Thursday, March 31, 2011

Booker T. & the MGs

While I was surfing the net a few days ago I came upon an article in the Wall Street Journal about Hal Blaine and the Wrecking Crew [who also included Glen Campbell, Leon Russell, Carol Kane and a slew of others]. They were the group of LA studio musicians who played on many records by the Beach Boys, the Byrds, the Mamas & Papas, the Monkees, and dozens of other groups from that era. The article started with a musical question - Who Else Made More Hit Songs? The first group that came to mind was The Funk Brothers. These musicians played on nearly every Motown hit of the Sixties. But then another group came to mind – Booker T. & the MGs. Comprised of Booker T. Jones [piano, Hammond organ], Steve Cropper [guitar], Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn [bass – replaced Lewie Steinberg in 1964], and Al Jackson Jr [drums], a bi-racial group of musicians [a VERY big deal in 1960s Memphis]. They were the “house band” for Stax Records, located in Memphis. Isaac Hayes often sat in for Booker T. Jones while the latter was away at college [pursuing a degree in music at Indiana University]. When Booker T. was available, Hayes would play organ and Booker would play the piano. Between their formation in 1962 until the end of the 1960s, they played on almost every song recorded by a Stax/Volt/Satellite artist [except for Wilson Pickett, who recorded for Atlantic]. They defined much of what was expected from soul music — especially "southern soul" — where "the groove" was most important, the lyrics sometimes being inconsequential.

What made the Stax sound? The studio was located in an abandoned movie theatre in South Memphis. Label co-owner Jim Stewart decided turn this theatre into a recording studio. The seats were ripped out, a wall was built to divide the recording room, and a control room was built on the theatre’s stage. Stewart decided to save money by not leveling the sloping floor of the theatre, so they had a studio that wasn’t a level box. Because of the sloping floor and the angled walls, none of the surfaces were directly parallel. Sounds would resonate longer than a normal studio because the unique angles would enable the sounds to keep bouncing off all the surfaces. This created a more “live” sound. Additionally, due to the rudimentary equipment in the control room, records cut live with mixes being done “on the fly.” In addition to Booker T. & The MGs, Stax also employed the Memphis Horns [trumpeter Wayne Jackson, tenor saxophonist Andrew Love, trombonists Lewis Collins and Jack Hale, and baritone saxophonists James Mitchell and Floyd Newman], arguably the best soul horn section in the history of soul music. While Motown utilized strings, Stax used horns. It’s a more “gritty” sound. The combination of Booker T & the MGs and the Memphis Horns was a stroke of genius, best heard on Otis Redding’s cover of Sam Cooke’s A Change Is Gonna Come. That is my favorite Otis song.

Whether you realize it or not, if you heard songs by Otis Redding, Albert King, Sam & Dave, Wilson Pickett, Eddie Floyd, William Bell, and Carla Thomas, chances are you’ve heard Booker T. & the MGs. Not only did they play on their records, but the band often wrote/co-wrote the songs. Jones worked with artist-producer William Bell and co-wrote the blues classic Born Under a Bad Sign for Albert King [later covered by Cream on 1968’s Wheels of Fire]. Cropper supervised the recordings of Otis Redding and co-wrote hits by Wilson Pickett (In the Midnight Hour, Ninety-Nine and a Half Won't Do), Eddie Floyd (Knock On Wood), and Otis Redding (Dock of the Bay). Al Jackson Jr produced blues guitarist Albert King. Booker T. and the MGs served as the backing band for Sam and Dave's Hold On! I'm Coming and Soul Man. On their own Booker T. and the MGs had rhythm and blues hits with Hip Hug-Her, Groovin', Soul Limbo, and Time Is Tight. Groovin', Time Is Tight, and Soul Limbo also became pop hits along with Hang' em High. They recorded their own version of Born Under a Bad Sign that’s just as good as the version they recorded with Albert King.

How did Booker T. & the MGs come together? Legend has it that they were gathered at the Stax studio to record with a rockabilly artist named Billy Lee Riley. For whatever reason, the song they were working on at the time never jelled. In their downtime the musicians started messing around on a relaxed blues instrumental that the session producer [and Stax co-owner Jim Stewart] liked, and this song eventually became their first single called Behave Yourself. Afterwards, they launched into an impromptu jam on a Booker T. Jones riff that turned into a monster hit for them – Green Onions. And consider this – Green Onions was the B-side. Stax Records was the main competitor of Motown Records for the soul music market, but each label had a distinct sound. The sign outside of Motown headquarters read “Hitsville U.S.A.,” whereas at Stax they had a sign that read “Soulsville U.S.A.” Such was the mindset of the two labels – Motown was more interested in the mainstream pop market where Stax went for the more hardcore R&B/Soul market. According to Steve Cropper:

Where Berry Gordy sent his acts to etiquette school, taught them all the dance moves, that choreography, together, where he was reaching for the pop audience, Stax was definitely after the black market. It was very obvious that Berry Gordy wanted the pop market. He sent the girls to etiquette school, to teach him how to walk, talk, dress all that, he was after that pop market. He sent them to choreography school to learn dance steps, all of that sort of stuff. We just sort of did it naturally, we were after the ear of the buying public in the R&B world. If we crossed over into the pop market, that was fine, and it was usually with the instrumental stuff. Green Onions was a major pop record, but that was not what we were shooting for. It was much more difficult to do that. But, we knew our place. We knew our limitations. That was basically the difference. Our music wasn’t quite as slick as Motown.

