Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Time Is Tight Again

By Ross Johnson

DECEMBER 28, 1998:  Memphis’ Booker T. and the MG’s are best remembered for their 1962 top-10 hit “Green Onions.” But though they only charted a few times after that initial hit and were, for the most part, finished by 1971 as a commercial and creative force, this band’s legacy is much more than that of minor hit-makers. And now, to honor and chronicle that enduring legacy, Fantasy Records has assembled Time Is Tight, a three-disc retrospective of the career of one of America’s best – and unheralded – bands.

Booker T. Jones, Steve Cropper, and Al Jackson Jr. first played together as a backing band for white rockabilly singer Billy Lee Riley (they cut “Green Onions” at the end of the session). Integrated sessions were not uncommon in Memphis during the early ’60s, but a mixed group that played live performances was an oddity. In fact, the original version of the band included three black players and only one white player, guitarist Cropper. Lewie Steinberg was the original bassist; Donald “Duck” Dunn, a classmate of Cropper’s from Messick High School, replaced him in November 1964.

For much of the ’60s, the group served as the house band at Memphis’ Stax Records, playing on numerous recordings by Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Eddie Floyd, Rufus Thomas, Albert King, William Bell, and many, many others. During that era, the MGs came to personify the sound of Southern soul music – sparse, restrained, melding together black and white music strains in a combination that has been ceaselessly imitated but never duplicated.

Booker T. and the MG’s became a prototype for a lot of bands working in the Memphis area in the mid and late ’60s. By 1967, Memphis’ white teens heavily favored soul music played by black musicians at their dances and parties. Formerly all-white rock bands went looking for black members so they could have a “mixed” group.

And by being a group that included both black and white members, they put into practice the fragile integrationist tenets of the civil-rights movement and, by example, did much to desegregate the pop-music industry in Memphis and nationwide. Simply playing out as a mixed group at that time was a political statement, whether group members intended it to be or not. It was race mixing in its most blatant form, “whites and coloreds” standing together on a stage and in a recording studio as equals, both artistically and financially.

The first two discs of Time Is Tight cover this golden period from 1962 to 1970 when Al Jackson Jr. sat behind the drum kit. The hits are all here – “Green Onions,” of course, “Hip Hug-Her,” “Groovin’,” “Hang ‘Em High,” “Soul Limbo,” and “Time Is Tight,” – as well as rare B-sides, album cuts, and unreleased material. The band that emerges on these discs is a mixture of hip and hokum, playing standards and hits of the day that a mass audience would likely recognize. The MG’s did write a lot of their own material, but when they first started doing albums in the early ’60s, it was standard practice for instrumental groups to include familiar songs that record buyers might already know. Hence the band did covers in concert and in the studio. The sound they made while playing the hoariest of bar-band standards will probably never be bettered.

Unfortunately it didn’t last. Jones, the organist and namesake of the band, tired of recording at Stax and in 1970 left the label, moved to California, and started a solo career. The group recorded one more album, 1970’s poor-selling Melting Pot. But by 1971 the other group members were involved in various side projects. Guitarist Steve Cropper left Stax in 1971 and set up his own studio and label, Trans-Maximus, in Memphis. Bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn and drummer Al Jackson, Jr. opted to continue session work at Stax. Jackson branched off, doing sessions at Willie Mitchell’s Hi Studio and playing on numerous hits by Al Green. In 1975 the four members made plans to record and tour again as the MG’s, but in October Jackson was murdered at his Memphis home.

In 1977 the three remaining members recorded an album for Geffen with Isaac Hayes Movement drummer Willie Hall, but the group soon called it quits. Jones, Dunn, and Cropper reunited at a 1986 music festival in Memphis, and since then the band has become a viable performing and recording unit again, using a host of different drummers until 1994, when they settled on Jackson’s cousin, Steve Potts, as a permanent replacement.

The third disc of Time Is Tight, covering the band’s ’80s and ’90s work, has serious flaws, however. It boils down to this: The MG’s without drummer Al Jackson don’t work because he was the band leader on stage and in the studio. Jackson set tempo and usually had the last word on band arrangements. The other members played off his energy and followed his judgment in most musical matters. The three surviving members of the group have said as much in interviews. The drummers the group has used subsequent to Jackson – Potts, Anton Fig, Jim Keltner, and Steve Jordan – don’t come close to matching his touch or tone.

The MG’s are tasteful and tuneful these days, but they are not inspired. It is not just age or the loss of context that has plagued so many artists from the ’60s still pursuing music careers in the ’90s that makes today’s MG’s a diminished proposition; it is the absence of Jackson.

Discs one and two of Time Is Tight are ample testimony to the case that Booker T. and the MG’s were America’s best instrumental band (arguably the best American band, ever). When disc three uses material with Jackson, everything is fine, but the ’90s material, with the aforementioned journeymen drummers, detracts from an otherwise almost perfect boxed set. For a taste of the MG’s in their late-period glory, buy a copy of Melting Pot, their last studio album together. It will make a nice substitution for the third disc.

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