Following the death of Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn, read an interview with Booker T & the MGs by Barney Hoskyns from Mojo in August 2001, now available courtesy of Rock’s Backpages â€“ the world’s leading archive of vintage music journalism
If ever there was a piece of music that deserved the epithet “timeless”, it’s Booker T & the MGs’ Green Onions.
The most basic of blues instrumentals, set to a walking 2/4 beat, the track doesn’t amount to a whole hill of beans. And yet after almost 40 years it remains astoundingly funky, a vehicle for the most sinuous of Hammond organ grooves and for the vicious Fender Telecaster licks of Steve Cropper, in the fine words of Gerri Hirshey “cutting across the top like a sugarcane machete”.
What makes Green Onions even more remarkable is that a) it was a pure accident of fate and b) it gave birth to the lifelong career of The Greatest Backing Band in the History of Soul, bar none.
On a hot summer afternoon, four Memphis musicians were farting about in a studio at 926 East McLemore Avenue, either winding down after a session by rockabilly singer Billy Lee Riley or waiting for the self-same gentleman to show up â€“ after four decades, no one seems too certain. Three takes later they had a track in the can that put Stax Records on the pop map and led to a decade-plus of unparalleled southern soul success.
“We were all real excited about this thing,” remembers Steve Cropper of Green Onions. “The next morning I called Scotty Moore over at Sun and I said: ‘We got a hot one, can you make me a dub on it?’ So I ran over and he says, ‘Man, that’s funky!’ Then I took the dub over to Reuben Washington at WLOK and he just threw it on live, played it four times in a row. And I’m tellin’ you, the phones lit up.”
If it seems amazing today that an instrumental like Green Onions could climb all the way to No 3 on the US pop chart (in September 1962), bear in mind instrumentals were all the rage at the time. Indeed, Memphis itself was a hub of vocal-free R&B, spawning hits both local and national by the likes of Willie Mitchell, Ace Cannon and the “Combo” led by ex-Elvis bassist Bill Black.
But where most purveyors of instrumentals quickly faded away, Booker T & the MGs â€“ named after the fact once Green Onions had taken off â€“ sustained a long career based on the incredible feel they brought to everything they recorded. Nearly two decades after the collapse of Stax, their services were still in demand from evergreen superstars like Bob Dylan and Neil Young.
Booker T & the MGs are the alpha and omega of the Session Band, the Rhythm Section, the ideal of a group of backroom pickers whose interplay is almost telepathic. At Stax, the four men cooked up some of the most mouth-watering grooves in soul’s recipe book, imprinting their gritty style on a raft of smash hits by the likes of Carla Thomas, William Bell, Eddie Floyd, Sam & Dave and Wilson Pickett â€“ above all by Otis Redding, the original and still the ultimate King o’ Soul.
Respect, I’ve Been Loving You Too Long, Knock on Wood, In the Midnight Hour, Hold on I’m Coming, (Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay â€¦ you name ‘em, Booker T & the MGs played on ‘em.
“I like to pat ourselves on the back,” says Donald “Duck” Dunn, one of the great bass guitarists. “When you hear Booker T & the MGs, you can pick one instrument and there’s a separation there. It’s not cluttered. It’s just like it was written, but it was all done off the top of the head. It was just a lucky marriage of us four, I think.”
Duck Dunn himself was not an original MG, but he was in a seminal pre-MGs band called the Mar-Keys. And in that group was Steve Cropper, a lean young Missourian doing his best to maintain control amid the flaring egos of bandmates like Packy Axton, Charlie Freeman and Don Nix. Control might not have been an issue had Last Night, yet another Memphis instrumental, not taken off and become another national pop hit (No. 3 again!) almost exactly a year before Green Onions.
Formerly known as the Royal Spades â€“ an unfortunate choice of moniker for a mob of young honkies obsessed with black rhythm and blues, but there we go â€“ the Mar-Keys were wild white boys whose solitary and implicitly rather salacious hit took them across America, chitlin’ circuit and all.
