Album Review: Booker T & the MG’s – Green Onions

Author Rob Bowman knows his stuff. More specifically, he knows his Stax. As one of a very short list of scholars on the subject of the legendary influential (and troubled) Memphis-based record label, Bowman wrote what may be the definitive work on Stax, Soulsville U.S.A.: The Story of Stax Records, first published in 1997. It’s nearly four hundred pages in small type, and dense with facts and anecdotes, but it’s essential reading.

And it’s Bowman’s liner notes that grace the 2012 reissue of a classic Stax LP, Green Onions by the Stax house band, Booker T & the MG’s. Released in 1962, Green Onions is a classic of the genre: instrumental southern soul. The band played on 95% of all Stax releases through 1969, Bowman reminds us. And their own catalog included 23 singles and eleven albums, including the fascinating Beatles tribute, McLemore Avenue.

But on their first album, the band was just coming together. Having recorded a pair of excellent songs (one of which was the immortal single that gave the LP its name), they did what pretty well all bands did in the pre-Beatles era: they went back into the studio and cut ten more songs – all but one a cover, and the remaining track a sequel-of-sorts called “Mo’ Onions” – so that they could capitalize on their fame and tap into the burgeoning long-player market.

“Green Onions” is a perfectly compact tune: with Booker T. Jones‘ spare and assured Hammond M3 (not, as many have surmised, the much larger B3) lines trading licks with Steve Cropper‘s country-influenced yet devastatingly rocking riffage, the song doesn’t just walk, it stomps. Al Jackson Jr.‘s straight-ahead and precise drumming syncs up perfectly with Lewie Steinberg‘s bass work. (Bowman’s concise liners provide helpfully boiled-down biographies for each member of the quartet, showing their pedigrees and helping to explain why their style was all-killer-no-filler.)

A number of the covers will be familiar to fans of early 60s pop: “Rinky Dink”; a version of “Twist and Shout” that predates The Beatles’ recording by four months; Ray Charles‘ “I Got a Woman”; and so on. The MG’s versions stake out a territory that is true to the melodic intent of the originals, yet full of the band’s soon-to-be-recognized signature style.

Booker T & the MG’s would be important even if they hadn’t cut “Green Onions.” They were one of the first racially mixed bands, in a time and place when one put such aggregations together at one’s own peril. As the house band at Stax, they lent assured backing to a stellar list of artists (Otis Redding, Rufus Thomas and many more) that allowed those artists to concentrate on what they had to do; you never needed to worry about the band when Booker T & the MG’s were there. Green Onions is an important piece of history, and of the puzzle that helps explains the group and Stax as a whole. And it’s a lot of fun as well.

The 2012 Concord/Stax reissue appends two tracks: live versions from the 1965 various-artists showcase Funky Broadway: Stax Revue Live at the 5/4 Ballroom. The live run-throughs of “Green Onions” and “Can’t Sit Down” are both taken at a faster pace than their studio counterparts, and feature bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn, who had recently replaced Steinberg. Dunn would remain with the band to the end and when it re-formed; he passed away earlier this year. Jackson died tragically in 1975. But, as they say, the music lives on.

Postscript: On a related topic, mere days ago I returned from Nashville TN, where I took part in this year’s Americana Music Association Conference and Festival. A highlight of that was Booker T. Jones’ acceptance of a Lifetime Achievement Award. He also joined the event’s house band onstage at the Ryman Auditorium for a few numbers (including, of course, “Green Onions”) and added his organ (this time a B3) stylings to live performances by Alabama Shakes. But perhaps the best Booker T-related event was his interview at the Country Music Hall of Fame (conducted by Robert Gordon, another of those short-list Memphis experts). I was fortunate enough to score a front-row seat for the 80-minute conversation. And if that weren’t enough, I got to ask Jones a question about the band’s 1970 McLemore Avenue. The entire interview is worth your time; my (nearly off-mic but condensed and restated by Gordon) question comes at the 41:13 mark.

Update: Here’s a transcript of our exchange, for those who can’t view videos online:

Bill Kopp: You mentioned British rock’n’roll. I know that the MG’s – and Stax artists in general – covered The Beatles a number of times. What was the inspiration – other than the album itself – for McLemore Avenue?

 Booker T. Jones: I just went and picked up that album [Abbey Road] and realized the history…inspiration is the true word. Feeling that I had the capacity to make a tribute, and feeling that a tribute was due. Because of the courage they had as a group, and the fact that they stuck with it long enough to come up with completely new, inconceivable music. The best music of the time, I thought.

It was kind of like when I worked with Willie [Nelson] and we did the Stardust album. We went to the record company with this inconceivable idea. They went, “What?! What? Are you sure?” That was the way McLemore Avenue was: “What?! The Beatles?” But I thought their work was just stellar, and I just wanted to pay tribute to them.

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