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

by Michael Brett

6 August 2009


The Sound of What an Integrated, Groovy America Could Be

The Sound of What an Integrated, Groovy America Could Be

Chicago nearly dissolved with the election of its first black mayor.Ten months ago, America elected a black South Side Sox fan as President.My Chicago is still both of these cities. I can choose to ignore it. I can choose to change it. With the help of this song, I choose to celebrate it.

Stewart built his first studio in his wife’s uncle’s garage in 1957. His first singles on his Satellite Records flopped. The rickety studio did attract the attention of a 21-year-old guitar player named Chips Moman. Moman graced Stewart’s hobby with an air of professionalism and music biz experience.

When Axton came in, her brother moved the studio to an empty storehouse in Brunswick, 30 miles east of Memphis. The new studio became the hangout of Axton’s son’s band, the Royal Spades. The Royal Spades were made up of local white Mesick High School students, including guitarist Steve Cropper and bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn. Every Saturday, the Royal Spades would practice, with Moman giving Stewart and Axton a crash course in recording.

None of them knew exactly what they wanted to record. Then Ray Charles’ ‘What’d I Say’ came along, and they found their sound. Stax would be an R & B label.

Moman found the old theater, and he, Stewart and Axton began building a professional studio. They took out half the seats. Axton sewed drapes to help with acoustics. They wired the board into the huge speakers surrounding the theater. They built a make-shift partition and opened a record shop on the other side.

The Stax Record Store brought in the local black kids. Some of these kids could play a little, and the big sound coming from the theater intrigued them. Soon enough these local kids were coming inside the theater to play with the white kids.

On Satellite Records’ Rufus & Carla single, ‘Cause I Love You’, Cropper played guitar for the first time on record with a young baritone sax player from local Booker T. Washington High School named Booker T. Jones. The record sold well enough to earn the attention of Jerry Wexler and Atlantic Records, which began the distribution relationship that would both make and break Stewart’s Stax Records.

The Royal Spades, meanwhile, changed into the Mar-Keys. The band would have the renamed Stax Records’ first hit with the instrumental ‘Last Night’. The white Mar-Keys toured the chitlin circuit, and brought the Stax color-blind ethos all over the South. Whenever they stepped out to play a black club, the club owner would ask, as if on cue, where the real Mar-Keys were. Without even trying, Stax Records became an agent of change.

During the Mar-Keys tour, Cropper began to butt heads with Axton’s son and the band’s tenor sax player, Packy. After a show in Louisiana, Cropper quit the band and returned to Memphis. He took up running the record store with Axton on the road. In Cropper’s spare time, he went into the studio with Moman and Stewart to learn everything he could about producing.

Jones, a senior in high school now, was a regular musician at Stax. He brought in Al Jackson, Jr. to play drums on one session, and Jackson never left. Finally, Duck Dunn came back into the fold after the Mar-Keys’ dates petered out, and he would sit in whenever regular bassist Lewis Steinberg was tied up.

In 1962, this group was together to record a session with an ex-Sun Records artist who never showed up. Not wanting to waste precious recording time, Stewart ran tape while the musicians jammed through a blues number. Stewart asked them if they had anything for the B side. Cropper and Jones had a riff called ‘Green Onions’. Cut in an hour, Stax promoted the new Booker T. & the MGs (the name of Moman’s latest ride) single, the blues number ‘Behave Yourself’.

DJs, upon receiving the record, soon flipped to the B side, ‘Green Onions’. It went to #3 on the pop charts and #1 on the soul charts for four weeks. It set the mold for Southern soul music, which for the rest of the ‘60s would battle Motown for pop chart dominance. And more importantly, it was the sound of what an integrated, groovy America could be—a dream never realized again.

The most overrated aspect of pop music is lyrics. If you made a collection of the greatest pop song lyrics and pitched them as a poetry collection to any non-vanity press, you would find yourself with a great big pile of rejection letters. We have Bob Dylan to thank for this intense scholarly examination of pop lyrics. Never has more ink been spilled in the search of genius than in this vain pursuit. Even the average American high school graduate can rhyme ‘understand’ with ‘hand’.

So before you start your comment on how ‘Green Onions’ should be classified as Best Instrumental, stop. I know it has no words. Words would only screw it up.

To understand the miracle of ‘Green Onions’ I urge you to listen to some of the pop instrumentals that preceded it. Take a listen to the Mar-Key’s hit spoken of earlier. ‘Last Night’ is a one-note joke. A listenable one, at that, but still a one-note joke. Half of the instrumentals of this period were, like ‘Last Night’, basically novelty records. The other half, like ‘Peter Gunn Theme’, were either real theme music or pseudo-theme music—what a white media exec thought ‘hep cats’ got down to.

