Booker T. & the M.G.’s

  • Instrumental R&B and funk band formed in 1962 from Memphis Tennessee. The original members were Booker T. Jones (piano, organ), Steve Cropper (guitar), Lewie Steinberg (bass guitar) and Al Jackson Jr. (drums). Steinberg was replaced in 1965 by Donald Dunn, who remained with the group until his death in 2012. All members contributed to songwriting.
  • Stax Records was a record label that specialized in soul, funk and R&B music. It formed in Memphis in 1957 as Satellite Records, and in 1961 it changed its name to Stax Records. The label hired musicians to provide backing music for various artists on its label, including R&B stars Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett – these musicians acted as the house band for Stax Records, and they were known as the Mar-Keys. In the summer of 1962, Jones, Cropper, Steinberg and Jackson were supporting a recording session for Billy Lee Riley. During a break, the four session musicians started to perform an impromptu instrumental organ riff. The president of the record company liked it and recorded it. They were encouraged to record a second track, based on a riff that Jones had written several weeks earlier, and soon they had two songs recorded.
  • The record company planned to release the first track as a single and the second track as the B-side. A Memphis DJ was given an advance copy of the single, and he played the second track four times in a row on air. At this point, the group didn’t even have a name, nor did the songs. People started calling the radio station, asking if the song was available. The record company quickly released it, with Green Onions as the A-side, and Behave Yourself as the B-side. The group was given the name Booker T. & the M.G.’s.
  • For years, Stax Records claimed that the “M.G.” stood for “Memphis Group.” However, band members and others associated with Stax Records claim that the “M.G.” stood for the sports car brand sold by British Motor Corporation. Apparently, Stax Records invented the “Memphis Group” explanation to avoid a lawsuit for trademark infringement. Donald Dunn later claimed the the “M.G.” stood for “Musical Geniuses.”
  • Green Onions was a big hit, reaching #3 on the Hot 100 chart and #1 on the R&B chart. Originally the group planned to name it Funky Onions, but the record label felt that Funky Onions sounded too much like a cuss word. Later in 1962, the group’s debut album was released with the same name. Green Onions was selected for the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999.
  • Booker T. & the M.G.’s continued to record instrumental songs and albums through the sixties. They had top ten R&B hits with Boot-Leg, Hole In the Wall (released under the name The Packers), Hip Hug-Her, Groovin’ (an instrumental cover version of the hit by the Young Rascals) and Time Is Tight (their only other song to reach the top 10 on the Hot 100 chart). In 1967, they performed at the Monterey Pop Festival, performing their own set and then backing Otis Redding for his performance. They were invited to perform at Woodstock in 1969, but they declined because they were worried about flying in a helicopter to get to the performance site.
  • The band was fans of the Beatles, and likewise, the Beatles were influenced by the music that Booker T. & the M.G.’s had released. Booker T. & the M.G.’s were particularly impressed with the Abbey Road album, so in 1970 they released McLemore Avenue, named after the street where Stax Records was located (as Abbey Road was the street that the Beatles studio was located). The album continued instrumental versions of twelve songs from the Abbey Road album. The group’s final album with Stax was in 1971 – Melting Pot was the last with the classic lineup of Jones, Cropper, Jackson and Dunn.
  • In 1973, Dunn and Jackson teamed up with Stax musicians Bobby Manuel and Carson Whitsett to make an album titled The MG’s. Two years later, Jones and Cropper agreed to rejoin Dunn and Jackson, but nine days later, Jackson was murdered by intruders at his home. In 1977, the three remaining members recruited drummer Willie Hall and an album was released, which failed, and the band split up again.
  • In the subsequent years, the musicians continued to have successful careers. Cropper and Dunn were members of the Blues Brothers band, and they appeared in the 1980 film The Blues Brothers, along with Hall. They were the house band for Atlantic Records’ 40th anniversary celebration, which led to some concerts in later years. In 1992, Bob Dylan asked them to be his backing band for his 30th anniversary concert, and in 1993 they backed Neil Young during his concert tour that year. In 1994, they recorded an album for the first time in 17 years, with Steve Jordan on drums for most of the tracks. While the album did not chart, the single Cruisin’ won a Grammy award for Best Pop Instrumental Performance.
  • In 2012, Dunn died in Tokyo after performing two concerts. Since his death, the band went its separate ways. Jones provided keyboards for recordings by several artists and he released solo albums as recently as 2019, winning Grammy awards in 2010 and 2012 for Best Pop Instrumental Album. Cropper also has backed other artists with his guitar work, and his most recent solo album was released in 2021, receiving a Grammy nomination. Cropper also received a Grammy award in 1968 as the producer and co-writer of the Otis Redding song (Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay. 
  • Booker T. & the M.G.’s were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1992 and they received a Lifetime Achievement Grammy award in 2007. Their sound evolved into a key feature of an entire genre, the Memphis Soul sound, copied by numerous artists both in America and in Britain. Here’s a video of the band performing Green Onions in 1967.

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