“Soul Dressing,” “Jelly Bread,” “Red Beans and Rice,” “My Sweet Potato,” “One Mint Julep,” and of course, “Green Onions” and “Mo’ Onions” – Edsel has served up a veritable feast with its recent reissues of the complete 1962-1968 recordings of Booker T. and the MG’s [sic] originally issued on the Stax label during its affiliation with Atlantic Records. The new reissues pair two albums per package: Green Onions and Soul Dressing plus bonus tracks on one CD; And Now and In the Christmas Spirit plus bonus tracks on two CDs; and Hip Hug-Her and Doin’ Our Thing plus bonus tracks on one CD.
Organist Booker T. Jones, guitarist Steve Cropper, drummer Al Jackson Jr. and bassist Lewis Steinberg were working as Stax Records’ house band when a casual jam at a recording session yielded the track “Behave Yourself,” deemed by Stax owner Jim Stewart to be good enough for release on its own. It might have proven a solid one-off single if not for the B-side, recorded later to provide “Behave Yourself” with a flip. That catchy, organ-driven blues was called “Green Onions,” and when an acetate of the two untitled songs by an unnamed group was delivered by Steve Cropper to a local DJ, radio listeners immediately took to it. Stewart released the pair of tracks by Booker T. and the MG’s on Stax’s Volt subsidiary, but greater things were destined for “Green Onions” and the group behind it. Jerry Wexler at the label’s distributor, Atlantic Records, caught wind of the track, and implored Stewart to reissue it as an A-side on the parent Stax label. The instrumental made it all the way to pole position on the R&B chart in mid-September 1962, and made an impressive No. 3 placement on the Billboard Hot 100. Cover versions followed by everyone from Henry Mancini to The Ventures, and it remains one of the most beloved songs to come out of the Stax hitmaking factory.
The Green Onions album followed in October as the debut long-player from Booker T. and the MG’s, and included “Green Onions” as well as “Behave Yourself.” The first album in the Edsel series, it set the tone for all of the group’s albums to come with its cool, hip instrumental sound and its blend of originals and pop covers (including hits by Ray Charles, Smokey Robinson and Bert Berns) all rendered in smoking Memphis style. Still, another Booker T. album didn’t follow for roughly two years. Green Onions is paired with the group’s sophomore LP, 1964’s Soul Dressing. By the time of its release, Steinberg had departed the band to be replaced by Donald “Duck” Dunn in late 1964, but the album featured Steinberg as it had been mostly culled from 45s released in the wake of “Green Onions.” The band wrote all but two tracks on Soul Dressing, including the “Onions”-influenced “Jelly Bread.” Both of the covers were choice, familiar tunes – the Willie Dixon blues “My Babe” and Don Covay’s “Mercy, Mercy.” Nothing on the album charted, however, perhaps because Billboard had temporarily ceased publication of the Soul Singles chart between November 30, 1963, and January 23, 1965. Edsel has added the non-LP singles “MG Party” (the flipside of “Soul Dressing”) and “Terrible Thing” (the flip of “Can’t Be Still”), both from 1964.
The second volume of Edsel’s series (the lone 2-CD package) presents two albums issued back-to-back within a week of each other in late 1966: And Now and In the Christmas Spirit. And Now introduced Donald “Duck” Dunn to the instrumental southern-soul mix, and he quickly proved himself more than up to the task of replacing Steinberg. Dunn’s more aggressive, deeply funky style on bass anchored the band’s sound, and he was no slouch in the composing department, either. His “Boot-Leg,” co-written with Charles “Packy” Axton, Wayne Jackson and Isaac Hayes became a R&B Top 10 hit (also going to the top 60 of the Pop survey), the band’s first hit in three years. (It’s included here among the four bonus tracks, all non-LP singles circa 1965-66.) Ironically, Booker T. Jones didn’t appear on the track; he was spelled by co-writer Isaac Hayes. “Boot-Leg” also introduced a fuller sound for the MG’s, with the addition of a three-person horn section. Other changes were in the air. The lead-off track on And Now, “My Sweet Potato,” had Booker T. on piano rather than organ; it became another hit (Top 20 R&B, Top 100 Pop). But despite the strength of the group’s self-written material, nine of the album’s twelve cuts were “covers,” including a “Green Onions”-ized version of Ray Charles’ “One Mint Julep,” a dark, appropriately bluesy and surprisingly lengthy take on the Gershwins and DuBose Heyward’s Porgy and Bess standard “Summertime,” and a revival of Wilson Pickett’s Stax-recorded hit “In the Midnight Hour.” Its co-writer Cropper, Dunn and Jackson all played on the original, giving them a chance to revisit their work and Jones a chance to make the “lead” his own. Clearly no song was out of the question for these versatile musicians; they even put a slow, moody R&B spin on Doris Day’s timeless “Sentimental Journey.”
