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‘Green Onions’: Behind Booker T And The MGs’ Sizzling Soul Stew
In Depth

‘Green Onions’: Behind Booker T And The MGs’ Sizzling Soul Stew

Establishing the Stax Records’ sound, Booker T And The MGs’ debut album, ‘Green Onions’, remains a totemic release in soul and R&B music.

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In the autumn of 1962, the distinctive sound of Stax Records reached the wider world thanks to Green Onions, the electrifying debut album by Booker T And The MGs. A young rhythm’n’blues combo from Memphis, Tennessee, the group was led by a 17-year-old organist called Booker T Jones and broke new ground in the US because their line-up contained both Black and white musicians, a development that was then deemed controversial. But not only did Booker T And The MGs offer a model of inclusivity and harmonious racial integration at a time when North America was being torn apart by ethnic divisions, they also helped establish the reputation of a white-owned independent record company that became renowned for mostly recording Black soul musicians.

Green Onions was the first album released by Stax, the label founded a year earlier by siblings Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton. Distinctly urban in its blend of grit and polish, the record heralded an exciting new sound that drew on the deep emotional well that was at the heart of both the blues and soul-music idioms. Rush-released after the success of The MGs’ high-flying debut single, the catchy instrumental Green Onions – which spent a month at the top of the US R&B chart in August 1962 – the parent album helped to establish the instantly recognisable and highly influential Stax sound. Here’s the story of how Green Onions changed the world…

Listen to the ‘Green Onions’ album here.

The backstory: “This is the best damn instrumental I’ve heard”

Booker T Jones was a precociously talented multi-instrumentalist who played the saxophone, oboe, trombone and double bass, as well as keyboards. He began doing sessions for a local Memphis label called Satellite, in 1960, when he was 16 and still in high school, playing baritone sax on Carla and Rufus Thomas’ single Cause I Love You. After that, he was regularly called in for recording sessions at Satellite, which changed its name to Stax Records in 1961.

One Sunday in the spring of 1962, Jones was summoned for a Stax session intended for rockabilly singer Billy Lee Riley. Also in attendance were guitarist Steve Cropper, bassist Lewis Steinberg, and drummer Al Jackson, Jr. Riley didn’t show up, so the sessions hands killed time by jamming on a slow blues riff that caught the ear of producer Jim Stewart, who liked what he heard and began recording the track, later titled Behave Yourself. Stewart was so impressed that he vowed to release it as a single, and then asked the four musicians to come up with a B-side. Cropper remembered an organ riff that Jones had toyed with a few weeks previously and asked him to play it; the rest of the musicians dropped in and, after running through the tune a couple of times, went for a take. After the second go at it, they thought they had a usable track in the can.

The four young men were immediately excited by the quality of their spontaneous composition. “This is the best damn instrumental I’ve heard in I don’t know when,” declared Cropper, who promptly got a demonstration acetate record pressed up and took it to a DJ friend who had a radio show on Memphis’ popular WLOK station.

“He gave it a spin and said, ‘That’s pretty catchy!’” Jones recalled. “Then he played it again – but this time live on air. The phones lit up. Everyone wanted to know what this record was and where they could get it.”

Bassist Lewis “Lewie” Steinberg gave the tune the title Funky Onions, but Estelle Axton, thought “funky” sounded like a cuss word, so the as-yet-unnamed band settled on Green Onions. With its catchy organ hook, bluesy guitar licks and mesmerising dancefloor groove, the tune was promoted to the A-side of their first single, with the slower Behave Yourself relegated to the flip.

The four musicians, who quickly morphed from session musicians into a bona fide band, still needed a group name to identify themselves, and chose Booker T And The MGs. Apparently, the “MGs” part of the band’s name was inspired by an MG sports car owned by an employee at Stax, but after the British company’s lawyers got in touch claiming possible copyright infringement, the group changed tack, saying that MG stood for “Memphis Group”.

The recording: “They must have cursed me”

Green Onions was quickly pressed up as a single to capitalise on the enthusiastic response from local radio play. The tune’s infectious organ riff soon got listeners hooked, and copies of the disc began flying out of the record stores. If the label and band were only anticipating a local hit, they were soon proved wrong when the record entered the national charts and started climbing both the US R&B and pop bestsellers lists. (The Green Onions single would eventually top the R&B chart and peak at No.3 on Billboard’s Hot 100, becoming a million-seller in the process.)

Buoyed by Green Onions’ popularity, Stax demanded an album and brought Booker T And The MGs back to the studio to fulfil the request. But there was tension in the air. “I felt a hint of resentment,” disclosed Jones, who admitted he came back to the studio reluctantly. “The Green Onions album was recorded… with a contentious feeling between me and everyone else.”

Jones had left town just after the single was released, to study for a music degree at college in Bloomington, Indiana, and was so determined to succeed in the academic world that he didn’t want the distraction or hindrance of being on the road or in the studio, even if he did have a No.1 record to promote. But he agreed to return to Memphis every Sunday to complete the album, driving 400 miles for the session and then returning straight back to college. “They must have cursed me,” Jones said of his bandmates, but was adamant he wanted to continue studying. “I didn’t quit school. My ears were burning but I knew I needed the training.”

