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Booker T. & the MG's Biography

Home > Music > B > Booker T. & the MG's > Biography

Birth Place: Memphis, Tennessee, U.S.
Years Active: 1962-1977, 1994-present
Genres: R&B, Instrumental Rock, Electric Blues

Booker T. & The MG’s is an instrumental R&B/funk band that was influential in shaping the sound of Southern soul and Memphis soul. Original members of the group were Booker T. Jones (organ, piano), Steve Cropper (guitar), Lewie Steinberg (bass), and Al Jackson, Jr. (drums). The band was formed as the house band of Stax Records, providing backing music for a variety of singers such as Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding.

In summer 1962, 17-year-old keyboardist Booker T. Jones, 20-year-old guitarist Steve Cropper, bass player Lewie Steinberg and Al Jackson Jr., a drummer making his debut with the company, were in the Memphis studio to back up former Sun Records star Billy Lee Riley. During downtime, the four started playing around with a bluesy little organ ditty reminiscent of Ray Charles. Jim Stewart, the president of Stax Records, liked what he heard and hit the “record” button. Cropper remembered a riff that Jones had come up with weeks earlier and before long, they had a second song.

Stax released Booker T. & The MG’s' “Green Onions” backed with “Behave Yourself.” The single went to #1 on the Billboard R&B chart and #3 on the Pop chart. It sold over one million copies, and was awarded a gold disc. Later in 1962, the band released an all-instrumental debut album entitled, ”Green Onions.” Aside from the title track, a sequel (“Mo' Onions”) and “Behave Yourself, the album consisted of instrumental covers of popular hits.

Instrumental singles and albums would continue to be issued by Booker T. & The MG’s throughout the 1960s. However, although a successful recording combo in their own right, the bulk of the work done by the musicians in the band during this era was as the core of the de facto house band at Stax Records. Members of Booker T. & The MG’s (often, but not always, performing as a unit) performed as the studio backing band for Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Albert King, Johnnie Taylor, Eddie Floyd, The Staple Singers, Wilson Pickett, Delaney & Bonnie and many others in the 1960s.

They played on and produced hundreds of records, including classics like “Walking the Dog,” “Hold On, I'm Comin'“ (on which the multi-instrumentalist Jones played tuba over Donald “Duck” Dunn's bass line), “Soul Man,” “Who's Making Love,” “I've Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now)“ and “Try a Little Tenderness,” among others. Like their Motown contemporaries the Funk Brothers in Detroit, as a backing band to numerous hits, they are thought to have defined soul music—especially southern soul—where groove was most important.

Though it's often assumed that Booker T. Jones played on all the above session work, in the mid-1960s Jones was often studying music full-time at Indiana University. Stax writer/producer Isaac Hayes usually stepped in on the occasions when Jones was unavailable for session work, and on several sessions Jones and Hayes played together with one on organ, the other on piano. However, Hayes was never an official member of the MG's, and Jones played on all the records credited to “Booker T. & The MG’s”

except the 1965 hit “Boot-Leg”, a studio jam recorded with Hayes on keyboards in Jones's place. The song was recorded with the intention of being released as by The Mar-Keys (another name used to release singles by the Stax house band.) However, as recordings credited to Booker T. & The MG’s were meeting with greater commercial success than those credited to The Mar-Keys, the decision was made to credit “Boot-Leg” to Booker T. & The MG’s, even though Booker T. himself does not appear on the recording.

Individual session credits notwithstanding, what's indisputable is that the Stax house band (Cropper, Jackson, Jones, and Steinberg, along with Cropper's Mar-Keys bandmate, bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn, keyboardist Isaac Hayes,; and various horn players, most frequently Floyd Newman, Wayne Jackson and Andrew Love of the Memphis Horns) would set a standard for soul music. Whereas the sign outside Detroit's pop-oriented Motown Records aptly read “Hitsville U.S.A.“, the marquee outside of the converted movie theater where Stax was based proclaimed “Soulsville U.S.A.”

