Thursday, June 7, 2012

Booker T. & The MG's/The Mar-Keys - Back To Back

On May 13, 2012 the music world lost a giant - Donald "Duck" Dunn, bassist for Booker T. & The MG's, one of the greatest musical groups the world has ever known. Duck plays on some of my all time favorite recordings, not only with the MG's but also with Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Albert King, Elvis Presley and about a zillion others. Type in Duck Dunn discography into your favorite search engine if you have a few hours to kill to check out the full list. His playing defines "in the pocket" and his influence is massive on any good musician regardless of instrument.

Most people my age discovered Duck through the Blues Brothers, either on the Briefcase Full of Blues album (1978) or in the classic Blues Brothers film (1980) but I was lucky to hear him and the rest of the MG's many years earlier than that. My oldest brother Joe was a huge music fan and loved playing records and watching me go crazy to James Brown, Chuck Berry and Isaac Hayes. When he went off to college he left me in charge of a lot of his albums and one that I loved driving my mother crazy with was an album called Back To Back by Booker T & The MG's and the Mar-Keys horn section. This was the beginning of me discovering that not only did I love funky music but also live albums!

Back To Back was recorded on the historic Stax-Volt tour of Europe in 1967 while they were backing up Otis Redding, Sam & Dave and other stars on the Stax label. Booker T. & The MG's almost didn't go on the trip because it meant they would be away from the recording studio as well as their regular night time gigs. Over the years all the band members have said that they had no idea of the impact their music was having overseas. They knew they were making hit records in the US, but when they got to Europe people were freaking out over them. The Beatles sent limos to pick them up at the airport and every musician in England were in awe of their power. Booker T. & The MG's would start the show with a few instrumentals before bringing out the horn section of the Mar-Keys for a few more songs to warm up the crowd. Can you imagine seeing this shit for the first time in all it's glory? Then someone like Eddie Floyd and/or Carla Thomas would kick out a few jams and then turn the mic over to Sam & Dave and eventually Otis Redding. You'd never need to go to another concert ever again!

Thankfully, they recorded some of the shows. Both Otis Redding and Carla Thomas had live albums released from the tour but Back To Back is by far my favorite. Kicking off with a rousing intro from MC Emperor Rosko, the band leans into a killer version of "Green Onions" that blows away the classic studio version. Booker's organ is heavy and the rhythm section of Duck on bass and master drummer Al Jackson, Jr. is incredibly tight. Steve Cropper's guitar playing is perfect as usual. Side one continues with excellent versions of the hits "Red Beans and Rice," "Tic-Tac-Toe," and "Hip Hug Her" before they're joined by the horns for "Philly Dog." It's all over way too soon, but flip it over and Mar-Keys hits "Grab This Thing" and "Last Night" keep the party going. Side two wraps up with the power trio of "Gimme Some Lovin," "Booker Loo" and "Outrage." 10 songs, 34 minutes and not one second wasted. The crowd goes apeshit after every song. Some of the shows were filmed and the crowds are decked out in turtle necks and fancy dresses. Everyone is sitting down at first but are on their feet not long after the first few notes. What kind of square could sit still?

This album is sadly out of print on CD and probably won't get reissued anytime soon on wax, either. It's a shame because it's a real stone gett-off, but the DVD of a 1967 show in Norway is available on DVD. Crank it up and get down to the heavy sound of Duck and the boys. 45 years later it's still better than anything else out there. Thanks, Duck. RIP.

--Woody

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