The norms of experiencing popular music make it tempting to allow an instrumental band to fall under the category of “background music.” Without the standard familiarity of verse/chorus vocals to structure a song, one’s “music brain” could deem instrumental parts as merely introduction or interlude, failing to attach proper focus or importance to the particular playing of, say, an organist, guitarist, bassist and drummer.
Yet, if the history of music has ever produced an instrumental band to most vigorously challenge that misperception, it would have to be the inimitable Memphis soul-shakers Booker T. & the M.G.’s, a quartet that’s been called “among the most influential stylists in modern American music.”
As the de facto house band at legendary Stax Records in the 1960’s, they played behind a legion of luminaries such as Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Sam & Dave, Albert King, and the Staple Singers. And, in an era when such a thing was far from insignificant, they also had two white and two black members comprising one of the first racially integrated rock bands.
That band name? Well they were, in fact, named after the British sports car. But fearing potential claims of trademark infringement, publicists at Stax concocted the “M.G.” as standing for “Memphis Group” which remained the public understanding for all of the their existence. For his part, the band’s never-bashful bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn once responded to an interviewer’s question of what the initials stood for with “musical geniuses.”
And now, for those who might still be inclined to think of instrumental music as background music, we’re going to visit Booker T. & the M.G.’s in a positively fierce live performance of one of their greatest tunes, ‘Time Is Tight,’ and we’re going to do it in SMGM play-by-play style (so get ready to toggle between verbiage and video; open two tabs if you have to, help me out here).
Start: Our scene opens with some ethereal organ, and the first sight of band namesake Booker T. Jones, dapper in all black and tranquilly taking us to church.
0:12 The camera pans out to find guitarist Steve Cropper, his head bowed reverently as he awaits his cue.
0:25 Who’s that bearded guy peering in from the wings? Creepy.
0:29 Wait, those two look a bit more familiar.
0:31 A nattily dressed crowd looks on in anticipation, and appears to already be standing.
0:35 Cropper, known to many as “The Colonel,” picks his first note, then adds a melodic line as Jones’ willowy organ continues.
1:03 Cropper hits the main riff, his bushy beard and bent left knee keeping time.
1:14 There’s drummer, Al Jackson, Jr., hammering away at an especially high high-hat.
1:18 And finally, laying down the low end is the aforementioned Donald “Duck” Dunn, years later to be recognized as the pipe-chomping bassman of the Blues Brothers (Cropper, of course, was in the band too).
1:21 With everyone now accounted for, all four heads begin to bob and the music starts to swell.
1:46 Booker T. adds the first of his clamoring organ flourishes, taking quick lead fills that accelerate the others’ bopping.
1:53 There’s that bearded guy again, and in a super close-up where his handlebar mustache is also evident! Who is this dude?! And the bespectacled guy next to him is euphoric.
2:02 The tune reaches a transition and Jackson reaches for his crash cymbals, as Jones’ organ screams.
2:17 We’re back to the main groove, but…whoa, Booker T. on that organ is going to get high and loud!
2:42 We get a close look at Colonel Cropper’s hands as he drops in his just-right riff. Yeah, you know that one sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
2:56 Cropper briefly drapes his left arm as he starts to loosen it up. In fact, one critic astutely called their live performances “the ultimate standard of how you can be tight and loose at same time.”
3:12 It’s all happening now, and don’t miss Duck Dunn looking devilishly satisfied at exactly 3:21.
3:35 Following another crashless Jackson drum fill and a super tight look at Jones, we pan around quickly…to those guys in the wings again. What the heck’s going on here..
4:00 Open it all the way up now, M.G.s! Hell yeah!
4:22 Jackson executes the rarely seen no-look crash and coolly drifts away from his kit, as Jones continues unabated.
4:40 That’s some heavy organ shit! And, Jackson’s back!
5:00 They’re absolutely cooking (in an added-on segment not present on the well-known single). Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn once said “We had a band powerful enough to turn goat piss into gasoline.” This is what he meant.
5:11 Cropper looks fatigued, but pushes on.
5:19 Another walk-away cymbal crash by Jackson. You just don’t see that move often enough.
A last look around at the band, a glowing smile from Jones as the organ dies, and…we’re out.
But, wait a minute: who the hell were those three guys?! Ladies and gents, that was none other than Creedence Clearwater Revival – drummer Doug Clifford in the beard/stache; bassist Stu Cook in the specs; the great John Fogerty with the big brown bowl cut (and rhythm guitarist Tom Fogerty unaccounted for, possibly the beginning of the brothers’ rift). The clip is from a January 31st, 1970 performance at the Oakland Coliseum, in which Booker T. & the M.G.’s opened up for Creedence – in a show that was then recorded for CCR’s most famous live album, The Concert (so named following its earlier erroneous release as having been played at London’s Royal Albert Hall). If one were to need further proof of Booker T. & the M.G.’s definitively non-background awesomeness – and that video should have eliminated any – how about the wonderstruck expressions on the faces of the members of one of the greatest bands in rock history as they gazed out at their opening act. That’ll do it for me.
But still, just a bit more:
– Bob Dylan asked Jones, Cropper and Dunn to serve as the backing band for his 30th Anniversary Concert in 1992 at Madison Square Garden. At the show, Neil Young recruited them for his 1993 world tour.
– In 1995, when the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame opened its museum in Cleveland, OH, Booker T. & the M.G.’s were the house band for the ceremonies (performing behind, among many others, that man John Fogerty again). The band themselves had previously been inducted to the Rock Hall in 1992.
– In 2004, Eric Clapton chose them as the house band for his first Crossroads Guitar Festival
(all of the foregoing took place after Al Jackson, Jr., the man Cropper would remember as “the greatest drummer to ever walk the earth,” was murdered in his own home in 1975 – a tragic act made all the more painful as it came just nine days following a band meeting in which the then-dissolved group had resolved to reunite)
– And lastly there was John Lennon, an acclaimed fan of the band, who fondly referred to the group as “Book a Table & the Maitre D’s.” You’d have to admit, that alone should forever move these instrumental superstars from any thought of the background to firmly up front.