Last post, I talked about one of the highlights of my recent trip to Tennessee, The Johnny Cash Museum in Nashville. This time we’re going to Memphis. There was Graceland. There was Sun Studios. There was the Gibson Guitar factory (my wife said that I had a stupid grim on my face during the whole tour). And there was Stax.
Stax Records was, along with Detroit’s Motown Records, the source of many of the greatest soul records ever made. Sam & Dave’s “Soul Man”, Rufus Thomas’ “Walking The Dog”, Eddie Floyd’s “Knock On Wood”, Johnnie Taylor’s “Who’s Making Love”, Otis Redding’s “I Can’t Turn You Loose” and Wilson Pickett’s “In The Midnight Hour”. All recorded at Stax Studios. And when you talk about Stax, you are talking about Booker T. & The MG’s.
Their impact on popular music cannot be underestimated. As the house band for Stax Records, they played on numerous hits and as such were one of the architects of soul music. These guys were all about the groove. They were not showy players. If you listen to what they were playing individually, you will hear relatively simple parts but taken as a whole, they fit together perfectly. Because they never stepped on each other lines, there is a sense of space to their grooves that gives them a great relaxed feel that is timeless. These are musicians who epitomize the term “team players”. What they play serves the music, not their egos.
Another reason why this group is near and dear to my heart is their legacy as an instrumental group. I am particularly fond of instrumentals and the fact that Booker T & The MG’s actually had instrumental hits is especially noteworthy. Their instrumentals reflect their playing style: great relaxed groove, catchy melodies, solos that were to the point, not too fussy.
Below are clips of select songs and performances that I feel are worth your attention.
Booker T. & The MG’s – Green Onions
Where it all began. What started out as fooling around during downtime in the studio becomes one of the great instrumentals of popular music. Simple, soulfully elegant playing. When it’s this good, you don’t need anymore.
Trivia Note 1: It’s commonly assummed that Duck Dunn is the bassist on Green Onions but it’s actually Lewie Steinberg, the band’s original bassist who Dunn replaced in 1964.
Trivai Note 2: Jim Stewart, the president of Stax Records originally wanted Green Onions to be the B side of the single with another song, “Behave Yourself, as the A side. Guitarist Steve Cropper thought Green Onions should be the A side. I guess history proved him right.
Booker T. & The MG’s – Time Is Tight
My personal favorite Booker T & The MG’s song. The great guitar/bass unison into riff. That organ melody (with a great little double stop organ fill). That little arpeggio guitar riff in the middle. So cool!
Trivia Note 3: Both The Clash and Squeeze have played this tune live as their opening “warmup” number.
Albert King – Born Under A Bad Sign
One of the great blues albums of all time, Born Under A Bad Sign was Albert King’s first record for Stax Records and it being Stax, he was backed up by Booker T & The MG’s. Members of the MG’s were also involved in writing a couple of tunes on the album, most notably the classic title tune. The importance and influence of this record cannot be overstated. The MG’s gave this record a modern sound that differentiated it from the blues records that came before it. Essential listening.
Stax/Volt Revue – Norway 1967
Alright! In 1967, Stax packaged a revue tour of Europe featuring Booker T & The MG’s, The Mar-Keys, Arthur Conley, Sam and Dave, Eddie Floyd and the amazing Otis Redding. There’s an extended take on Green Onions that features great biting guitar from Steve Cropper. Great horn section by the Mar-Keys. By the time Otis Redding ends his five song mini set with “Try A Little Tenderness”, the Norwegian audience is going bat shit crazy and lets face it, who can blame them.
Special Bonus Round Trivia: When this tour hit England, The Beatles, who were huge fans, sent limos to the airport to pick them up and when meeting Steve Cropper, kissed his ring. If the Beatles had such admiration for these guys, you should too.
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