Any fan of this marvelous combo is going to have a sequence in which their favorite tracks might play on an imaginary jukebox.
I have chosen to start out with "Time Is Tight" because I think it shows the group at the peak of
their powers. Booker T. Jones's slow and soulful opening statement and Steve Cropper's spare reply seem almost to contradict everything we expect from the Memphis Group. Have no fear, the groove is coming and when it arrives it is mighty.
The next six cuts are the kind of records that belong in a dancehall or the most happening party. Dig the crazy organ tone that bites into "Burnt Biscuits." I can't hear any Steve Cropper on that one but you can't miss him on "Jellybread," another of the sides from the menu the band were reading off after the success of "Green Onions."
This is a group discovering their sound. The guitarist enters at the very back of the first bar in his solo and plays it pretty straight for the first twelve bars but in the next twelve he quite simply defines the "Cropper style"—all wiry, unexpected, and spare. This would be just another straight-ahead blues if it weren't for that hip "baritone sax" figure that kicks into the "one." I've tried to work out who is playing what and my best guess is that it's the sound of Al
Jackson, Jr.'s kick drum and Booker T.'s left hand on the low organ keys, although original MGs bassist Lewie Steinberg might be helping out.
"Chinese Checkers" is more laid-back but totally irresistible. It features Booker T. on a half-broken electric piano and has a cool spoken interjection from Al Jackson, Jr. It also shows the group in their role as the Stax "house band," working with the horns of the Mar-Keys. Booker T. wrote the chart and even joinsthem on trombone.
When putting this record together I knew I had to include "Boot-Leg." It was the moment when Duck Dunn joined the group on bass and created the lineup that most people associate as "Booker T. & the MGs." However, when I checked the credits I found out that Booker T. didn't even appear on that session, his place at the keyboards being taken by Isaac Hayes. My son, Matt, had the solution: the inclusion of this furious excerpt from the Stax Revue Live at the 5/4 Ballroom. Once again the MGs are the "house band" and on this version of "Boot-Leg," Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn sound as if they are going to blow up their amps.
That voice you hear is the Dj Magnificent Montague, and his cry of "Burn," from the catchphrase "burn,baby, burn," was seen as too provocative after the Watts riots and so the concert stayed in the can for many years.
By the time we get to "Heads or Tails" and "Hip Hug-Her," we are hearing a group with an almost supernatural understanding. "Heads or Tails" sometimes gets overlooked but it's an absolutely effortless gem. I've never been able to understand how anything so simple and perfect as "Hip Hug-Her" can still sound so avant-garde and beautifully weird.
Musicians this talented couldn't stand still even with a winning formula. The second half of this collection shows what they did about it. Subtle changes in the sonic picture give us the more open sound of "Lady Madonna." It starts out as a literal instrumental statement of the famous McCartney melody but then the track turns into something uniquely MGs. Check out howBooker T. and Cropper make space for each other. The trade-off in fade is just about perfect.
Having based almost everything on rhythm, blues, and groove, the group now went in two directions at the same time: into the freedom and open-ended forms such as the ominous, piano-led "Over Easy," and by showing what they could do with tight and more musically complex songs.
"Hang ‘Em High" is in the tradition of the musical combo reinterpreting the movie theme that gave us Roland Alphonso's Skatalites version of "The Guns of Navarone." Booker T.'s mock-noble sounding organ catches the Western drama of the theme while the rhythm section lay down an entirely new kind of feel.But the blues is never far away and my favorite moments on the record are those last few spiky interjections from Steve Cropper.
In the midst of these changes, there was still a place for a deadly groove and they don't come any better than "Soul Clap ‘69," a track that seems to have found real favor only in England.
If the city fathers of Memphis ever get around to doing the right thing they will erect a "Golden Statue of the Groove" to Al Jackson, Jr. He was not only the perfect motor of so many Stax sides, but on this track you can hear him lay down the blueprint for all his incredible work on the Hi Records hits made by Willie Mitchell and Al Green, not to mention throwing in a little "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" era Motown on the tambourine part.
Not that the drummer completely steals the show. Times had changed and Steve Cropper is heard using a wah-wah pedal and playing in a mellow style that predicts the fade of the Beatles' "Come Together." This is all the more curious because the next song comes from the group's later instrumental reinterpretation of Abbey Road, which took its name from the Stax address, McLemore Avenue, and featured a parody of the Beatles' cover.
Even as a fan I had previously thought that McLemore Avenue was a bit of mad idea but I am grateful for this opportunity to completely revise that view. "Something" leads off with Booker T.'s fairly faithful statement of the vocal melody but as the tracks moves through one of their most complex arrangements, there are subtle reharmonizations that make the song their property until they land on a groove that seems to belong 500 miles south of Stax in New Orleans. Steve Cropper then takes off into one of his most expansive and remarkable solos, trading with Booker T. until the end.
There is nowhere to go after that but to church and "Sunday Sermon" must be one of the MGs' most underrated cuts. Booker T.'s gospel piano lays beautifully on Al Jackson, Jr.'s deep backbeat and glides over the bass foundation from Duck Dunn. Unsurprisingly, Steve Cropper's contributions are the definition of economy.
Before getting too sanctified, we go back to the 5/4 Ballroom once more for a version of the MGs' signature tune, "Green Onions." If you think you know this song or have heard it too many times, this should be the tonic you need. The entire group completely tear it up. Booker T. is using a Hammond tone that should be X-rated and this is some of Steve Cropper's wildest playing, while Al and Duck lust keep stepping up the tension.
Grooves like this will last forever and just to remind us, I've closed things out with another beaut that occasionally slips by people, called "Fuquawi."Imagine it playing as the credits roll and we consider for a moment all the indelible records on which this unique group played; not just those credited to "Booker T. & the MGs" but all the fire and swing they lent to so many Stax vocal records. Give praise and give thanks.
I've had a ball putting this record together and I hope that you have a fine time listening to it.