The Rock’s Backpages Rewind: The Backroom Funk of Booker T. and the MGs
Donald "Duck" Dunn (1941-2012) was the linchpin of soul's ultimate backroom team — the interracial Memphis quartet known as Booker T. and the MGs. Laying down timeless grooves behind Otis Redding, Sam & Dave and most of the immortal Stax Records roster, the MGs tragically lost drummer Al Jackson, Jr., in 1975 and have now lost Duck, one of the all-time great bass guitarists. Here, from a 2001 piece in MOJO, is the MGs story from 'Green Onions' into the 21st century…
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, it 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 larking 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 — after four decades, no one seems too sure. 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 U.S. 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 — named after the fact once 'Green Onions' had taken off — 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 — above all by Otis Redding, the original and still the ultimate King o' Soul.