In the Christmas Spirit, happily on its own CD (for those who will inevitably pull it out around the holiday season), is stylistically similar to And Now, as it was recorded around the same time. Sleigh bells add color to a jolly “Jingle Bells,” and “Winter Wonderland” positively grooves in its taut, funky arrangement. Cropper leads a slow-burning version of Charles Brown’s “Merry Christmas Baby” (which the group also cut in a different arrangement with Otis Redding), one of many clever re-castings of familiar holiday tunes on the 12-song set. The MG’s very nearly adhered to the tried-and-true formula of having secular songs on one side and spiritual or traditional tunes on the other; the album’s final four tracks (“Sweet Little Jesus Boy,” “Silent Night,” “We Three Kings/O Come All Ye Faithful,” and a sizzling “We Wish You a Merry Christmas/Auld Lang Syne”) are all classics with Booker T.’s organ emanating a churchy glow. In the U.K., this soulful holiday affair was released under the name of Soul Christmas; the alternate cover artwork is included in the booklet. Whatever the title, it remains an R&B holiday perennial.
The third and final offering from Edsel pairs 1967’s Hip Hug-Her and 1968’s Doin’ Our Thing. The title track of Hip Hug-Her transcended its punning title as one of the down-and-dirtiest grooves laid down by the quartet; the MG’s were rewarded with a Top 40 Pop hit that also went to No. 6 R&B, their biggest hit since “Green Onions.” A little more than half of the album’s tracks were dedicated to MG originals, including the slow-burning follow-up single “Slim Jenkins’ Place” (renamed from the album title of “Slim Jenkins’ Joint”) with Booker T. on piano and organ locked into a tight funk groove with Dunn, Jackson and the ever-searing Cropper. (Tony Rounce’s notes point out that the track was recorded not in Memphis, but in New York, which accounts for its unique feel.) The rhythmic “Carnaby Street” paid tribute to the hip London locale, likely inspired by the group’s trip to Europe with the Stax revue. The cover selections paid tribute to Motown (a slightly laconic take on The Temptations’ dynamic Smokey Robinson-penned hit “Get Ready”) and to Atlantic label mates The Young Rascals (a soft, Summer of Love-ready makeover of “Groovin'” which brought Booker and the MG’s another Top 10 R&B/Top 25 Pop hit). The cover of Bobby Hebb’s “Sunny” also contributed to the album’s upbeat, bright sound. The single edit of “Summertime” and the Isaac Hayes-written Christmas 45 “Winter Snow,” both dating to 1967, are included as bonus tracks.
By the time of the release of 1968’s Doin’ Our Thing, much had changed not only in the country, but at Stax. Otis Redding had tragically perished, along with his bandmates, in a December 1967 plane crash. Jim Stewart was determined to break Stax free from its deal with Atlantic Records. When he did, Atlantic took all of the company’s masters between 1960 and May 1968 as well as marquee act Sam and Dave. Stax would bounce back, actually with a Booker T. and the MG’s track: “Soul Limbo.” But before that, they recorded the 24th album under the Stax/Atlantic deal, Doin’ Our Thing; the first album had actually been Green Onions! Only three songs were band originals, including the title track, “I Can Dig It” and “Blue on Green.” The eclectic outside material pillaged the charts by way of Philadelphia, Detroit, Los Angeles and beyond with highlights including The Soul Survivors’ proto-Philly soul of “Expressway to Your Heart” written by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, The Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” The Association’s Addrisi Brothers-written hit ballad “Never My Love,” Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe,” Sonny and Cher’s “The Beat Goes On” and even Ernest Gold’s dramatic theme to “Exodus.” Though the group might have been lacking the inspiration to write new songs, there was no walking through these tunes, many of which feature impressive solos and an abundance of the deep feeling and funky swagger that was the MG’s stock in trade. Bo Diddley’s “You Don’t Love Me” even, briefly, features (anonymous) vocals – a first for a Booker T. and the MG’s album.
Edsel’s three releases are all housed in slipcases, and each features a thick full-color booklet of extensive new notes by R&B historian Tony Rounce that add up to a near-definitive chronicle of the group’s history. Rounce even brings the story of Booker T. and the MG’s up to the present. (The classic line-up recorded its last album in 1971; surviving members Jones, Cropper and Dunn reunited in 1977 and again in 1994 before Dunn’s untimely death in 2012. Jones and Cropper still play on.) The exemplary booklets also include credits, discography, memorabilia images and original liner notes. Phil Kinrade has remastered. This three-volume series is an affordable and comprehensive entrée to the group’s catalogue. It not only chronicles the early years of the group but also the golden age of Stax Records and Memphis soul. The “green onions” – and the rest of this instrumental R&B feast – taste as delicious as ever.
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