“We were kind of outcasts ’cause we played R&B,” Don Nix told me. “We never did like rock’n'roll. We got with a black booking agent in New York and toured with a lot of black packages, like Ike & Tina Turner and James Brown. We even backed Chuck Berry, though we hated his music.”
When Cropper came to blows with Axton, a boozer destined to die of alcoholism at the pitifully young age of 30, he quit the Mar-Keys and returned to Memphis. Ironically it was Axton’s mother, Estelle, who came to Steve’s rescue, offering him a job in her Satellite record store. The store sat bang next door to Stax, of which she (the “ax” part of it) was co-owner with her country-fiddle-playing brother Jim Stewart (the “St”).
From day one, Cropper had his sights set on the Stax studio, a disused movie theatre in a very black part of town. Quickly he made himself indispensable, and moved fast when original Stax engineer Chips Moman fell out with Jim Stewart. “Steve,” Stewart would come to say, “was my right-hand man.”
“The studio wasn’t designed like studios are today,” Cropper recalls. “I mean, we took this old theatre and pulled the seats out of it. We had to go and hammer all of the screws down into the concrete before we could put carpet down. And we were all there helping to do that, making burlap baffles and so on, without any knowledge at all of what we were doing.”
Also making himself indispensable to Stewart was a multi-talented black kid called Booker T Jones. Booker had played sax and bass with Memphis bandleaders like Willie Mitchell and Gene “Bowlegs” Miller â€“ and even blown baritone sax on early Stax sides like Rufus & Carla Thomas’ ‘Cause I Love You and William Bell’s country-soul classic You Don’t Miss Your Water.
Making up the quartet at the Billy Lee Riley session that hot summer afternoon were a pair of more seasoned Memphis musos, bassist Lewie Steinberg and drummer Al Jackson, Jr. Several years older than Steve and Booker, both men had impressive pedigrees: Jackson had played onstage as a mere kid with his bandleader father, and Steinberg was all over instrumental hits like Ace Cannon’s Tuff. Al Jackson had to be lured away from the employ of Willie Mitchell, for whom â€“ a decade later â€“ he would lay down the classic grooves on Al Green’s run of Hi hits.
“Al Jackson was the greatest single stroke player I ever heard in my life,” Cropper told Jim Payne in the latter’s excellent book Give The Drummers Some! “He’d just throw something in there every now and then and you’d go, Wow! Or he’d do some little tom thing that would come out of nowhere.”
“Al was just the cleanest drummer in the world,” adds Dunn. “The pocket where Al put everything was the real secret of Stax. Every time we recorded, he was 98% correct on just about everything we did. And even today, every drummer I play with asks me, ‘What was it like to play with Al Jackson? ‘”
The success of Green Onions (and the album of the same name) did more than put Stax on the map. It made Booker T & the MGs the hottest studio combo in the south. Which was why regional Atlantic promo man Joe Galkin dragged the Macon-based Johnny Jenkins & the Pinetoppers up to McLemore Avenue in October 1962. And why a strapping 21-year-old singer named Otis Redding â€“ half Little Richard, half Sam Cooke â€“ was begrudgingly given half an hour to cut his impassioned ballad These Arms of Mine at the tail-end of a disastrous session.
“The cat sang about two lines,” Steve Cropper told Peter Guralnick in the latter’s Sweet Soul Music, “and everybody’s eyes just went like this â€“ Jesus Christ, this guy’s incredible!”
“Otis made a better musician out of you,” says Dunn. “He just brought out things you didn’t know you had in you. You got happier, you felt better, and your hands and fingers moved better. He was a star. He wore the halo. Elvis, Sinatra, the Beatles â€¦ Otis was one of ‘em.”
Six months later, thanks to the airplay it received from legendary Nashville DJ John “R” Richbourg â€“ who happened to have half the publishing on the tune â€“ These Arms Of Mine cracked the R&B Top 20 and the Big O’s career was off to the races.
The MGs’ own career took something of a backseat then and thereafter. “We never had much time for MGs recordings,” says Cropper. “We were always using the last 30 minutes of a session, or somebody else had called for a demo and didn’t show. It was never like, ‘OK, we’re booking a week to do Booker T and the MGs.’”
