Current Members:
Steve Cropper
Booker T. Jones
Steve Potts
Former Members:
Donald “Duck” Dunn, Anton Fig, Willie Hall, Al Jackson, Jr., Steve Jordan, Bobby Manuel, Lewie Steinberg, Carson Whitsett
Awards:
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum Inductee
Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award

An Integrated Band

Booker T. & The M.G.’s, the interracial house band at Stax Records, has come to symbolize the transcendent harmony of music, the power of the notes to bridge differences between people, to unite them. The MG’s recorded numerous hits under their own name, and were the identifying sound of Stax Records from 1962 through 1968, the label’s first period of hits.

The band came together as an accident—like so many of Stax’s successes. A group had been assembled to back a demo session for former Sun Records rocker Billy Lee Riley. Either he didn’t show up, or he did and was drunk, or he did and he couldn’t find a groove with the band—but the group found themselves with time on their hands and a fresh reel of tape on the machine. It was the first time the four musicians were playing together, but two of them — 17-year old Booker T. Jones and 18 year-old Steve Cropper — had already done sessions together at Stax. Lewie Steinberg, nearly 30 years old, was on bass, and was also no stranger to the studio. His main gig was playing in the popular club band led by Willie Mitchell, and he brought Willie’s drummer, Al Jackson Jr., who was 27. Of the four, Steve was the only white guy. They didn’t look like a unified group, but they sure did sound good together.

Stax producer and co-owner Jim Stewart asked if they knew any original material and they fell into a slow blues jam that was popular in the clubs. When he invited them to listen, they were surprised he’d recorded it. Everyone agreed it sounded like a real record. They named it “Behave Yourself” and then needed a B-side so it could be released. Booker had developed a piano riff that he tried on the organ, and everyone fell in.

The single was released, and disc jockeys played the B-side so much that it migrated to the A-side. “Green Onions” became the biggest hit of the group’s career, though several other songs placed in the top ten of the pop and R&B charts. In early 1965, Lewie Steinberg was replaced by Cropper’s friend from the Mar-Keys, Donald “Duck” Dunn, who had established himself as a session player around Stax.

Booker T. Jones and Steve Cropper discuss Green Onions.

The band celebrates the release of Green Onions Left to Right: Booker T. Jones, Steve Cropper, Al Jackson, Jr., and Lewie Steinberg pose with their hit single, Green Onions. Photo © API, Bill Carrier, API Photographers, Inc.

Jim Stewart, Wayne Jackson, Booker T., “Duck” Dunn, and Steve Cropper reminisce about the band.

The MG’s seemed able to pull melodies from the air, as if they’d always been there. “Soul Limbo” blows in like a wind, dances around you, then carries you out the window with it and makes you fly. “Time Is Tight” builds slowly, a meditative longing passed from Booker’s organ to Steve’s guitar, with the thought repeated so that the ache and the desire sink in. Then Al hits the skins, Duck pounds the bass, and “Time Is Tight” arcs up, building a resolution, an upbeat sense of fulfillment. The song was part of the MG’s score to the movie Uptight, and it was a career highlight.

With the MG’s as the Stax house band, the label had an identifiable sound. Otis Redding, Rufus Thomas and daughter Carla, William Bell, Sam and Dave—the MG’s helped many artists find the grooves and define the song. As Stax grew, each player also became a producer, bringing diverse artists like Albert King, the Staple Singers, and Johnnie Taylor into the Stax sound.

In its second era, Stax relied less on a house band, and as the company grew, the MG’s drifted apart. Booker moved to California in 1969, and Steve left for his own Memphis studio the following year. The band did continue to record together, pushing the boundaries of soul music. They rearranged the Beatles’ Abbey Road into their own McLemore Avenue, a soulful interpretation of pop. On Melting Pot, their 1971 album and their final one for Stax, they ventured toward a jazzier feel, with extended jams (it’s been widely sampled in hip-hop).

Snapshots of the band in a recording session Top Left: “Duck” Dunn, photo © Bill Carrier. Top Right: The band outside Stax Records, photo courtesy Deanie Parker Collection, Center For Southern Folklore Archives. Bottom Left: Steve Cropper, photo © API, Bill Carrier, API Photographers, Inc.
Al Jackson Photo © API, Bill Carrier, API Photographers, Inc.

Drummer Al Jackson was murdered in his home in 1975 (a crime still unsolved). With Jim Stewart, he’d just co-produced Stax’s final big hit, “Woman to Woman” by Shirley Brown. The surviving band enlisted Bar-Kays drummer Willie Hall for 1977’s Universal Language, a soul album that didn’t shy from the disco influence of the day. In 1994, the band reunited for That’s the Way It Should Be, a return to classic form.

Even when not recording, the band emanated its magic. Booker, Steve and Duck joined Levon Helm for his RCO All-Stars band, and Steve and Duck (along with Willie Hall) were part of the Blues Brothers Band. In 1986, Atlantic Records hired the surviving MG’s as the house band at its 40th Anniversary celebration. That led to gigging as the house band at Bob Dylan’s Madison Square Garden “Bob-fest,” which in turn led to them backing Neil Young. This trifecta of gigs resulted in the band renewing its own touring and recording again. In 2012, while touring with Steve Cropper, Duck Dunn died in his sleep. Both Steve and Booker have maintained solo recording careers, each reaching new heights with recent releases, including Steve’s tribute to the obscure but influential soul band, The 5 Royales, and Booker’s collaborations with the Drive-By Truckers and with the Roots.

Booker T. Jones, “Duck” Dunn, Steve Cropper, and Jim Stewart remember Al Jackson’s Talent

The band receives an award.
Photo courtesy Deanie Parker Collection, Center For Southern Folklore Archives

In 2007, Booker T. and the MG’s were given a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Grammys. Their accomplishments are numerous, both as individuals and as a group, but their importance in creating Stax’s southern soul sound may always reign supreme.

What Others are Saying

  1. Born and raised in Memphis and lived with the music industry my whole life . My father Robert Dunn ran the King Records division in Memphis and hired his younger brother Donald Duck Dunn. I am owner of DuckDunn.com & publishing of Leeeay Music , Dunn na Day with my late father & uncle . Before their deaths in 2012 we had started on restoring the old onyx recording studio also American recording studio East. I’m pleased to say that Memphis is finally putting together a Hall of Fame for so many unsung heroes congratulations and keep up the good work

    Brad Dunn
  2. (Lovely website) – I read somewhere that the MG in Booker T. & the MG’s originally stood for Memphis Group (Booker T. and the Memphis Group). I’d be grateful if someone could comment on this.
    Steve.

    Steve Coffey
  3. Just listened to a documentary on Atlantic from the BBC. One of the MGs was asked how the name arose and he claimed the studio owner drove an MG, his pride and joy, and they were named after the car! Just saying as I thought it was ‘Memphis Group’.
    P.s I have a 1969 MG MGB.
    mike Hemsley
    11 July 2018

    Mike Hemsley

Add Your Voice