Booker T. and the MGs, a band with an unusual ability to shift musical gears, has spent its summer tooling around Europe and the United States with Neil Young, who is famous for test-driving almost every rock-related model on the road.
Young has toured or recorded with rockabilly backup and with bands made up of country pickers. He has played techno-rock and acoustic folk, and for a while he fronted a big-band blues outfit called the Bluenotes. When he wants to play hammering garage rock, he can call on Crazy Horse, his on-again/off-again backup band since 1969.
Now Young has formed a touring partnership with one of the definitive R&B bands of the 1960s. On their own, the Memphis-based Booker T. and the MGs (MG stands for "Memphis Group," but also can be taken as a sports car reference) made a name for themselves with a series of instrumental hits that displayed the composing skills and musicianship of four exceptional players: organist Booker T. Jones, guitarist Steve Cropper, bassist Donald (Duck) Dunn and the late drummer Al Jackson Jr.
As a unit, they also formed the core of the house band at Stax Records and thus made crucial contributions to the gritty Memphis soul sound that stood as a counterpoint to Motown's more polished approach. Booker T. and the MGs supplied the heat for all of Otis Redding's classics, for the finest moments of Sam & Dave, and for career-launching hits by Wilson Pickett.
Eclectic as he might be, Young has a high-pitched voice that doesn't exactly qualify him as a Soul Man. So on the surface it would seem like a stretch--even by his own standards--for him to be teamed with a group so tied to definitive soul singers.
To Booker T. Jones, though, it's a perfectly sensible, completely comfortable fit.
"Excuse the ego, (but) for Neil, it's a marriage made in heaven," Jones, 48, said over the phone last week from Denver, a stop on the tour that brings the Young/Booker T. and the MGs combination to Southern California for shows Thursday at the Pacific Amphitheatre and Saturday at the Los Angeles Sports Arena (Blind Melon and Social Distortion open at the Pacific; Blind Melon and Stone Temple Pilots are the under-card in L.A.)
R&B is just one option among many for the MGs, Jones noted. If Young wants to show his country roots, they've got it covered. If he wants to go garage-rocking, they're ready.
"I've got the country background from the stuff I did with Willie Nelson and Rodney Crowell," said Jones, alluding to his work as producer of "Stardust," Nelson's 1978 hit album of pop standards, and Crowell's mid-'80s country-rock effort "Street Language." "There's country-flavored songs in the show and acoustic folk. All that is not thrown out. Steve and Duck play country very well."
In fact, Cropper said in a separate interview, one of his personal goals nowadays is to follow up the soul landmarks he co-wrote in the '60s--Pickett's "In the Midnight Hour," Redding's "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay" and Eddie Floyd's "Knock on Wood"--by establishing himself as a writer of country hits. "It's nothing for me to write country," said the guitarist, who has lived in Nashville for almost six years. "I grew up on the Grand Ol' Opry."
As for Young's penchant for bashing it out garage-band style, Jones figures that Booker T. and the MGs were already on that wavelength when Young was still playing the coffeehouse folk circuit in Canada. "If you think back on the stuff we did like "Satisfaction" with Otis, "In the Midnight Hour" and "Knock on Wood," that's all pretty heavy rock guitar stuff. If you look at it in today's context, the rhythm is the same, the backbeat is the same. It's a good marriage."
Booker T. and the MGs were adept at shifting gears before the players involved even thought of themselves as a cohesive band.
One of their early sessions together resulted from a call that Jones, Cropper and Jackson happened to get in 1962 for a recording date at Stax to back up a rockabilly-country singer named Billy Lee Riley. Memories differ as to whether Riley failed to show up (Jones's recollection) or whether his session ended early (Cropper's version). In either case, the backing players wound up using some free studio time for a blues jam that caught the ear of Stax boss Jim Stewart.
"He said, 'This could almost be a single,' " Cropper recalls. They called the blues piece "Behave Yourself," and immediately set about recording another song that could serve as its flip side. Cropper says he reminded Jones about an organ riff Jones had been toying with. "He played that little pattern, and it became 'Green Onions.' "