Stax Records and Concord Music Group have brought the cool to this hot summer. Music simply doesn’t come much cooler than the hip Green Onions, from Booker T. & the M.G.s. The landmark album is being celebrated for its fiftieth anniversary in an expanded edition (STX-33960-02, 2012) as part of the ongoing Stax Remasters series that last delivered a new edition of Albert King’s I’ll Play the Blues for You.
The main attraction is doubtless the title song, a favorite of the Blues Brothers which has also been covered by everybody from Henry Mancini to The Ventures. It’s the perfect convergence of organist Booker T. Jones, guitarist Steve Cropper, bassist Lewis Steinberg and drummer Al Jackson, Jr., who also doubled as the Stax house band. (Donald “Duck” Dunn would later assume the bass reins from Steinberg.) For two minutes and 55 seconds, these sophisticated and versatile cats offer a deceptively simple instrumental master class. Three-note riffs and key changes abound in the effortlessly sophisticated, and altogether irresistible, tune. It was whipped up via improvisation as the other three members built on Jones’ central blues riff redolent of Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Help Me,” and created a classic in the process. Even if the group was torn over the title and still can’t definitively state who suggested it, something about “Green Onions” just stuck. There, apparently, was a consensus that onions were funky, if stinky – and the resulting song and album was indeed, funky, though certainly not stinky!
The original 1962 LP’s twelve tracks conclusively prove that instrumental music can have as much soul as that coming from a powerhouse vocalist. It’s not an exaggeration to state that the backing of Booker T.’s band further inspired the supremely passionate singers at Stax; the group was every bit as solid as the Funk Brothers or the Wrecking Crew. Under their own name, Booker T & the M.G.s played on some 23 singles and 11 albums for the Memphis label.
Hit the jump to keep reading!
Beyond the hit title track, the Green Onions repertoire primarily consists of familiar cover versions (“I Got a Woman,” “Twist and Shout,” etc.), peppered with a couple of group originals. “Mo’ Onions” is instantly recognizable as a close relation to the original; had it not been a creation of the same group, it would have likely been too close for comfort to its inspiration! The other new composition, “Behave Yourself,” is a simmering blues showoff for Jones’ dexterous organ playing. The cover recordings, though, bring just as much originality to the table. Despite the loose nature of this party album, not a note is out of place from the taut band. Booker T. and co. infuse soul into Mr. Acker Bilk’s “Stranger on the Shore,” and bring playfulness to “Lonely Avenue.” The song, by true bluesman and Brill Building alumnus Doc Pomus, is as sad a piece of blues as any, but Jones’ free-flowing organ and Cropper’s sultry guitar trade licks with verve. Cropper and Jones may appear to be the most prominent players on the album, but its secret is the organic nature in which all four members were connected.
So frequently are Stax and Motown are spoken of in the same breath, as two sides of a coin. On Green Onions, Booker T. & the M.G.s offered a fantastic, fun reworking of Smokey Robinson’s “The One That Really Loves You.” They imbue it with as much funk as the Brothers, as Jones fills in for Mary Wells on the vocal melody line. Philly group The Dovells are paid homage with “I Can’t Sit Down,” another showcase for all four of the band members. Jackson keeps the rock-solid beat for Cropper’s lean and mean riffs, as Steinberg playfully plucks the bass and Jones drives the melody home.
The slinky, insinuating “Comin’ Home Baby” is taken languidly by the M.G.s. First recorded in 1961 by the Donald Bailey Quartet and composed by its pianist, the song was then recorded by flautist Herbie Mann. With Bob Dorough’s lyrics, Mel Torme made a hit record out of it, but Cropper’s deliberate guitar makes a match for Mann or Torme’s well-remembered renditions. “Rinky Dink” (originally recorded by Dave “Baby” Cortez of “The Happy Organ” fame) finds Cropper repeating the famous guitar riff from Mickey and Sylvia’s “Love is Strange” that controversially led to litigation against Cortez!
The packaging of Concord’s reissue is typical of the Stax Remasters series, with the original front and back covers of the LP replicated. As usual, expert notes are contributed by Rob Bowman, and Joe Tarantino’s remastering is crisp. The only disappointment is the dearth of bonus material. Just two additional tracks appear, both from a 1965 performance at Los Angeles’ 5/4 Ballroom, with Duck Dunn having replaced Steinberg. Four M.G.s tracks were performed that night as the Stax Revue’s opening salvo and issued on the album Funky Broadway: Stax Revue Live at the 5/4 Ballroom. Two are repeated here, both (of course) from Green Onions, and they certainly leave you wanting more! Live performances afforded Jones, Cropper, Dunn and Jackson a chance to flex their muscles, and they didn’t disappoint. In the extended live version of “I Can’t Sit Down”, Duck Dunn takes a rare bass solo, and the group is joined by the great Charles “Packy” Axton on saxophone. For the live “Green Onions,” the tempo is faster, and the attitude more ferocious, with a note of menace. Despite having been recorded in concert, though, it bizarrely fades rather than coming to a conclusion!
One of the greatest pleasures of the remastered Green Onions is that it marks a turning point in the Stax Remasters series. The album is still controlled by Atlantic Records’ successor, Warner Music Group, as a distribution deal resulted in all of Stax’s pre-May 1968 recordings being owned by Atlantic. Hopefully more Atlantic-controlled titles will continue to appear on Stax proper as part of this series, with the Stax logo restored to a prominent position on the cover, as was done here. A cool classic of the southern soul genre, Booker T. & the M.G.s’ Green Onions has hardly aged a day since 1962. If this album isn’t already part of your collection, the time is right to swagger on over and clear a spot on the shelf. It’s always time for mo’ Onions.
You can order the 50th anniversary Green Onions here!