Green Onions carbons like Jellybread and Home Grown failed to replicate the original’s success, though 1963′s Chinese Crackers at least substituted a Wurlitzer electric piano for the trademark Hammond organ â€“ and featured a punchy, Booker T-led horn section into the bargain. In November 1964, Lewie Steinberg stepped aside to make way for Duck Dunn and the Stax sound truly hit its stride.
“Lewie was just perfect for that walkin’ bass thing,” says Dunn, “but when it got more aggressive and syncopated with the Otis stuff, my style was more appropriate.”
“We wanted a fat sound,” remembered David Porter. “Jim Stewart did a lot of work on getting that sound. He had no rhythm, but he had great feel. Sometimes Jim and Al would go in the studio for half the day trying to find the perfect sound. And when Tom Dowd came down from Atlantic to upgrade the board, he further helped to develop that sound.”
“I can’t really define it as a secret formula, but we did make a concerted effort to keep things simple through the years,” says Booker T. Jones. “That was the one kind of unspoken and sometimes spoken agreement among the Stax producers. It just happened to be the chemistry of the time and the players.”
Duck Dunn’s arrival had the additional effect of making Booker T & the MGs a half-black, half-white group at a pivotal moment in the south’s racial history. And while the group’s three remaining members are quick to downplay the pioneering and/or courageous aspects of their partnership, there’s no doubt that the band became a symbol of racial unity.
“I didn’t have apprehensions, other than the normal daily apprehensions about associating with whites,” says Jones. “By the time we made it to the stage, we’d already passed through all the taboos â€“ the hotel, the restaurant, the gas station. And the stage was where our power was, and that’s why we were able to go through the south the way we did.”
“Musicians never even think about it,” adds Dunn. “Al and I got confronted on an airplane once by a bunch of morticians that had been to a convention. This guy asked me what I was doing sittin’ beside â€¦ the old ‘N’ word, y’know â€¦ and I got a little upset. But the shows themselves weren’t a problem.”
More stressful even than racial confrontation was the sheer workload heaped on the shoulders of the four men â€“ especially given that Jones had decided to complete his musical education at Indiana University. In addition to the Stax-Volt roster there were non-Stax clients like Wilson Pickett, whom Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler brought in for a Memphis makeover in May 1965. It’s bracing to reflect that the whole of Otis Blue â€“ one of the absolute pinnacles of American 60s soul â€“ was cut in a space of 36 hours.
“We would literally spend 15 hours a day in the studio,” says Cropper. “I think we had 17 or 18 artists on the roster, so we had a pretty busy schedule. The other problem came in trying to keep people current, because whenever they did have a successful record, obviously their managers and all wanted to put them on the road â€¦ and then we couldn’t get ‘em in for recording! Especially Otis: we almost could never get him off the road to get him in and cut.”
By the same token, Otis could rarely get the MGs to come out on the road with him: to Stax they were far more valuable in the studio than out of it. Only when a major European revue tour was lined up in the spring of 1967 was it deemed vital for the Stax session elite to hit the road.
Nothing prepared Booker T & the MGs â€“ or Otis, Carla Thomas, Eddie Floyd, the Mar-Keys, Sam & Dave, and Otis’ new protege Arthur Conley for that matter â€“ for their reception when they flew into London that March. To this day, Duck Dunn remembers the tour as “probably the most impressive thing I’ve ever done in my life”.
Yet with the acclaim came the first hints of unrest within Stax’s supposedly happy family. Not only did fame seem to be going to Otis’s head, it even caused jealousy within the MGs, with Cropper perceived as milking the major share of the glory. “They seemed to take it like I was in it for myself,” Steve told Guralnick, adding that when the Stax party returned to Memphis he was demoted from his role as A&R director.
To a degree this reflected deeper dissatisfaction with the group’s rewards for its contribution to the label’s success. Prompted by his new black lieutenant Al Bell, Jim Stewart tried to address the issue by creating a production pool known as The Big Six (Cropper, Jones, Jackson and Dunn, plus the emerging, red-hot team of Isaac Hayes and David Porter), but he found it increasingly hard to keep the company’s employees happy.
