A Band Powerful Enough To Turn Goat Piss Into Gasoline! (Booker T and the MGs)

I really should find the time to watch the film of the Stax-Volt  1967 tour of Europe every week.  This recording of the Oslo concert is only an hour long & never fails to delight. Otis Redding defines charisma, the dynamism of Sam & Dave is still startling, Eddie Floyd & Arthur Conley do their thing too. On stage for the whole of the gig is the heartbeat of Stax, 4 musicians who usually stayed in the East McLemore Ave studio in Memphis, creating & playing great music & generally being the best band in the world.

Booker T & the M.G.’s were the opening act & part of the backing band on the tour. They, of course, had to play their 1962 surefire smash “Green Onions”,the tough, irresistible blues instrumental which just everyone knows & which still sounds great 50 years later. The song, written when Booker T was still in high school, is part of the culture. Only this weekend I saw a documentary on Mott the Hoople in which guitarist Mick Ralphs said that he did not play until he heard “Green Onions” &  thought that he wanted to have some of that.

The Y-tube says that this clip is “Red Beans & Rice”, a 1965 B-side. It is in fact “Tic-Tac-Toe” a 45 from 1964. It’s not included in the concert film that I know so watching these young, sharp dressed men walk out on to the stage & play this really is, to me, a thing of wonder. It is a cliche that the best groups are greater than the sum of their parts but have those constituents ever been as accomplished & inspired as these 4 musicians ? Man, a tune like this gets played first up & you know you are in for a good night.

This tour was a coming out for the group. It’s disingenuous to claim that fans did not know that the M.G.’s were an integrated combo. While there are very few early photographs, the billing for the tour says “featuring the fantastic guitar of Steve Cropper”. In Europe there was less reason to obscure the group’s racial mix. Damn, it made them cooler still. On the whole the fans were white boys with a love of the very same music that had gotten Cropper & Duck Dunn into this. It was though, the first time that all the musicians on tour had experienced adulation & appreciation on such a scale. It was also, I guess, the first time they could all go to eat or drink together just any place they wanted without checking that the vibe was right & the coast was clear. There was no going back from this, that’s for sure.

So just the next year, 1968, & the group are back in Europe, in, I think, France. One year on & the dress code is a little more relaxed. Duck could use a hair cut & a shave but the looseness of “Booker Loo”, a 6 minute Memphis blues & soul & rhythm stew, is just perfect. Cool cat Booker T, an Indiana U music student during the week while writing “Born A Bad Sign” at the weekend, takes it to church just for a while before Al Jackson Jr brings it back to the dirty boulevard with just a couple of firm strikes. I could listen to Mr Jackson play the drums on every day of my life. Whether it’s the drive of his work with this group or his silkier sessions at the Hi Studios of Willie Mitchell he is always absolutely doing it right. When I get to see him do what he does it gets a little too much & I need a sit down.

This clip, to these ears & eyes is so, so good. Whatever way up you want to look at the music of Booker T & the M.G.’s it is a groove to dance to. The beau monde here are giving it their best moves. I hope they now remember it & know how lucky they were to be there

1970 & the M.G.’s are the support act for the most popular group of the day, Creedence Clearwater Revival. Hmm…ever get the feeling you were  in the wrong place at the wrong time. What a gig ! The headline act look on from the side of the stage, they do not want to miss “Time Is Tight”. This worldwide hit is from the movie “Uptight”, a crime drama made a year before “blaxploitation” & soul soundtracks became the current thing. There’s a tense logic to the progression of the song, an effortless restraint which gives it a clarity which the more ornate instrumentalists of the day kind of ignored. “Time Is Tight”…I think that the word is “cohesion”. Creedence liked to keep it simple too. In 1970, looking to enhance their bayou blues-rock their LP “Pendulum” made extensive use of a Hammond organ. That’s why John Fogarty has a close eye on Booker T in this clip.

By this time there was, just as there had been at Motown, the realization that while making music was fun maybe it was time to get paid. Despite being under contract Booker T upped & moved to California. Steve followed suit, starting his own studio in Memphis before, eventually leaving for the West Coast. Duck & Jackson stayed on, in 1975 the 3 of them were playing together & making plans. The unfortunate murder of “the greatest drummer to ever walk the earth,” (Steve Cropper) closed this particular chapter of our music’s story. Now Booker T, a man with little to prove to anyone, gets to play with whoever he chooses  while Cropper & Dunn are beloved Blues Brothers. We have those wonderful instrumental records made by ambitious, confident & talented young men. I look around for the best available clips for these things I do. These 3 are all music of the highest quality. Right I’m away to throw some shapes to “Booker Loo”.

