Booker T and the MG’s: Stax Record’s Powerhouse Group
by Todd Beebe
On May 13, 2012 the world lost one of the most prolific and iconic musicians to ever grace the planet. Donald “Duck” Dunn played Bass behind a list of musical greats: Muddy Waters, Freddie King, Eric Clapton, Jerry Lee Lewis, Stevie Nicks, Neil Young, Steely Dan and countless others. Not to mention of course, all of the iconic recordings that came out of Stax Records in Memphis, Tennessee.
Born in Memphis on November 24, 1941, he would often watch Donald Duck cartoons on TV. He claimed one day his father just started calling him “Duck” and the name just sort of stuck with him.
I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Dunn several times over the years, and he was always a true gentleman- a class act all around. If there is anything “positive” about his death, it is that he spent his final days playing the music that he loved. Duck died in his sleep following a run of shows he was playing in Tokyo with Steve Cropper.
The following article recalls Duck and the other members of Booker T. & the M.G.’s outstanding contributions to music. It was originally planned to run before we learned the sad news of Duck’s passing. So, we’d like to send this one out to him. Thanks for the music Duck.
The history of American music is filled with countless great musicians and bands. They’ve left their mark with their superior musicianship and ability to capture audiences with their own unique musical language. One band that appears at the top of the list every time is Booker T. & the M.G.’s.
No group has ever recorded with and/or backed up more artists than Booker T. & the M.G.’s. Nearly every piece of music to come out of the great Stax Records in the 1960’s featured the group. Classic tunes like “In the Midnight Hour”, “Knock on Wood”, “Hold on, I’m Comin”” , “I’m a Soul Man”, “Dock of the Bay” and “Born Under a Bad Sign” were written by members of the group, and hundreds more feature their stellar playing front and center. BT & the M.Gs backed up artists such as Sam & Dave, Eddie Floyd, Albert King, Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding, both in the studio and performing live.
The group originally consisted of Booker T. Jones (organ/piano), Al Jackson Jr. (drums), Steve Cropper (guitar) and Lewie Steinberg (bass). In 1962 the four musicians were hired to back up the great Rockabilly artist Billy Lee Riley. In between recording, the group began a jam session which was recorded by Stax owner Jim Stewart. Stewart liked the performance and asked for another. Steve Cropper remembered a riff that Booker T. Jones had played weeks earlier, and they began to iron it out. This tune became known as “Green Onions,” one of the greatest and most influential instrumentals of all time. It has been played by countless garage bands, and featured in endless movie soundtracks and TV commercials over the years. The riff has become an instantly recognizable piece of Americana.
The success of “Green Onions” set the group on fire, and they dominated the instrumental market throughout the 60’s, all the while becoming the Stax house band, which kept them busy backing up nearly every artist to come through Stax.
In 1964 Lewie Steinberg was replaced by Donald “Duck” Dunn, and the rest is history. This lineup forged an undeniable history that everyone knows today. The M.G.’s became a monster instrumental hit machine, having unrivaled Top 40 success with tunes like “Hip Hug-Her”, “Soul Limbo”, “Time Is Tight” and “Hang ‘Em High”. All of this Top 40 success, however, didn’t stop the group from also showcasing their top notch ability to play Blues, Jazz and of course Soul behind all of the different genres coming out of Stax Records.
As the 1970’s dawned, the group released their final LP, “Melting Pot.” Soon after its release, Booker T. Jones left the group, due to unrealistic business/management situations at Stax. The company was now being run by a team, several of whom didn’t relate to the “family” vibe of the old Stax. Steve Cropper soon followed.
By 1975 the group was well on its way to a very anticipated reunion. Sadly it was never to happen. On October 1, 1975, Drummer Al Jackson Jr. was murdered in his home. All three remaining members stayed active in the music business, writing, recording and producing for other artists, as well as releasing solo albums.
In 1980, Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn became members of the backing band for the Blues Brothers, featuring Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi. Both played on all of the classic Blues Brothers recordings, and were also featured in the movie. The M.G.’s would all perform together occasionally throughout the 1980’s. [pullquote]In 1992, Bob Dylan asked all three to be the house band for the historic concert celebrating his 30th year in the music business[/pullquote]. Also in 1992, Booker T. & the M.G.’s were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Conflicting stories have surfaced over the years about the true meaning of the groups name. The most popular one being that the name was an abbreviation for “Memphis Group.” However, in a 2007 interview, Booker T. Jones stated that they actually named themselves after the popular MG Sports car.
In 1992, Neil Young asked the group to be his band for his upcoming world tour. A few weeks into the tour, Young gave his thoughts on being backed up by the World’s most versatile, dynamic group. I think Neil said it best, and I’d like to close with that quote:
“ As I stood where Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Sam & Dave and so many great singers stood, and felt that groove surrounding me, I knew that I had found a place. It’s something I can’t forget. Something to return to again and again, like church or your home town. A musical place where history surrounds you without getting in the way. The music of Booker T. & the M.G. ‘s will live forever.”