The spring after I turned nine, radio was still something that Mom and Dad listened to. I did not yet have my own station, my own radio, and the obsession that I would never lose. If I absorbed anything from the radio beyond the baseball scores, it was by accident.
And accidents happened. In the spring of 1969, one of the songs frequently heard on our hometown radio station captured my attention, but for the longest time, I didn’t know the name of it. Neither could I guess it, because it was an instrumental. Then one day, at long last, they said what it was: “Here’s Booker T and the MGs with ‘Time Is Tight.'” (I was pleased to find out that the group name and the title were as cool as the song.) “Time Is Tight” peaked at #6 on the Hot 100 in early May; only “Green Onions” did better.
A couple of springs later, I was a WLS addict with my own radio, and I found myself digging another Booker T and the MGs song, “Melting Pot.” But “Melting Pot” was their last chart single, and other music pushed Booker T and the MGs out of my consciousness for years after that. I was probably in college before I learned much about the history of Stax, and about the unbelievable string of hits on which Booker T. Jones, Steve Cropper, Donald “Duck” Dunn, and Al Jackson played on. It’s only within the last decade that I’ve started listening to them again, hard and close—and I am convinced that most people have no idea how insanely great they were.
Anybody can jam and ramble and go on and on and on. (Hell, you read this blog, you know it’s true.) But the gift of economy is a rare one: to have something worthwhile to say, the talent to say it in an interesting way, and the good sense to shut up when you’re done. Emily Dickinson had it. Creedence Clearwater Revival had it. Booker T and the MGs had it. Sure, they often stretched “Time Is Tight” and “Hang ‘Em High” to epic length in concert, but like a few other done-right things I could name, a locked-in MGs jam gets better and better the longer it goes. Like the Allman Brothers Band in their prime, the MGs play on with never a sense that they’re noodling, or showing off, or losing sight of their purpose—which is the groove, the whole groove, and nothing but the groove.
Duck Dunn’s death over the weekend stills one of the prolific musicians America has ever produced. Dunn epitomized the quintessential bass-player cool, standing up and laying it down, never calling much attention to himself but utterly indispensable on whatever he played. As himself in The Blues Brothers, he said, “We had a band powerful enough to turn goat piss into gasoline.” Perhaps the Blues Brothers Band was capable of that. But Booker T and the MGs were doing it first.
Here’s a live “Melting Pot” from 1991. It’s a great showcase for the mighty Duck Dunn.
Also worth a look: this 1970 video of “Time Is Tight.” See if you can spot the members of Creedence Clearwater Revival watching from the wings.