If It Wasn’t For Bad Luck (Albert King)

Well…being ill for 3 weeks really sucked. Spending the Easter Holiday in hospital was a shock but the wonderful members of the National Health Service prodded & probed, gave care & consideration & reassured me that I was receiving the best attention. Any time your body gives out then self-absorption is, I suppose, inevitable. Perfect for some crappy blog post about me, me. me. So… fuck that noise ! I have heard too much of it & there are others who have it worse. The hospital has helped me to recover & the nicotine withdrawal, after 40 years of addiction, is too dull to write about. Man ! it is good to be well enough to be writing this thing again. Back to the music.

Albert King is known as one of the “3 Kings of the Blues”. B.B., the most established of the 3 had many hits in the 1950s, enough to claim the title for himself. Freddie was selling records too though “Freddie King Goes Surfin” was hardly for the purist. By the mid-1960s Albert was in his 40s, had some success with 45s but had released just the one LP.All 3 had worked the “chitlin circuit” for years but the Blues was hardly the current thing. If it was then it was the Blues as interpreted by the young long-haired British boys. Albert had  a fine reputation, a lovely Gibson Flying V & the killer nickname of “The Velvet Bulldozer”. In 1966 he made a very smart though surprising career move when he signed with the Stax label in Memphis.

The resulting LP was many things, every one of them good. “Born Under A Bad Sign” is recorded with the Stax house band Booker T & the MGs, young men who were proving to have a facility for writing, producing & playing on records which had a heart full of soul & sold by the truck load. They rose to the challenge of making a Blues LP & I am sure that Albert King knew that these guys intended to do his music right. The title track, written by William Bell & Booker T Jones, is either Soul/Blues or Blues/Soul. No matter…it is a stone dead monster classic of a track, a solid slab of rhythm which moved Blues music into 1967. The sessions were originally recorded as singles, “Bad Sign” was the 4th to be released, It was this concentration on quality along with a respectful & inspired selection of standards which made the LP a breakthrough in electric Blues & really made Albert King’s career.

By 1969 the Blues were back in the foreground of popular music. There was a new “Blues Boom” in Great Britain as the graduates of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers began to form their own bands. Cream, Jimi Hendrix (honorary Brit…no doubt !) & the wonderful Free all made their own stabs at Albert’s songs. In the US Canned Heat were listening while Led Zeppelin lifted a chunk of the lyrics from “The Hunter” for “How Many More Times”. Record labels contorted themselves to position their bluesmen in to the youth market. “Electric Mud” (1968) is a startling re-imagining of Muddy Waters as a psychedelic musician. The records made when players were sent to London to play with the young guys were less successful.

Albert King was already there with a cool label & the best studio band in the world. This gig at the Fillmore East shows his confidence, his great touring band &, above all, the style of the man as a singer & player. He was probably happy to be with a label which got his records into the shops & could even get radio play. He certainly stayed with Stax until the final financial meltdown of 1975.

He was not immune to the “let’s make this shit modern” syndrome (Rick Rubin did not invent this lame-ass notion). There’s a “King Plays the King” LP of Elvis covers. The early R&B hits at least, not the post-Army awfulness. Don Nix produced a record at Muscle Shoals with new songs, Taj Mahal covers & such. It was, however, when Albert played the blues straight that it really came together. In 1972 “I’ll Play The Blues For You”, a record made with the Movement, the studio band on the massive hits of Isaac Hayes, he made his other essential record & enjoyed his biggest hit. This clip of the title track is from the momentous 1972 Wattstax concert when the entire Stax roster played in L.A. for just $1 entrance fee.

So, this “Velvet Bulldozer” tag ? Wiki claims that Albert drove such a vehicle in the 1950s when the music was not full-time. I am just not buying that. Albert King just played his Blues. He did not, as Bill Graham said, jive & shuck his audience with tricks & showmanship. His smooth runs, a beautiful tone & technique,  kept on coming & would get to you inevitably. Albert kept on doing it until his passing in 1992 & there were always young guitarists willing to collaborate & to pay tribute to his influence. It is these records he made for Stax which stand as the first time the Blues met the 1960s head-on & produced some serious relevance to match these young white boys who were stealing their shit.

