Booker T & The MGs functioned as the musical engine room of Stax Records and were the driving force behind much of the music that emanated out of the label’s HQ at 926 East McLemore Avenue in Memphis. As well as backing almost every other artist on the label – from Rufus Thomas and Eddie Floyd to Carla Thomas and Otis Redding – the groundbreaking interracial quartet (consisting of keyboardist Booker T Jones, guitarist Steve Cropper, bassist Lewie Steinberg and drummer Al Jackson) also made some remarkable recordings under their own collective moniker, among them album such as Melting Pot, Hip Hug-Her and Green Onions. The latter album’s title track became their debut US hit: a chart-topping organ-led instrumental that epitomised what became known as the “Memphis Sound” and put Stax on the map. It was earthy, direct and catchy, and rode on a mesmeric rhythm’n’blues backbeat. “I think that was the first one that really had the Stax sound with the bass and the guitar playing a magical groove together,” Booker T Jones told this writer in 2017.
By 1967, when The MGs released their fifth album, Hip Hug-Her, the quartet had lost Lewie Steinberg and gained Donald “Duck” Dunn on bass. The bittersweet title track, a group composition driven by a funky groove and distinguished by Booker T Jones’ infectious organ line, was issued as a single ahead of the parent album in April 1967. It made No.6 on the US R&B charts (No.37 Pop) and proved to be the group’s biggest single since their debut, ‘Green Onions’, five years earlier. It turned up as the opening cut on the album of the same name, which dropped at the beginning of the Summer Of Love, in May 1967. Following it was another original tune, ‘Soul Sanction’, a heavier, slightly slower blues on which Jones’ organ – he was playing a classic Hammond B3 for the first time after upgrading from a Hammond M1 – is dominant.
There were five original band tunes on the 11-track Hip Hug-Her album, including The MGs’ less successful follow-up to the ‘Hip- Hug-Her’ single, ‘Slim Jenkins’ Joint’, a slice of percussion-driven funk recorded during a trip to New York, and on which Booker T Jones plays some rolling barrelhouse piano before enunciating the main theme on organ. It was re-titled ‘Slim Jenkins’ Place’ for a single release, but its B-side, a cover of The Young Rascals’ massive R&B and pop smash ‘Groovin’’, got more airplay and became the unofficial A-side, making the US R&B Top 10 in August 1967.
The other original band tunes were the breezy ‘Double Or Nothing’, featuring a unison bass and guitar part (a classic MGs trait) and the more laidback ‘Carnaby Street’ (a homage to the epicentre of the UK’s fashionistas in the Swinging 60s), which was distinguished by Steve Cropper’s jangly guitar lines and probably inspired by the group’s sojourn in England as part of the Stax-Volt revue earlier in March 1967.
In sharp contrast is the mellow, atmospheric ballad ‘Booker’s Notion’ (whose musical DNA has hints of the traditional blues number ‘The House Of The Rising Sun’, as made famous by UK group The Animals). That particular track segues into a spirited cover of Bobby Hebb’s immortal 1966 soul smash ‘Sunny’. It was one of three soul covers on the Hip Hug-Her LP – the other two being a stomping electric piano-led version of The Temptations’ 1966 hit ‘Get Ready’ and the previously mentioned ‘Groovin’’.
Hip Hug-Her also included ‘More’, a song from an Italian movie about dogs, Mondo Cane, and which was a US hit first in 1963 for jazz trombonist Kai Winding. Arguably, however, the best cover was The MGs’ turbo-charged version of Billy Larkin And The Delegates’ 1965 organ-led instrumental, ‘Pigmy’.
Spurred on by the title track’s success as a single, Hip Hug-Her rose to No.4 on the US R&B albums chart and made an impressive No.35 on the Billboard 200. Though Booker T & The MGs would keep making albums for Stax until 1971, no other record they made eclipsed the chart success of Hip Hug-Her, which, half-a-century on, remains an indispensable chapter in the group’s – and, indeed, Stax’s – storied history.
Follow the Stax Soul Explosion playlist on Spotify.