Booker T. & the MG’s delineated the soulful sound of Memphis playing behind a host of stars at Stax Records, all the while making instrumental hits of their own. Their first record, “Green Onions,” inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2018, was followed by 14 more chart hits, including ”Hip-Hug-Her” and “Time Is Tight.”
The original group – an unnamed crew who came up with “Green Onions” while jamming in the studio after a 1962 session backing Billy Lee Riley – consisted of Booker T. Jones (organ), Steve Cropper (guitar), Lewie Steinberg (bass) and Al Jackson, Jr. (drums). Donald “Duck” Dunn took over on bass in 1965. They became “The MG’s” in salute to the MG, a British sports car, but when MG did not approve, Stax announced that the initials stood for Memphis Group. And all the members were Memphis natives except for Cropper, who was born on a farm near Dora, Missouri, on October 21, 1941, and moved to Memphis when he was ten. Jackson, the son of a Memphis bandleader, was the oldest, born on November 27, 1935, followed by Steinberg, who also came from a prominent musical family (November 29, 1939), Dunn, a longtime friend and neighbor of Cropper (November 24, 1941), and Jones, a multi-instrumental wizard who was still in high school when the MG’s started (November 12, 1944). The musicians had all played with other local bands including the Mar-Keys, the Triumphs, and the Willie Mitchell band.
At Stax, they became more than just sidemen. They all contributed to the songwriting, while Jones, Cropper, and Jackson were the most involved with session production, and Cropper was the key figure in studio operations. Their major contribution to Stax’s blues catalog was their presence on every Albert King studio session there in the 1960s, although, in deference to the guitar master, Cropper only played on a few of King’s sides. Records on Stax, Volt, and Atlantic cut at the studio with the band included releases by Rufus Thomas, Johnnie Taylor, Carla Thomas, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, William Bell, Eddie Floyd, Eddie Kirkland, the Staple Singers and many more. Other musicians from the Stax studio cast merged with the MG’s on various sessions and Isaac Hayes even played the organ in Booker T.’s place on one hit single, “Boot-Leg.” There are also reports of entirely different bands touring as Booker T. & the MG’s.
After leaving Stax, Jones launched his long solo career, and he and the others stayed busy with multiple projects, including collaborations with many soul, blues and rock stars and reunion shows. Jackson’s time was cut tragically short when he was murdered on October 1, 1975. Cropper and Dunn achieved high profile status with the Blues Brothers band and the two old friends were on tour together in Tokyo when Dunn died on May 13, 2012. Booker T. & the MG’s were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992 and received a Recording Academy Lifetime Achievement award in 2007.