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Sunday headliner: Bookert T. and the MGs

The title "living legend" is tossed around pretty freely these days, so it often loses its meaning. But not when it comes to Booker T. and the MGs. Legend is almost an understatement for these guys. In 1992, Booker T. and the MGs were inducted in...

The title "living legend" is tossed around pretty freely these days, so it often loses its meaning. But not when it comes to Booker T. and the MGs.

Legend is almost an understatement for these guys.

In 1992, Booker T. and the MGs were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 2004, Rolling Stone Magazine included the group on its list of the "100 Greatest Artists of All Time." And earlier this year, Booker T. Jones and MG members Steve Cropper and Donald "Duck'' Dunn and former bassist Lewie Steinberg were awarded a Lifetime Achievement Grammy.

In 1996, Cropper, the lead guitarist, was also ranked by England's Mojo Magazine as the No. 2 guitarist of all time, behind only Jimi Hendrix. And in 2003, Rolling Stone magazine readers voted him among the top 100 Guitar Players of all time.

Booker T. and MGs close out the 19th annual Bayfront Blues Festival at 7:45 p.m. Sunday in Bayfront Festival Park.

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The band's style has been described as Memphis soul and instrumental rock, but the musicians not only defined their own new sound but also have helped define American music over the past 40 years, from rock and R&B to blues and soul.

For years, thousands of American kids wanted to play the electric guitar like Steve Cropper or the bass like Duck Dunn. And almost every cool keyboard player tried to sound like Booker T. Jones on the Hammond B-3.

In 1962, when Booker was a senior in high school, the group cut "Green Onions," which sold a million copies and was followed by six other Top 40 hits, including "Hip Hug-Her," "Groovin," "Soul-Limbo," and "Hang 'Em High."

Look closely at video clips of the great soul singers of the 1960s and early '70s and behind them you'll probably see these guys. Booker T. and the MGs were the studio "house'' band of Memphis' Stax record company, playing on records (and backing on stage) Otis Redding, Sam & Dave and Eddie Floyd.

Cropper even helped write many of Stax's biggest hits, including Redding's "Sittin' On the Dock of the Bay."

Dunn has played bass on albums and toured with almost every big name in the business. Check the liner notes and you'll find that over the past 25 years Dunn has played on songs by Boz Skaggs, Tom Petty, Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, John Fogerty, John Prine, Bill Withers, Sam and Dave, Wilson Pickett and many more.

It's just that bass players don't always get the spotlight.

"It's been a great ride. And it's still fun,'' Dunn said in a phone interview from his Florida home earlier his week.

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Booker T. and the MGs just returned from a tour of Europe. They've been in demand since receiving the Lifetime Achievement Grammy.

"We all get along. We love to get together. We do it a little different every night,'' Dunn said. "And we don't have to rehearse much any more, except maybe the endings.''

Dunn said the group will be backed in Duluth by drummer Anton Fig, who usually plays with Paul Schaeffer's band on the "David Letterman Show." Jones will sing a few songs, but most of the set will be instrumental, Dunn said.

"At my age I don't need to play to make a living,'' said Dunn, 65, who would just as soon be fishing with his grandchild as flying around the country. "We're back in demand now ... But Booker keeps it to a manageable number of shows."

Booker's intriguing marriage of R&B and pop had its roots in the clubs and studios of Memphis in the late '50s and '60s. Jones was sneaking into Memphis clubs to play music by the time he was 14.

In the 1970s, as a record producer in Los Angeles, Jones not only put hits on the pop charts, he also produced three pivotal records in the career of one of country music's biggest stars, Willie Nelson, including the multi-platinum selling "Stardust" album. Jones produced and arranged other hits on the West Coast, including Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine" album, Rita Coolidge's "Higher and Higher" and "We're All Alone" as well as Earl Klugh's "Magic In Your Eyes."

When Booker T. disbanded the MGs and left Memphis for California, Dunn and drummer Al Jackson Jr. kept the band's name afloat. Jackson was killed when he disturbed an intruder in his home in 1975.

In California, Jones played on albums by Bobby Darin, Ray Charles, Bob Dylan ("Billy the Kid"), Stephen Sills and Barbra Streisand. He also recorded five solo albums for A&M, Epic and MCA. In the 1980s, he played on albums by Boz Scaggs, Soul Asylum, John Lee Hooker and Kris Kristofferson.

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In addition to their solo work, Cropper and Dunn also were the centerpieces of the Blues Brothers band put together by Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi for concert tours, albums and the 1980 hit movie.

"I didn't realize I had such a (southern) accent until I saw that movie,'' said Dunn, a native of Memphis.

"Everybody involved in that had a lot of fun. But they (Belushi and Aykroyd) were very serious about the music. They did a lot to push a revival of the blues and soul music in the '80s,'' Dunn said. "When you get Ray Charles and James Brown to sing on your movie, it's not bad ... And Danny (Aykroyd) is still out here with the blues.''

Booker T. and the MGs are doing irregular touring this summer in support of a 50th anniversary for Stax. An indie record company has revived the Stax label and many of the old hits have been newly released on the Internet via iTunes, eMusic and its own site, Sax50.com.

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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