There would have been no such thing as Southern soul if it weren’t for Booker T. & the MGs. Much like the Funk Brothers did for Motown, the MGs played back-up on nearly all the records released by Stax throughout the ‘60s. And they did it well. The group was blessed with some of the greatest sessions musicians of the time—not only was Booker T. Jones one of the world’s great organ players, but Steve Cropper would prove to be one of its greatest guitarists. Legendary Southern soul artists like Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, and Rufus Thomas all owed an enormous debt to the group, whose members often co-wrote the songs (Cropper, for instance, is credited on smash hits like “In the Midnight Hour” and “(Sitting On) The Dock of the Bay”) and essentially produced all of the material on which they played). But unlike their northern counterparts at Motown, the MGs wouldn’t have to wait 40 years to get a share of the credit they deserved—they had a successful career completely their own, releasing a string of instrumental singles and albums throughout the ‘60s and into the early ‘70s.
The Very Best Of Booker T. & the MGs starts off, appropriately, with “Green Onions”. The first song they ever wrote together, it’s easily the most successful single the band would ever release. It’s also their best—one of the greatest instrumental tunes ever recorded. Since its release all the way back in 1963, it’s earned a place in our collective cultural consciousness, a mainstay of movie soundtracks and retro ‘60s compilations. They may have originally been meant as nothing more than a backing band, but “Green Onions” alone made Booker T. & the MGs one of Stax’s most recognizable acts thanks to Cropper’s sharp licks, Jones’ trademark organ work, and Al Jackson’s tight rhythmic stomp. Slick and mod and infectious, you couldn’t hope for a better opening track.
But Booker T. & the MGs were far from just one hit wonders. They might never have been able to recreate the commercial success of “Green Onions”, but they would go on to produce a long list of excellent releases (a total of 23 singles and 11 albums, in fact). And The Very Best Of highlights the most deserving of them. They all tend to follow the same basic formula as the band’s greatest hit, with the instrumentation and structure staying pretty much the same save for some minor adjustments. “Soul Limbo” opts for vibes and a backbeat to produce a Caribbean vibe; “Chinese Checkers” uses an electric piano and pentatonic mode for some Eastern flavour; “Melting Pot” stretches out into an eight-minute epic; “Soul Clap ‘69” slows things down for a more relaxed groove. With little else changing, it is all a little repetitive from time to time, but forty years later, you still can’t help but nod your head or tap your feet or dance along to song after song after song.
The band’s cover tunes have aged a little less well. Over the course of their careers, the MGs recorded a number of songs originally made famous by other artists (one of their later albums, McLemore Avenue, was practically a song-for-song cover of the Beatles’ Abbey Road) and several are included on The Very Best Of: Simon and Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson”, the Beatles’ “Something”, the Rascals’ “Groovin’”, and the title-track from the movie Hang ‘Em High. “Something”, reworked to accommodate a fantastic ending jam, is easily the best of them. It’s the others, with their laid-back vibe and lead organ, that sound dated—a little too much like what you’d expect to hear coming from the lobby of a Holiday Inn or find in a 99-cent bin.
But those are only two or three songs out of the twenty included. Booker T. & the MGs were a hell of a lot more than just a backing band, or the guys who came up with “Green Onions”, and this collection proves it. For the vast majority of its running time, The Very Best of Booker T. & the MGs is exactly what you hope it would be: a collection of the finest songs by one of the finest instrumental outfits ever assembled.