Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Immortals #93 - Booker T. And The MG's

Too much is made of their being an integrated band. Recognition for their monumental importance as the house band at Stax, a fine bit of historical revisionism. Their sound? Overestimated. And that's a shame, because they really should be loved for exactly what they were.

First, addressing the obvious- they had no vocalist. One of only 2 entrants in the Immortals list not to have featured a singer. But, at the risk of sounding an apologist, I'd posit that the organ and guitar on those records were a duo worthy of mention alongside any fronting duo in rock history. And I don't mean Booker T. Jones and Steve Cropper, not the men or how they played those instruments/parts- that's an important distinction. I mean that the organ and the guitar on those records were Mick and Keith, John and Paul... or maybe more appropriately Sam and Dave. Even backing Wilson Pickett or Eddie Floyd, the instrumental track itself always seemed to present another frontman and sidekick, commanding the listener up front in the mix.

It's good that they had their effect on other people's records, because they released precious few compositions of their own (the landmark Green Onions contains a mere 3 original tunes.) Most if Onions is composed of reproductions of songs they'd already fleshed-out on other people's records, and yeah, it's sort of impossible not to prefer the originals we know and love. That's not to say that it isn't a sheer pleasure to listen to Booker T. and the boys- that title track is utterly un-improvable. But it would frankly be a lot easier to overlook the fact of their own songs' scarcity if it didn't highlight a suspicion you get listening to the MG's: that in a few records-worth of material, they could have ended up so much more than extras for the Akroyd/Landis canon.

In another universe they might have been the Animals (if never the Stones): remembered for their lasting influence but also beneficiaries of an era of mania that let them cash in while they were young enough to enjoy it. Instead, they get the distinction of being imitated in modern music just as often as they're sampled outright, a more obscured legacy (though certainly one of honor itself.) Maybe that's all fitting, just as well for the world's best backing band.

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