Till Steve Cropper Plays A Bum Note (Stax)

From that very first time I heard the brassy blare, the rock solid rhythm and Wilson “Wicked” Pickett strutting through the Midnight Hour the sound of Memphis soul has shaken more than my tailfeathers. In 1966 I dutifully posted my vote for Wilson as the best singer in the world to a music paper (I’ve always been a sucker for a lost cause). A year later, just turned 15 years old, I waited on my bike to meet my best friend and share the shock of the morning news. Our new favourite, Otis Redding, had been killed in a plane crash. The world carried on with little regard but for Wink & I it was a big loss.

I did not know the hows and the whys, the whos and the wheres of the Stax/Atlantic legends then like I do now. I just knew that the raw, deep soul sound sure did it for me.

In 1967 Stax brought their artists to Europe for a tour which galvanised both performers and audiences. The Beatles, busy recording “Sgt Pepper”, sent a limo to meet them at Heathrow. The mainly black performers had not played to mainly white audiences before. The attention & interest alerted the label to not just a European market. Later in the year Otis Redding tore up the Monterey Pop Festival before the hippie “love crowd”. We are very lucky that one of these concerts, in Oslo, was filmed. Every second of the film is packed with quality, energy and soul.

Eddie Floyd is singing “Raise Your Hand” the follow up to his biggest record “Knock On Wood”. This simple call and response sits on a bed of pure Stax music. You could sing the telephone book and it would sound good. (Wilson Pickett started to do so on  “634-5789”). Eddie made some great records, he’s looking fine and singing strong here. He will always be remembered for the classic “Knock On Wood”.

Behind Floyd is the powerhouse band who backed all the acts on this legendary show and were the house band back in the Memphis studio. In the horn section there is Wayne Jackson and, I think, Packy Axton, son of Estelle, the AX in Stax. The other four are Booker T and the M.Gs, stars in their own right. Booker T Jones, played organ, arranged and composed songs while studying classical composition. His 2007 Grammy for lifetime achievement is deserved. Two childhood friends, Duck Dunn (bass) and Steve Cropper (guitar) were young men who grew up loving R&B, they knew how it went, knew where it was going and were helping to take it there. Cropper co-wrote this song, “Knock On Wood” and many others in his years at Stax. On drums is Al Jackson Jr and he is simply the best exponent of this instrument I have ever heard or seen. Eddie Floyd is great in this clip. Watch it again, see and listen to the best band in the world…The Mar-Keys.

Stax was not only the honking, stomping shots of energy, when they tried a little tenderness they got the job done too.William Bell, like Eddie Floyd, wrote and recorded many memorable songs without great commercial success. In 1967 he released ” A Tribute to a King”, the label’s eulogy for Otis. A year later the near-perfect soul duet with Judy Clay, “Private Number” was a big UK hit. In the same year “I Forgot To Be Your Lover” set new standards in sweet soul music. From the opening restraint of Steve Cropper’s guitar, the strings, yes strings, before the horns move in and Bell’s impassioned regret. Man, producer Booker T does a fine job on this. Like the run of 1960s singles by the Impressions this song just ends too quickly.

The song has often been covered (Billy Idol…anyone ?) and sampled. In Jamaica in 1977 Lee Perry produced a version by George Faith which is a highpoint of sweet reggae and is well worth a listen.

The story goes that Otis Redding returned from Europe and said he didn’t want to tour with Sam and Dave anymore. The all-singing, all-dancing, all-energy duo were one of the great live acts of the 1960s. Sam Moore and Dave Prater enjoyed massive success with their records too. A run of hits, many written by the team of Isaac Hayes and Dave Porter, established them as the biggest soul pairing in the US. Here they just wreck “Soul Man” with the Stax B-line. The A team were back making hits in Memphis but there is no visible or aural drop in quality. I could try and encapsulate Sam and Dave’s appeal but there are what, about 150 videos on Y-Tube and there are not 3 better than this. Just watch the clip, it’s great.

With international success, the tragic and premature loss of their greatest star and the machinations of the music industry the travails of the Stax label are labyrinthine and a little sad. Led by Isaac Hayes they recovered from the loss of their magnificent catalogue but the story still ended in bankruptcy. A cottage industry out of a converted cinema set the standard for great soul music which still endures. I still listen to and love the music that Stax made. I guess that once you’re a soul boy you end up a soul man.