Booker T. and the MGs
n First Listen is a regular column that forces our regular writers to listen to bands that they’ve never heard—but by all rights should have—and charts the reaction.
Few can come to Booker T. and the MGs completely cold. As the house band for Stax Records, they're all over a handful of late 60s soul hits that are entrenched in the public consciousness—Otis Redding's "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay," for instance. As for me, I'd heard the instrumental version of the band as early as 1995, when "Green Onions" showed up on the soundtrack to Get Shorty, providing a perfect accompaniment to John Travolta looking suave on the sidewalks of L.A. in shades and a suit. A couple years later, I bought the 45 from a used bin, a friend put "Hip Hug-Her" on a mix tape, and eventually both found their way into my digital library.
But I hadn't actually sat down and explored the band beyond these touchstones. Part of why I suspected I might like them is because "Green Onions" had always reminded me of this cheap Best of Blue Note album that I played a lot in early high school—I'd decided that the hard bop that dominated the compilation (Horace Silver, Art Blakey) appealed to me more than lots of other jazz I'd heard at that point. Given that formulaic blues structures have always been one of my biggest musical pet peeves, it's maybe odd that I responded to jazz that borrowed so heavily from said structures. But I dug the way the artists used these simple, sturdy riffs as jumping-off points, letting the melodic head bleed into a playful solo. And, as a keyboard player myself, I liked Jimmy Smith's vibrant Hammond B3 organ whenever it cropped up.
So when I began to listen to the first disc of Booker T.'s Time is Tight box set, spanning from 1962 to mid-1968, it occurred to me that what I liked about the Blue Note tracks—all that room to move and breathe—was precisely what was missing from much of this band's early material. Which is to say, most cuts from this period establish a riff on either keys or guitar but then fade out around two and a half minutes, before the band can really build any steam. Occasionally while playing the record, I'd perk up at a whimsical part, like Booker T. Jones's shimmying samba line that starts out "Outrage" or the way his whining carnival organ neatly interlaces with Steve Cropper's cramped guitar on "Hip Hug-Her." But just as often I'd groan at 12-bar blues run-throughs ("Jellybread," "Fannie Mae"), which are annoying in their predictability, sure, but also call to mind suburban tourists in Chicago flocking to Buddy Guy's Legends after some sort of deep-dish adventure. (Yeah, it's a bias, I recognize this.)
The upshot is that I have a hell of a lot more admiration for "Green Onions" now, since I'm not entirely sure how it manages to escape this fate. I suspect it has something to do with that odd gulp in the organ line, as well as the fact that it's just so damn tight and economical, from Al Jackson's scarily consistent beat to Cropper's sparse, agitated stabs. As the story goes, the song originated from a studio jam while the band was waiting for the singer to show up. The alchemic result is what convinced the session musicians to record on their own, but I really feel like much of those first few years were Booker T. and the MGs trying in vain to replicate that initial success.
Happily, however, things get more interesting on disc two of Time is Tight, which represents the band's work since mid-1968. The stand-out track here is "Hang 'Em High," composed by Dominic Frontiere for a Clint Eastwood film of the same name. The spaghetti-western melody suits Jones's thick organ tone nicely, and it's maybe the first MGs track to really bring the funk: note especially how Jackson kicks it up a notch after the tense clatter of the first verse.
Though cover songs had long been a staple of the band (a slow, spooky take on "Summertime" was the B-side to "Hip Hug-Her"), this period also finds them branching out beyond the Stax/Motown realm to tackle some of the era's other pop hits. 1970's McLemore Avenue, in fact, consists entirely of songs from Abbey Road, although the cuts included on the box set, such as "Something," are fairly by-the-numbers and therefore never rise above the level of curiosity. As far as Beatles covers go, I like "Eleanor Rigby" better, perhaps because there's little in the original arrangement to mimic, and so a spare wah-wah treatment comes as a minor revelation in lieu of those famous surging strings. (For the record, "Rigby" isn't on the box set, but as one of my favorite Beatles tunes, I figured it was worth downloading. It originally appeared alongside "Hang 'Em High" on Soul Limbo.)
I decided to skip the third disc of Time is Tight, since it's mostly stuff that's only essential to fans (rarities, live recordings, etc.), and was at this point ready to give Booker T. and the MGs a tepid thumbs up, noting that even the songs that aren't all that remarkable are still pleasant and that you'd basically have to be an asshole not to appreciate a good groove. But upon learning that I was writing this article, a friend said, "Well, you've got to hear Melting Pot then."
Oh man, was he right. The final Booker T. and the MGs album in the band's original incarnation (an early '90s comeback record featured all but Al Jackson, who died in 1975), Melting Pot is definitely closest to the potential I heard for the band from those early morsels. To wit, the eight-minute opening/title track makes a good case that longer songs can work in the band's favor: Donald "Duck" Dunn lays down a steadily hypnotic bass line that allows Cropper and Jones to stretch out in their solos. Though they nod briefly toward a chorus, the majority of the piece is a reverb-laden single-chord drone that has more in common with Can or Fela Kuti than with any of the 60s soul the band is primarily known for. "Kinda Easy Like" and "L.A. Jazz Song" both employ a mixed-gender singing group to do some wordless vocals on top of the groove, creating a fascinating tension between the band's usual earthiness and the ridiculously showy jazz-choir sound. (I'm reminded of acts like Esquivel and, more seriously, Lambert, Hendricks & Ross.) And "Sunny Monday" opens with a haunting acoustic-guitar figure reminiscent of Love, which is then echoed throughout the band in all its rhythmic complexity. Granted, I've highlighted the more unusual elements, but it's really a marvelously engaging album from front to back.
My general take on Booker T. and the MGs, then, is that they improved as they aged and that it's a shame that they dissolved when they did, since I'd be curious to hear what they would've done as a follow-up to Melting Pot. Of course, another friend of mine, a jazz musician, disagrees with me on this: in his opinion, the band is best when "funkifying incredibly simple things," and when they go more syncopated, like James Brown and the Meters, it sounds awkward. Which sort of makes me feel like I enjoy Booker T. for the wrong reasons—but when there's enough there to dig, I'm not sure it's such a big deal.
By: John M. Cunningham
Published on: 2006-06-07