They also served as the house backup band at the legendary Stax Records in 1960s Memphis, and in the process played a large part in shaping the course of American soul music. Their playing can be heard on immortal hits by such acts as Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Carla Thomas, Albert King, Eddie Floyd and Sam and Dave, among many others.
Now, seemingly out of the blue, Booker T. and the MGs are booked to perform for Tucsonans on Tuesday, April 15, in Centennial Hall at the UA. The concert is a last-minute substitute for one by Rosanne Cash, who was originally on the UApresents schedule but had to cancel because of health reasons.
Booker T. and the MGs, however, are second to none, in large part because organist Booker T. Jones, guitarist Steve Cropper and bassist Donald "Duck" Dunn are known the world over as architects of the fabled Memphis soul sound. (They'll be joined for the concert by drummer Steve Potts.)
In a recent telephone interview, Dunn had much praise for longtime friends and bandmates Jones and Cropper. He referred to Jones as "the maestro," and spoke glowingly of Cropper's seminal guitar style. Indeed, both have inspired uncounted musicians, but Dunn's work on the electric bass has been equally monumental.
Asked to define exceptional bass-playing, Dunn demurred that it's difficult to explain in words.
"It's hard to say, really. It's probably really connected to the drums. If the drums and bass aren't happening, there's no rhythmic foundation. You gotta get a good feel from the drums and bass. You can make guitar players and other players better. They can be incredible musicians, but if they don't have good support from the drums and bass, it's not going to sound as good as it could be."
Dunn, who is 66, admitted he had no formal musical training. "I can read a chord chart, but I can't read music. I learned to play by feel and from other good players."
As a teenager in his hometown of Memphis, Tenn., Dunn became enamored with the early R&B sides of James Brown and Ray Charles. "I'd stand in front of the mirror and just, you know, pretend to be playing," he chuckled.
He later graduated to haunting the nightclubs in West Memphis, Ark., where he convinced a bass player in a local band to teach him the instrument.
With high school pals Cropper and Don Nix, Dunn played in a regional touring act called The Mar-Keys, who scored a modest 1961 hit with the instrumental tune "Last Night." Dunn played the roadhouse circuit with The Mar-Keys for three years before returning to Memphis for session work at Stax.
Cropper had left the band earlier and formed Booker T. and the MGs back in Memphis in 1962. When Dunn returned to town, he took over bass duties from original member Lewis Steinberg. The great Al Jackson Jr. completed the classic lineup.
Music-biz legend has it that the instrumental classic "Green Onions," which in 1962 rose to No. 3 on the pop charts and has become the band's trademark, was born during an idle jam as the band waited for a singer to arrive for a recording session.
They never actually broke up, but as the 1960s became the '70s, Jones left to pursue a solo career; Cropper opened a studio in Memphis; and Dunn and Jackson continued to back up musicians for recording sessions at Stax and other labels.
A tentative reunion was said to be in the works when Jackson died in 1975 after being shot by a burglar in his Memphis home.
By the late 1970s, Cropper and Dunn were playing with Levon Helm's RCO All-Stars. The pair went on to become the anchors for the Blues Brothers band, having been tapped by John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd.
Booker T. and the MGs came back together in 1992 to be the house band for a huge Bob Dylan tribute concert in Madison Square Garden. In 1993, they backed up Neil Young on a national concert tour and recorded another album, That's the Way It Should Be, which was released the following year.
Although Booker T. and the MGs played more than 100 dates last year, the Tucson gig and one a couple of nights earlier in Los Angeles mark the band's first performances together this year.
Cropper still plays with the Blues Brothers band in Europe each summer, but Dunn has slowed down his pace a bit. "I quit that a few years back," he said. "That band keeps a much busier schedule than I'd like."
Dunn self-deprecatingly calls himself a "part-time" legend. Living in Florida, he spends as much time as possible fishing and visiting his 2 1/2-year-old grandson.
At the time of this interview, though, Dunn had returned from a month in Australia. He was recovering from jet lag and a virus he picked up on the plane.
He and Cropper had played a national concert tour there with Australian Idol winner Guy Sebastian. A powerful young blues and soul belter, Sebastian had recorded his third CD, The Memphis Album, a collection of soul standards released last year, with producer Cropper at the helm.
Said Dunn of the Sebastian tour Down Under, "That was fun, because those were songs I have been playing for my whole life."
There's been talk recently of a new Booker T. and the MGs album, featuring the band backing up a variety of vocalists, but Dunn said he wonders if that project will come to fruition.
Dunn has backed up so many stellar musicians during his career--Isaac Hayes, Eric Clapton, Stevie Wonder, Muddy Waters, Johnny Cash, George Harrison and Rod Stewart are a few more--you'd think there was no one left to play with. He does have at least one artist remaining on his wish list, though.
"I would love to play with Van Morrison. Maybe just two or three songs on one of his albums, with him and Booker T. and the MGs. That would be nice."