Booker T. and the MGs

            When a lot of people think of predominant black recording artists from the 1960s, their minds go straight to Motown. But many forget about the highly influential southern R&B and funk grooves that came out of Memphis around the same time. One of the groups that embodies this particular southern style is Booker T. and the MGs, a group whose grit and flavor provided a musical counterpoint to the cleaner, more polished music of Motown. Their music was so influential that it can still be heard today, sampled by a number of contemporary hip hop artists.

The band was notable for their integration, comprised of members who were both black and white. This was an incredibly rare thing in the 1960s, especially in southern cities such as Memphis. The band made it big when Stax Records signed them on as a house band, putting their instrumental melodies behind major names such as Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding. However, the MGs had their own songs as well. In 1962 they released “Green Onions,” one of their breakout hits. Some of the major hits they recorded for other artists included Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness” in 1966 and Sam and Dave’s “Soul Man” in 1967.

Booker T. and the MGs were highly versatile, managing to incorporate blues or country staples into their sound whenever required. Donald “Duck” Dunn replaced Lewie Steinberg in 1965, and quickly became known as one of the major rockers in the band. Steve Cropper, guitarist and one of the band’s original members, was also known for his ability to rock out when it was necessary (and restrain himself when it was not).

The band also owed a lot of its sound to the beats created by Al Jackson, Jr., who learned a great deal of what he knew about rhythm from his father (who was also a drummer). His rhythms on “Try a Little Tenderness” would later inspire the band’s producer, Isaac Hayes, when he was developing the rhythm for “Shaft.” Jackson was primarily an R&B specialist, but he knew a thing about jazz and improvisation as well.

Of course, the band wouldn’t have been complete without its namesake, Booker T. Jones. Whenever Jones wasn’t pounding away on the piano, he was creating innovative organ melodies. Jones had a hectic schedule during his time with the band, occasionally booking more than one gig at the same time and frequently being forced to take time off for classes while he was studying music at Indiana University. During these times, Isaac Hayes would have to fill in for the band’s pianist. Every once in a while, the two would play together. Jones would man the organ while Hayes took to the piano. Hayes was never a formal member of the band, but his collaborations with Jones and his willingness to step in whenever Jones was unavailable helped to keep the band going for numerous years. Despite often being overshadowed by the artists for whom they played backup, Booker T. and the MGs were an influential element of 1960s music.

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