“The theory behind the production pool was that nobody is ever hot all the time,” remembers Cropper. “So we kind of used that theory by saying: ‘We’ll all contribute and we’ll all get paid out of this production pool rather than getting paid as an individual producer.’” The theory would bring big problems.
The MGs continued to pump out their soulful instro-covers of current pop hits, along with originals like the verging-on-funk Hip Hug-Her, a top 40 hit backed with a shimmering rendition of Gershwin’s Summertime. They also produced a slew of thrilling sides â€“ Cold Feet, Crosscut Saw, the mighty Born Under a Bad Sign â€“ for notoriously truculent bluesman Albert King. But just how out of step the group was with 60s America was evident in the matching lime-green suits they wore behind Otis when he wowed “the love crowd” at the 1967 Monterey Pop festival. “I still remember us up there in those â€¦ chartreuse suits,” winces Duck Dunn.
Redding’s untimely death at the end of that year left Stax in a state of shock from which it never truly recovered. The crossover success of the posthumous Dock of the Bay â€“ patched together by a grieving Steve Cropper â€“ was scant consolation for the loss of a man who seemed destined to become the pre-eminent ambassador for soul music. Moreover, barely five months later, Memphis itself was the scene of an even more shocking and traumatic death: the assassination of Martin Luther King on a second-floor balcony at the Hotel Lorraine. Relations between black and white musicians in Memphis would never be quite the same again.
“It was a horrible time,” confirms Duck. “The day after it happened, I was standing out in front of Stax with Isaac and David and the police come by and jump out to ask if I was OK. It was just an awful situation.”
“A lot of things changed dramatically in Memphis,” adds Cropper. “And musically there came this real uprising. That’s why the Wattstax thing happened, and why Isaac was so successful with the Black Moses thing.”
Additionally, the out-of-left-field success of Hayes’ 1969 album Hot Buttered Soul became a bone of contention when â€“ due to its release on the new subsidiary label Enterprise â€“ the other members of the “Big Six” pool didn’t get to share in its royalties.
“It wasn’t Isaac and it wasn’t David, it was business,” maintains Dunn. “It’s the executives that get greedy. Rarely does it ever have anything to do with the musicians.”
By 1970, Stax was a very different company from the place it had been eight years before. Not only had it parted ways with Atlantic and entered into an ill-advised distribution deal with Gulf & Western, but Estelle Axton had been edged out of her own company and Al Bell was aggressively attempting to build Stax into something bigger than it could ever have been.
“I worshipped Al Bell, and everybody there did,” says Duck Dunn. “I mean, he was the one who put me and Al Jackson on salary, so he was my hero. But there were some bad decisions made, and I know there was an offer to take Aretha Franklin and we turned that down. And who did we get instead? Lena Zavaroni!” (Sadly, Dunn is not joking: Scots lass Zavaroni’s Ma! He’s Making Eyes at Me was, unbelievably, a Stax LP in May 1974.)
Worse came when the singularly nasty Johnny Baylor â€“ and his infamous bodyguard “Boom Boom” â€“ muscled his way into the Stax fold after clinching a distribution deal for his Koko label. Openly-brandished handguns became a common sight at 926 East McLemore.
It didn’t help matters that Al Bell was bringing in outsiders like Detroit producer Don Davis and giving them preferential treatment. Nor did it help the MGs’ morale that Booker T himself â€“ the Top 10 success of 1969′s Time Is Tight notwithstanding â€“ was wearying of the band’s formulae and wanting to stretch out. The signs had been there on moodier sides like 1968′s Over Easy and reached their logical conclusion with 1970′s McLemore Avenue, an album devoted entirely to the group’s interpretation of Abbey Road.
“After I started to get more music education and got older, I started to want to explore musically as an individual,” Jones says. “And so, yeah, I did push the band. The ultimate of that was McLemore Avenue â€¦ I mean, was that a Stax record?! I guess that was the beginning of my sort of maverick experiences as a musician. But any time you stretch out, any time you push the envelope, there’s gonna be discomfort.”
