Booker T. & the MG's, a Memphis-based band, worked with some of the greats of their era in pop music and recorded a number of top forty instrumental hits on their own in the Sixties.
The origins of the group go back to Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton, who owned a record store in Memphis in the 1950's. They started a record label in a garage in 1957 and called it Satellite Records. A group of mostly local musicians known as the Mar-Keys became the house band a year later.
Booker T. Jones was born in Memphis in 1944. He attended Booker T. Washington High School there and developed a love for music. Jones learned to play a variety of instruments, including the saxophone, trombone, and piano while still in his teens. He hung around the Satellite Record Shop managed by Axton and made his way to Satellite Records. His first appearance on vinyl came at age 16 when he played sax in the background on Cause I Love You, by Rufus and Carla Thomas, in 1960. As time went on he joined with guitarist Steve Cropper. Cropper was from the Ozark Mountains of southern Missouri; he had worked in the Satellite Record Shop and progressed to playing with the Mar-Keys. Lewis Steinberg was brought in to play bass as was Al Jackson, Jr., as drummer. By 1962 Satellite had been renamed Stax (by combining the names STewart and AXton), and the owners had acquired an old movie theatre, the Capitol Theatre, on East McLemore Avenue in Memphis which became the Stax headquarters and recording studio. The group called itself Booker T. & the MG's, with MG standing for Memphis Group, and by this time Booker T. had become an accomplished organ player. They recorded an instrumental on the Stax label which Booker T. had written when he was in high school and on which his organ play was emphasized called Green Onions. It soared up the charts in 1962 to number 3 and as time went on it would prove to be their biggest hit. The group replaced Steinberg with Donald "Duck" Dunn of the Mar-Keys on bass in 1964, and the next top forty hit for Booker T. & the MG's would come five years later with Hip Hug-Her. In the interim, they continued working at Stax, and found themselves working with some recording artists who would become quite prominent in the Sixties.
Stax made a deal to serve as a distributor for music giant Atlantic Records out of New York City. Some of the Atlantic artists would come to record at Stax, and the word got around to a number of aspiring performers in the South to head to Stax Records in Memphis. Jones enrolled in music classes at the Univerity of Indiana. While he was there Cropper, Dunn and Jackson became back-up musicians to some of the great performers recording at Stax, including Rufus Thomas, Wilson Pickett, William Bell, Sam & Dave, Otis Redding, and others. The records coming from Stax were mostly soul records recorded by interracial musicians, and the label's chief rival was Detroit-based Motown.
Jones returned to Stax. By about 1967 Booker T. & the MG's had adopted a lighter sound, and by the time the decade ended they had cranked out six more top forty entries, all of them instrumentals. After the success of Hip Hug-Her came Groovin' and Soul-Limbo. They were followed by several records that came from songs heard in major motion pictures, including Hang 'Em High from the movie of the same title, Time Is Tight from Uptight and the group's own recording of Mrs. Robinson, from The Graduate. Booker T. & the MG's had a fine blend of sounds -- Dunn and Jackson provided a strong foundation, Cropper added the rhythm, and Jones' fine keyboard work topped it all off.
The group disbanded in 1971 but the band members continued on in various endeavors. Jones married Rita Coolidge's sister Priscilla and moved to the West Coast. The newlyweds recorded some duets. They worked well together in the studio and came up with a fine sound, but suffered from a lack of good material. Jones devoted more of his time to record production, and one of the recognizable singers that he worked with was Bill Withers. Other members of the group were invited to work with notable performers such as Art Garfunkel, Rod Stewart, Eric Clapton, and Ringo Starr. An effort was made to reunite the group in 1973 with substitues for some of the band members, such as Bobby Manuel on guitar instead of Cropper and Carson Whitsett on keyboards for Jones; all were fine musicians but it just did not work as well as the original group. Jones appeared with Kris Kristofferson's band in the film A Star Is Born and recorded a solo album, Evergreen, in the mid-70's. The band members were saddened to learn that drummer Jackson had been murdered by an intruder in 1975. Willie Hall was brought in to play drums for them when the occasion called for it. Jones, Cropper and Dunn were recruited to join a band formed by Levon Helm called RCO All Stars. Jones produced the Willie Nelson album Stardust in 1979. Comedian/Actors John Belushi and Dan Akroyd had long been fans of Booker T. & the MG's and the Stax sound and they brought in Cropper, Dunn and Hall for rather prominent roles as members of the band in their 1980 classic film The Blues Brothers; the three would later appear in the sequel Blues Brothers 2000.
The members of the fine Stax house band of the Sixties Booker T. & the MG's have appeared in a variety of different ways in the intervening years, sometimes working with John Fogarty . Jones had a minor disco hit in 1983 with Don't Stop Your Love. Some of their old hit songs pop up in different places, such as when Green Onions, Hip-Hug-Her, Soul-Limbo and Time Is Tight are heard in an occasional movie or one of their more obscure records, Soul Dressing, is used as the theme for some cricket matches broadcast on British television.
The life and times of the members of the fine band Booker T. & the MG's included their work at Stax with some of the bright recording stars of the Sixties, a number of instrumental hits on their own, and a number of interesting and eventful experiences in the following years. The legendary band was named one of the top 100 Greatest Rock 'n' Roll Artists of all time by Rolling Stone magazine. In 1992 Booker T. & the MG's took their rightful place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
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