd
imagine Hendrix played on an organ to be). Dominic Frontiere's "Hang 'Em High" was a hit single, I think from the film of the same name - it's okay but pretty damn repetitive.
Doin' Our Thing (1968)
Some seriously wimpy covers this time: "Ode To Billy Joe," Sonny Bono's "The Beat Goes On," and the early Gamble/Huff hit "Expressway To Your Heart."
The title track, though, is an original, not a cover of the Isleys' "It's Your Thing." (DBW)
Soundtrack to the Jules Dassin film, includes the classic "Time Is Tight" and a rare Booker T. vocal performance on "Johnny, I Love You." (DBW)
The Booker T. Set (1969)
I think everything's a cover: "The Horse," "Love Child," "Sing A Simple Song,"
"Lady Madonna," "Mrs. Robinson," "This Guy's In Love With You,"
"Light My Fire," "Michelle," "You're All I Need To Get By," "It's Your Thing," and something called "I've Never Found A Girl."
I thought I had an LP copy of this, but I can't find it anywhere. (DBW)
McLemore Avenue (1970)
The whole record is made up of songs from Abbey Road, making this one of the few "cover albums." (George Benson also pulled the same stunt with the
same album on The Other Side Of Abbey Road.)
Melting Pot (1971)
In a switch, the band wrote everything here, including the eight-minute title odyssey.
That's The Way It Should Be (1994)
The MGs reunited in the late 80s or thereabouts - Alroy and I caught their act around that time - and eventually decided to record a reunion disc with Steve Jordan filling in on drums, percussion and
additional guitars. The tempos are slower and the sound's not nearly as crisp - muddied with additional keyboard layers and overdubbed guitars - the result's more like a generic blues band
than the Stax combo of old.
As before, they tackle several different styles, but this time it all seems hokey: the reggae "That's The Way It Should Be," the P-Funk wannabe "Camel Ride," the countrified
About half the songs are originals; covers include ballad interpretations of "Let's Wait Awhile" and "Just My Imagination" (a highlight),
and bluesy versions of "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," "I Can't Stand The Rain" and Dylan's "Gotta Serve Somebody."
Produced by Jones, co-produced by Cropper.
Potato Hole (Booker T.: 2009)
Booker T. Jones is on his usual organ, backed by the Drive-By Truckers and (on nine of the ten tunes) Neil Young on guitar. The result is watered-down country rock with occasional soul elements, without the precision that made the MGs so enjoyable, while the offhand discursiveness works only intermittently (title track). Most of the tunes sound like improvised jams ("Get Behind The Mule"; "Pound It Out"), but when Jones does come up with a melody, he sure can sell it, as on the midtempo "She Breaks" and the pensive "Space City." As of old, Jones indulges in some covers, including
Outkast's inescapable "Hey Ya."
(Despite sharing a title with a 70s hit, though, "Native New Yorker" is a Jones original.)
The Road from Memphis (Booker T.: 2011)
Guests include Matt Berninger (The National) and Sharon Jones.
Stuck in soul limbo?