‘Green Onions’ sounds like neither of these. If anything, it still sounds as amazingly fresh now as when I first heard it on oldies radio as a kid. The song begins with Jones’ organ dancing around the steady, in-the-pocket beats of Al’s cymbal. Cropper’s riff enters with the hi-hat and snare, and now we’re off. The organ break brings in that tyrannosaurus bass-line. With such a rock-hard rhythmic foundation, Jones works out that opening phrase. Then he gives Cropper the little intro again, and he’s back!

Cropper’s 40-second guitar solo here may just be as influential as any Hendrix solo five years later. Every single garage band in the United States learned ‘Green Onions’, and their guitarists needed to learn this solo. It was their master class. Back to Jones’s organ workout. Then a Cropper curtain call. And then…Wait, the 45s done? No way! I want more!

Jones and Jackson both played in a big band at the Plantation Inn, so they were well aware of the soul jazz movement. Combine this with Cropper’s proto-hard rock, slashing guitar part, and Lewis Steinberg’s (eventually Duck Dunn’s) proto-heavy metal bass, and you have a nuclear groove that won’t quit. It will just keep feeding off itself. One incredibly talented white musician joining forces with three incredibly talented black musicians to make titanic, timeless, joyful noise.

‘Green Onions’ is the sound the Who were aiming for when they sold themselves as “Maximum R&B”. It is a sound that the Beatles would only approach in Abbey Road. It is the sound of every toga party, every high school dance in the ‘60s. When I describe musicians as ‘tight’, my example will always be Booker T. & the MGs. And the miracle is that all four of them found themselves together, in a city of segregation, in a time of severe racial tension, and recorded such a progressive, utopian party song.

The good times did not last long. Moman left Stax over a financial dispute in the wake of ‘Green Onions’, which Stewart produced. Moman would record the Box Tops, B.J. Thomas and Elvis later in the decade. Stax would go on to immense success with Otis Redding, eventually landing on the stage of the white Newport Pop Festival. Unfortunately, Stewart’s misunderstanding of the distribution deal with Atlantic Records and Redding’s death would leave the label in tatters by by the end of1967. Cropper and Jones left the label in 1968.

As for pop music, it was never this color blind again. The British Invasion would see the work of black R & B artists strip-mined by for hits by competing white publishing companies. Blacks and whites would never again work as such equal collaborators as Stax did for ‘Green Onions’. As Stewart and Axton earned more money, the black artists began to resent them.

Aretha Franklin would take this Memphis sound to New York for a string of hits on Atlantic, but certainly Franklin and Jerry Wexler never looked at anyone in that studio as equals. James Brown would break bread with Richard Nixon. By the mid-‘70s, the pop and R & B charts were as segregated as they were during the ‘50s. In my lifetime, only rare artists, like Michael Jackson and Prince, have crossed the racial divide. And most recently, it is only the rare song, like Outkast’s ‘Hey Ya’.

The majority of young whites today listen to vanilla country, indie or adult contemporary; music which never acknowledges the blues. The majority of young blacks listen to a profane form of hip-hop almost designed to exclude whites.

My romantic dream, if it ever existed, now appears laughably far-fetched.

So why soul music?

Because Jones and Cropper were Southerners. Everywhere they went, they dealt with the Southern stereotypes. They knew the reality of their world. And they celebrated it. That is why soul music hits me in the gut. That is why it is my favorite genre. It is celebration music produced by the maligned.

When I reached Loyola University, I first understood the prejudices people held against the South Side. I answered questions like, “Do you own a gun?”, “Doesn’t everyone hate blacks there?”,  and endless questions about gangs. People on both sides of town thought that the city ended at Madison Avenue. The South Siders asked me if I was a North Sider, now.

Pleasing neither side, I just gave up.

Growing up, we are taught that America is a melting pot. When you get older, you see through those lies. America is a funky stew, with every flavor trying to drown the others out. Your tolerance is somebody else’s lip service. These differences are what make American culture so vibrant. Great music, great art, great writing is made by those on the fringe—most of the time, aiming for the middle.

American miracles did not end with Booker T. & the MGs. Ten months ago, America elected a black South Side Sox fan as President—something I never would have dreamed possible. Only 26 years earlier, the election of a black mayor almost resulted in the dissolution of the Chicago City Council. My Chicago is both of these still. I can choose to ignore it. I can choose to change it.

With the help of this song, I choose to celebrate it.

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