'Green Onions' -- The Greatest Single of All Time

by Michael Brett

6 August 2009

Booker T. & the MGs found themselves together, in a city of segregation, in a time of severe racial tension, and recorded a progressive, utopian party song.
 

“So, Jake, you’re out, you’re free, you’re rehabilitated. What’s next? What’s happenin’? What you gonna do? You got the money you owe us, motherfucker?”—Willie ‘Too Big’ Hall, The Blues Brothers

Do you not get it, lads? The Irish are the blacks of Europe. And Dubliners are the blacks of Ireland. And the Northside Dubliners are the blacks of Dublin. So say it once, say it loud: I’m black and I’m proud.—Jimmy Rabbitte, The Commitments

I’m from the South Side of Chicago. The Mason-Dixon line makes a dramatic run north of here. I grew up about five miles from some of the worst ghettos in America, but it may have well been on another planet for as much as it affected me or my peers. Race motivated families to move to Evergreen Park, Oak Lawn and Mount Greenwood. These were “safe havens”—places you could raise a white family without worrying about a black family moving in down the block.

The sanctioned segregation of the South Side took root under the first Mayor Daley. He split the South Side in half with the Dan Ryan Expressway and built the wall of public housing towers, which would later give Chicago an international black eye. Blacks lived on the east side of the Ryan, whites on the west. History judges these moves as examples of Daley’s racism. The man was no saint, but his moves were based on politics, not race. Whites were Daley’s base, and he needed to keep them in the city.

By 1965, Daley’s official policies and the white establishment’s unofficial policies drew Dr. King’s attention to Chicago. Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) wanted to use Chicago and Daley as an example of the kind of institutional racism prevalent throughout the urban north.

King moved into a slum on the West Side, and the SCLC organized with other local civil rights organizations to hold a series of marches into predominantly white neighborhoods. White residents greeted a Dr. King march through Marquette Park on the South Side with a torrent of bottles, bricks and stones—one of which hit King. These experiences would lead King later to claim he never faced a more virulent form of racism anywhere than in Chicago. This coming from a man accustomed to the Southern racism of attack dogs and power hoses. Such was the place where I grew up.

My father owns a small business in the Marquette Park area. From an early age, I followed him to accounts in neighborhoods that recently suffered white flight. I learned early on to respect these black and Hispanic owners of small businesses as I would my white elders. These same lessons were also learned at home. Instead of learning to fear blacks, I became fascinated with their culture. I read biographies of Dr. King, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and the works of Richard Wright and James Baldwin. I tuned into the urban and college stations that played hip-hop and studied the lyrics of Chuck D.

At 14, my brother gave me a pile of CDs. Amongst these were albums by the Neville Brothers, The Band,  the Rolling Stones, and Booker T. & the MGs. My life changed. Born a music nut, I now began to connect the dots of America’s recent history with its pop music. I fell in love with the romantic early days of rock, when whites and blacks listened to the same music. With Exile on Main Street  as my guide, I pointed my time machine toward the past. And I discovered the wonder of Memphis, Tennessee.

In the 1950s, Memphis was as segregated as any city in the country. But even the most strict societal restrictions could not prevent the commingling of cultures. Memphis was the home of WDIA, the first ‘race’ radio station in the country. WDIA employed black DJs, including B.B. King and Rufus Thomas.

WDIA screamed like a siren down the Mississippi Delta, letting black musicians know not only that here was a outlet for them, but also that their peers were making money at this up North. WDIA exposed white audiences to rhythm & blues. These ‘country’ whites began to frequent black West Memphis nightclubs like the Plantation Inn.

At these clubs, racial barriers fell away and an understanding grew. Racism leaves only victims, and over this both the white and black musician could bond. This mix of country and R & B would make Memphis and, in particular, two new record labels, the petri dish for new musical strains.

Sam Phillips opened Sun Records in Memphis in 1952. Phillips quickly gained credibility amongst Memphis musicians as an open-minded white who fostered new talent. This reputation led an 18-year-old from nearby Tupelo into Sun’s studio to record a demo. That teenager was Elvis Presley, and the rest is rock ‘n’ roll history.

The other label issued its first singles in 1959, and in 1960 bought a rickety old theater in the black part of Memphis. The label changed its name to Stax Records, a combination of the last names of the white brother and sister owners (Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton). Unbeknownst to those two, they placed their new offices on a goldmine of local talent. Stax would be where the sound of soul music as we know it was created. The architects of that sound was an instrumental group named Booker T. & the MGs. And in 1962, they would release the greatest single of all time.

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