Booker T. & The MGs
Though best remembered for their vibrant instrumental hits "Green Onions" and "Time Is Tight" Booker T. & The MGs (Memphis Group) played a vital role in 60's Soul.
In the '50s and '60s there were several small but successful labels that specialized in a particular sound. Sun Records - Rockabilly, Chess - Blues, Atlantic - R&B and Stax (later Stax-Volt) - Soul.
Booker T. & The MGs started as the Stax house band working recording sessions for countless Soul and Blues acts including Otis Redding, Albert King and the Mar-Keys. Booker T. Jones arrived at the label as a sax player. But his multi-instrumental talents finally landed him on keyboards - namely the Hammond organ. Unlike the sharp sounding, portable Vox organ that most groups used, the Hammond was more like a piece of furniture. A Vox organ had fast action and played like the keyboard equivalent of a Fender guitar. A Hammond played like a piano. It had an austere sound, more suitable for church than as a Rock 'n' Roll tool. But Booker T. could coax the most intoxicating Blues-based riffs from his Hammond.
The MGs had legendary guitarist Steve Cropper. The rhythm section was Lewis Steinberg (bass) and Al Jackson Jr. (drums). During a session Stax owner Jim Stewart heard the group doing "Behave Yourself" and wanted to release it. Fine. But as sometimes happens, DJs passed on "Behave Yourself" and flipped the record over to play the B-side, "Green Onions."
The boogie organ, sharp guitar and propelling rhythm were unstoppable. Stax released the song as an A-side in late '62 and saw it rise to #3 on the pop charts. In '64, Steinberg was tossed out for being late to one too many sessions and the seminal bassist Donald "Duck" Dunn stepped in. Booker T. & The MGs released a series of instrumentals with modest success. In '69, the group reached #6 with another organ driven groove "Time Is Tight" which was from Booker T.'s score for the film Up Tight.
Booker T. had pretty much fallen off the radar when he made a head-turning move. He hooked up with Southern roots band Drive By Truckers for the '09 release "Potato Hole." In addition, Neil Young played on nearly every track. Booker T. produced the album, his first solo effort in decades, with Rob Schnapf (Beck, Foo Fighters).
1962: Green Onions
1965: Soul Dressing
1966: And Now!
1966: In the Christmas Spirit
1967: Hip Hug-Her
1968: Doin' Our Thing
1968: Soul Limbo
1969: Up Tight (soundtrack)
1969: The Booker T. Set
1970: McLemore Avenue
1971: Melting Pot
1976: Union Extended
1977: Universal Language
1994: That's the Way It Should Be
The "Hip Hugger" album shows Booker T. & The MGs playing with a captivating confidence and real swagger. Even though the title track barely grazed the Top 40 in '67 they know they're damn good and they've got the chops to prove it. The original "Green Onions" album is more basic, straight-ahead Rock/R&B/Soul. "McLemore Avenue" has the group covering The Beatles' "Abbey Road" album.
On his best work a guitar has always accented Booker T.'s Hammond. But the combination of Drive By Truckers and Neil Young on "Potato Hole" provides a raw, edgy sound, markedly different from previous outings. "Pound It Out" opens the album and sounds like a major departure - a Southern Rock jam - but the next track "She Breaks" is vintage Booker T. The title track is reminiscent of early Steppenwolf - coming across like it was recorded just three weeks shy of the psychedelic era. "Get Behind The Mule" feels like a spiritual being chased by the devil while "Reunion Time" has a relaxed, open groove.