Steve Cropper was once asked if Booker T. & the MGs ever considered a full-time vocalist. His answer? "Why should we? We don’t need one." Given all of the artists to whom the group supplied instrumental backing, Steve’s got an excellent point. But even when they recorded their own material they didn’t need a vocalist. Booker T’s organ usually played what one would think of as the vocal melody [especially when they covered other artists’ songs] while the other three musicians played their groove “in the pocket.” Almost without fail, Booker T and Steve would trade-off solos, and then the whole band would go back to the main melody and finish off the song.

The Beatles were all admirers of Booker T. & the MGs, whom John Lennon referred to as “Book a Table and the Maitre D’s.” Such was his regard for the Memphis musicians that he once told an interviewer that he wished to compose an instrumental for them. In a roundabout way, he got his wish. In late 1969, they reciprocated the admiration and recorded an ambitious all-instrumental tribute to the Beatles’ album Abbey Road. They called the album McLemore Avenue [where Stax’s studio was located in Memphis], and parodied the Abbey Road cover by walking across McLemore Avenue.

After Otis Redding’s death in 1967, and the sale of Stax Records to Gulf & Western, things started to change. Booker T. Jones had left Stax. Also becoming unhappy with new business affairs at Stax was Steve Cropper and shortly after, he would also leave. They followed McLemore Avenue up in 1971 with what would unfortunately be their last single, the amazing Melting Pot, and their last album, of the same name, featuring eight originals. The album version of the title track is eight minutes of pure groove which I usually put on “repeat” on my iPod because I don’t want it to end. I never tire of it. Other tracks [Back Home, Chicken Pox, Fuquawi, Hi Ride, and the closer Sunny Monday] are more feats of instrumental brilliance. The other two tracks, Kinda Easy Like and LA Jazz Song, feature stellar playing, but they are marred by overdubbed wordless vocals. Both songs are proof of Steve Cropper’s assertion that the band didn’t need a vocalist – they would have been just fine without the vocals. After Melting Pot, the group never officially broke up, they just stopped recording together. Steve Cropper recorded a solo album in 1969 which was released in 1971, With a Little Help From My Friends. Any guess as to who the “friends” were? Steve Cropper stretches out his guitar playing on just the title track, but the rest of the album are superb exercises in song arrangement. He never thought of himself as a flashy guitarist, more as a producer, arranger and songwriter. He utilizes the Memphis Horns on his own record like he did with the other artists he recorded with at Stax. [Note: one never heard horns on records with the MGs]. He also recorded Jamming Together with Albert King and Pop Staples. Aside from one vocal from each of the guitarists, there’s more instrumental goodness to be found here, especially with Opus de Soul, Big Bird, and Don’t Turn Your Heater Down.

Booker T. Jones moved to California, where he worked as a producer for A&M Records. Duck Dunn remained at Stax and did more session work. He became an in-demand session player outside of Stax. I saw him twice with Eric Clapton’s band at Red Rocks in the 1980s. Al Jackson Jr remained with Stax and produced and played with other artists, most notably Albert King. He also worked extensively with Al Green. In fact, he co-wrote some of Al Green’s biggest songs [Let’s Stay Together, I’m Still in Love With You, Look What You Done For Me]. But after four years apart, the group decided they would regroup after they wrapped up all their loose ends with other projects. Unfortunately, they never recorded again – Al Jackson Jr was murdered in his home shortly after the decision to regroup in 1975. After the demise of the MGs, Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn played with Levon Helm’s RCO All Stars, and were members of the Blues Brothers band [yes, those Blues Brothers]. Duck Dunn had a great line in the movie - "We had a band powerful enough to turn goat piss into gasoline!" He was talking about the Blues Brothers, but he could have been talking about his own legendary band.

Booker T. Jones’ latest album Potato Hole was released in 2009. Rather than record with Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn, he recorded with the Drive-By Truckers and Neil Young. It’s kind of like the MGs meet Crazy Horse. Steve Cropper records with Stax once again, having released two albums with Felix Cavaliere [Nudge It Up a Notch and Midnight Flyer]. Both Steve Cropper and ‘Duck’ Dunn recorded and toured with Australian singer Guy Sebastian [The Memphis Album if you’re looking]. To name all the musicians these guys have played with over the last fifty years would be an exercise in futility. I’ll just say they played with everybody who was somebody in the music business.

To say that Booker T. & the MGs had a significant impact on American soul music would be an understatement. The albums they recorded as a group are well worth seeking out, but that is only part of the story. To get the bigger picture, seek out the likes of Otis Redding, Albert King, William Bell, Eddie Floyd, Sam & Dave, Wilson Pickett, and anybody else who recorded with Stax between 1962-70. You will not be disappointed.