Following the release of 1971′s Melting Pot â€“ recorded in New York, significantly â€“ Jones quit the band and split for Los Angeles. There he would marry Priscilla Coolidge, sister of Rita, and embark on a producing career encompassing such unlikely highlights as Willie Nelson’s standards album Stardust.
“It had to with the money side of things,” says Cropper. “I think he demanded that he wanted to make more money, and it just wasn’t gonna happen. And so Booker said he was outta there and going to California. Booker was not mad at the band; we were all still brothers and loved each other. I don’t think we ever even got into an argument over a song. We just weren’t those kind of guys.”
It wasn’t long, indeed, before Cropper had followed Jones to LA, setting up his own Trans-Maximus (TMI) studio in â€“ to quote from a 1976 interview by NME’s Steve Clarke â€“ “a seedy building at the mugger’s end of Santa Monica Boulevard”. His own post-Stax career would lead him from collaborations with the likes of Rod Stewart (on Atlantic Crossing) to the massively successful John Belushi/Dan Aykroyd blues-soul homage that was The Blues Brothers.
In September 1975, with Al Bell about to be indicted after a series of shady dealings only properly uncovered in Rob Bowman’s meticulous history Soulsville USA (1997), the four men who’d made up Booker T & the MGs decided they were missing each other’s company (and chops) enough to warrant getting the old gang back together.
“Al was missing it and I was missing it,” says Duck Dunn, who’d remained on the Stax payroll with Jackson (and even cut an album with him called The MGs). “We went out to California and had a meeting with Booker and Steve. We said, we all wanna do this again, but we wanna make sure everybody’s thinking alike. And everybody said, Yeah, we miss it, we need to do it. And so we decided to give everybody three months to get all of their deals wrapped up and finished.”
Barely a week later â€“ and in singularly suspicious circumstances â€“ Al Jackson Jr, the greatest soul drummer of all time, was shot dead in the house on Memphis’ Central Avenue where he’d lived with his estranged wife Barbara. To this day the case remains unsolved. To this day, too, the fact that two months earlier Barbara Jackson had shot her husband in the chest with a .22-caliber pistol hangs over the October 1 murder â€“ as do persistent rumours that singer Denise LaSalle and fugitive Nate Doyle were sighted that day at the Central Avenue house. (Doyle was shot dead by the FBI the following year in Seattle.) Bizarrely, Barbara Jackson still resides in the house where Al was killed.
“I got my ideas about Al’s death, but it’d just be speculation,” says Duck Dunn, who was a good deal more aware of Jackson’s marital problems than either Jones or Cropper. “I think the guy who actually did it was the guy killed in Seattle. I’ve heard the rumours about Denise LaSalle and all that, but â€¦ heck, I just miss Al.”
Otis Redding, Martin Luther King, Al Jackson, Jr: the latter’s murder is another of the tragedies entwined with the stories of both Stax and the MGs. Just a few years later, the name of John Belushi would be added to the list.
Notwithstanding the losses they’ve experienced, the surviving trio has continued to thrive through the many evolving stages of black American music. While Cropper and Dunn have helped to keep the Blues Brothers Band on the road, the ultimate non-soul acclaim came when they were asked to serve as “house band” for Columbia’s “Bobfest” Dylan tribute at Madison Square Garden on October 16, 1992. A year later, Neil Young asked them to back him on both the American and European legs of a tour that concluded every night with a haunting version of (Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.
“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,” Young would write of the experience. “A musical place where history surrounds you without getting in the way.”
“It’s obviously gratifying, you know, but somewhat surprising,” says Booker T of endorsements like Young’s. “We thought we were appealing to blues fans, but it highlights the fact that blues and rock are related. We found it very easy to play with Neil: we didn’t change anything much, and neither did he.”
Yet nothing makes the three Memphis heroes happier than simply getting back together. “We go out and play with other people because we have to make a living,” says Dunn. “But when we get together again, it’s just like old home week every time. There’s never any tension.”
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