There are a great many – and many great – Stax CDs in the Ace catalogue. The musicianship of Booker T Jones, Steve Cropper, Donald “Duck” Dunn and Al Jackson are a feature of a high percentage of the tracks on them. From 1962 to the early 1970s – as Stax Records’ in-house studio players and with their own records such as ‘Green Onions’, ‘Chinese Checkers’, ‘Hip Hug-Her’, ‘My Sweet Potato’, ‘Soul Limbo’ and ‘Time Is Tight’ – Booker T & the MGs gave the label its musical identity.
The MGs (standing for Memphis Group) had their origins in Stax’s first big instrumental act, the Mar-Keys, which contained guitarist Steve Cropper and bassist Duck Dunn at various times. When they first came together as an organised unit, the MGs featured Cropper, Jackson and Booker T, along with an older musician, Lewie Steinberg, who played on all the group’s recordings up to 1964, including their first two albums.
After Duck replaced Steinberg, the line-up of the MGs shown in press photos and on album sleeves remained constant, although it was often more fluid in the recording studio. While Booker T was away at college during the group’s early years, budding songwriter Isaac Hayes often subbed for him on MGs’ recordings and other sessions. Most of their fans had no idea about this at the time, as Stax didn’t exactly trumpet the fact that Booker was not playing on 100% of his own records. Often augmented by the horn section that had taken the name the Mar-Keys after the original group disintegrated, Booker T, Steve, Duck and Al remained the first-call Stax house band throughout the 1960s, playing on just about every major record to come out of the company’s studio.
It was only when Stax started to record a lot of their sessions in Muscle Shoals and Detroit that things slowed down for the MGs. Booker T’s move to California virtually coincided with Cropper’s decision to invest in his own studio in Memphis. Al Jackson was spending more time down the road from Stax at Willie Mitchell’s Royal Studios working on hits for Al Green, Ann Peebles and others. Duck was increasingly splitting his time between playing on sessions in California and the golf course, although both he and Al still participated in dates at Stax, including one by Elvis Presley. The MGs never officially split up; they just went their separate ways.
The unsolved murder of Al Jackson in 1975 rendered an MGs reunion unlikely, but Booker T, Cropper and Duck convened with drummer Steve Potts to great effect on many occasions, until Duck’s death in 2012, midway through a Japanese tour with Cropper and Eddie Floyd, made further reunions even less likely.
Although Al Jackson and Duck Dunn are gone, we have their work on the classic instrumental 45s and albums of Booker T & the MGs to remember them by, not to mention the other great Stax sides which feature their consummate musicianship and which are (and hopefully always will be) a feature of the Ace catalogue.
By Tony Rounce