The tight turnover also proved problematic because, as a recently formed group, Booker T And The MGs lacked original material. They found time to jam a sequel to Green Onions, a close stylistic cousin called Mo’ Onions, but to flesh out the remainder of the album they turned to cover versions of recent R&B and pop hits. Among the songs they tackled was Dave “Baby” Cortez’s Rinky Dink, Ray Charles’ 50s gospel-soul stomper I Got A Woman, and The Top Notes’ Twist And Shout (shortly afterward made famous by The Isley Brothers and then The Beatles). They also put a Memphis spin on hits by Mary Wells, The Bim Bam Boos, Jackie Wilson and Dave Bailey. A surprising addition to the album was the band’s take on British jazz clarinettist Acker Bilk’s No.1 US pop hit, the wistful ballad Stranger On The Shore. “That was just a favourite of mine personally,” Jones once said. “My first instrument was clarinet, which I started in fourth grade, and played all through junior high school. It led to me playing saxophone, which is how I got into Stax in the first place.”

The release: Satiating an appetite for authentic soul and R&B music

Despite Booker T Jones’ reservations, Green Onions was served up to the US public in October 1962, just at the point when its title track was peaking in the Hot 100. But in an early-60s market driven by singles sales rather than albums, Green Onions didn’t have quite the same success in the US. Across the Atlantic, however, where the appetite for authentic soul and R&B music had always been strong, the album made a big impression. Released in the UK via the London imprint, it and peaked at No.11 during a four-week run.

The influence: “I was a big Booker T fan. I had the ‘Green Onions’ album”

As soon as the Green Onions single lit up the charts, covers of the tune began to appear; a note-for-note version by the US-based Dave Grundy Combo was the first, followed by orchestral versions (Henry Mancini), Caribbean iterations (Byron Lee And The Dragonaires), Latin revamps (Mongo Santamaria) and even big-band jazz arrangements (Count Basie).

Booker T And The MGs were a big influence on the burgeoning mod scene in the UK, resulting in covers of Green Onions by icons such as George Fame and The Brian Auger Trinity. Also in the UK, future Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour had taken a liking to the Memphis band, later confessing that Green Onions had partly inspired the complex time signature that underpinned the group’s first US hit single, Money, from their 1973 album, The Dark Side Of The Moon. “I was a big Booker T fan,” Gilmour said. “I had the Green Onions album when I was a teenager.” British rockers The Who were also fans of the group, and used Green Onions in the soundtrack to their movie Quadrophenia; it resulted in a Green Onions revival, with the record peaking at No.7 in the UK singles chart in 1979.

The artwork: “He saw a bin of green onions and shot it. And that’s the album cover”

Curiously, no picture of Booker T And The MGs appeared on the Green Onions album cover – a conscious omission on the part of the label, who were keen to not cause controversy in the US South, which, in 1962, was still in the ugly grip of racial segregation. “They didn’t want people to know it was a mixed-race group,” explained the band’s guitarist, Steve Cropper.

Instead, Stax’s art department brought in Haig Adishian, a prolific in-house designer at the label’s distributor, Atlantic Records, to create an artwork. Adishian hired the noted Belgian photographer Irving Schild, who, three years later, would begin a long association with Mad magazine, to take the cover picture. Remembered Cropper: “Atlantic’s art department didn’t have a picture of green onions, so they sent a photographer down to the sidewalks of New York to one of those outdoor grocery stores. He saw a bin of green onions and shot it. And that’s the album cover.”

The legacy: “Green Onions was the first record that really had the Stax sound”

The Green Onions single and the formation of Booker T And The MGs were two moments of serendipity, but they were also crucial in putting Stax Records on the map. It was as if the Memphis rhythm’n’blues scene had been crystallised in one identity-defining record. “Green Onions was the first record that really had the Stax sound,” stated Booker T Jones, who, together with his group, would be instrumental in the label’s rapid growth: as the 60s progressed, Stax would blossom into a potent musical and cultural force (nicknamed “Soulsville”, in response to Motown’s “Hitsville” tag), as well as an iconic brand that grew to become as crucial as Berry Gordy’s Detroit label in popularising 60s and 70s Black music.

Both the single and album became a stylistic blueprint for Stax, and, consequently, Booker T And The MGs rarely left the label’s Memphis studio, becoming the company’s house band and appearing on records by some of the best soul singers of all time, among them Otis Redding, Carla Thomas, Albert King and Sam And Dave.

Inducted into the Grammy Hall Of Fame in 1999 and named by Rolling Stone magazine as one of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time in 2004, Green Onions was also sampled by German duo Dance 2 Trance on their 1995 track Purple Onions, and by reggae star Maxi Priest a year later, on the song That Girl, featuring Shaggy.

In 2011, the historical and cultural importance of Booker T And The MGs’ Green Onions album was underlined when its title track was added to the National Recording Registry, set up by the US Library Of Congress in 2000 as a platform to demonstrate “the range and diversity of American recorded sound heritage in order to increase preservation awareness”.

More than 60 years after its release, Green Onions’ place as a totemic album in the landscape of R&B and soul music is assured. It remains an abiding monument to aspirations of racial harmony as well as reflecting the enduring appeal and influence of US rhythm’n’blues music.

Buy ‘Green Onions’ on 60th-anniversay green vinyl at the Dig! store.

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