Booker T. & The MG’s consistently issued singles from 1963 to 1965, but only a few made the charts, and none were as successful as “Green Onions”. Bassist Lewie Steinberg, who was from a family of musicians, recorded with the band through 1965, including their second album, 1965's “Soul Dressing.” Where the “Green Onions” album was cover-filled, every song but one on “Soul Dressing” was an original. Nevertheless, the chemistry — musically and personally — wasn't quite right. Steinberg stepped aside, and Donald “Duck” Dunn (who was already part of Stax's house band) became the group's full-time bassist.

After a period of commercial decline, Booker T. & The MG’s returned to the Top 40 with the 1967 instrumental “Hip Hug-Her.” Surprisingly, “Hip Hug-Her” was the first single released with Jones on a Hammond B-3 organ, the instrument he is most known for playing (he played a Hammond M-3 on all of the earlier recordings, including “Green Onions”). They also had a substantial hit with their cover of The Rascals' “Groovin'.”

The “Hip Hug-Her” album was followed by 1968’s, “Doin' Our Thing” “and “Soul Limbo.” In 1969, the band scored their second biggest hit with “Time is Tight,” from the soundtrack to the movie “Up Tight!,” scored by Jones, which reached #6 on the Billboard Pop chart.

They released in 1971 with what would be their last Stax single, “Melting Pot,” and their last Stax album, also called “Melting Pot.” Before the “Melting Pot” album was recorded, Jones had left Stax. In fact, part of the album was recorded in New York, not the Stax studio. Cropper had also become unhappy with business affairs at Stax and soon left. Dunn and Jackson remained on and did session and production work. Jackson, who had been in Hi Records producer Willie Mitchell's band, played on and wrote many of Al Green's biggest hits.

Without Booker T., the group (billed simply as The MG's) released one final single in October 1971. Titled “Jamaica This Morning,” the single failed to chart, and the group name was retired for the time being.

The 1973 album entitled “The MG's,” with guitarist Bobby Manuel and B-3 organ phenom Carson Whitsett replacing Cropper and Jones, was not commercially successful, though it was critically well received. Whitsett would go on to back up Bobby “Blue” Bland, Little Milton and Kathy Mattea, and have his songs recorded by the likes of Johnnie Taylor, Solomon Burke, B. B. King, Etta James, Conway Twitty and Lorrie Morgan. Manuel would become a staple of the Memphis music scene playing with everybody from Al Green to Albert King and later founded HighStacks Records in a tribute to Stax and Hi Records.

After a promising meeting in late September 1975, Jones and Cropper (who were now living in Los Angeles) and Jackson and Dunn (still in Memphis), decided to give each other three months to finish up all of their projects. They would then devote three years to what would be renamed Booker T. Jones & The Memphis Group. Nine days later, Al Jackson was murdered in his home.

The remaining three members eventually regrouped under the classic name Booker T. & The MGs. Bringing in drummer Willie Hall, a Stax session musician who played on many Stax hits (such as Isaac Hayes's “Theme from Shaft”) as an official member, the group recorded the album “Universal Language” for Asylum Records in 1977. The album didn't meet with either commercial or critical success, and the band once again dissolved.

Over the next decade, Cropper, Dunn and Jones remained very active, producing, writing, and playing with other artists. All three joined The Band's drummer Levon Helm as part of his RCO All-Stars. In 1977, Cropper and Dunn famously became part of The Blues Brothers Band, appearing on the #1 album “Briefcase Full of Blues.” Cropper and Dunn, along with drummer Willie Hall, also appeared in the 1980 movie “The Blues Brothers” starring Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi. Cropper, Dunn and Hall later reprised their roles in “Blues Brothers 2000.”

In 1992, Booker T. & The MG's were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 1994, the group recorded its first album in 17 years, “That's the Way It Should Be.” Steve Jordan was the featured drummer on most tracks.