As part of an ongoing series of Stax reissues, the Concord Music Group has put out a re-mastered version of Booker T. & The MG’s Green Onions, the debut album from the group that would go on to play a huge part in the sound of the Stax label—and southern soul more generally. The MG’s were an instrumental group made up of Booker T. Jones on organ (and other things), Steve Cropper on guitar, Al Jackson on drums and Lewis Steinberg on bass. The gang came together in the early 1960s, already steeped in Memphis music as veterans of numerous bands—even the youthful Booker T., who was still in high school when he started playing for Stax. The MG’s spent most of the ‘60s as the house band for Stax, writing and playing songs for the likes of Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, and Sam & Dave, and also recording several notable albums of their own.
Green Onions’ title track was apparently originally cut while the group was trying to record a B-side. Wisely, they chose it for the A-side instead. It was a big hit when it came out—#1 on the R&B charts, #3 on the pop charts – and it’s stayed in the public consciousness ever since. The song is the epitome of strutting cool, a gleaming ball of streamlined groove. It’s fueled by Booker’s organ and the rhythm section, and it emits rays of Steve Cropper’s guitar. They nailed this so nice they made it twice, putting together the track “Mo’ Onions,” which works over a similar pattern.
After this monster, the MG’s laid down a variety of instrumental covers, all of which are tight, many of which are up tempo and funky. They do Ray Charles’ “I Got a Woman” and “Lonely Avenue”, and ‘60s classics like “Twist And Shout” and “Stranger On The Shore”. They also cover “A Woman, A Lover, A Friend”, which Otis Redding later sang a version of on 1965’s The Great Otis Redding Sings Soul Ballads, backed by the MG’s (though their bassist had changed at that point, from Lewis Steinberg to the recently deceased Donald “Duck” Dunn).
The MG’s are always on, thanks in part to the cohesion and power of the Jackson-Steinberg rhythm section, but they sound particularly inspired on some songs. “Comin’ Home Baby” was first recorded as a jazz instrumental; Mel Torme added some vocals and recorded a hit version earlier in 1962. Torme sang the tune as a fast march, with the stomping rhythm providing him a way back to his baby. As is always the case on MG’s tracks, Booker’s organ fits easily into the melody in place of sung vocals, but his organ oozes cool, implying that Booker might be thinking about coming home, but he’s still playing hard to get. Torme is compelled to move, while Booker’s organ suggests that he doesn’t have to rush – and he’s enjoying the walk.
Another moment of brilliance comes during the blues of “Behave Yourself”, a slower number. In the opening section, Booker heaps up huge piles of organ notes with one hand while holding long chords with the other. Cropper waits a long time to chime in, perhaps because he was just watching Booker’s work with amazement and forgot to play. This is not to imply that Cropper is any slouch on the guitar – Cropper is one of the ultimate rhythm guitar players, and he can also lay down mean solos, like his work on “Can’t Sit Down.”
There are also two new live tracks appended to the original songs. They’re taken from an MG’s performance in Los Angeles in 1965, and the bass and guitar are especially revved up. For live Stax footage, interested fans should watch Redding’s performance in the film Monterey Pop, and track down the DVD Stax/Volt Revue Live In Norway 1967.
The reissue comes with liner notes from Rob Bowman, who has written a book on Stax, and often writes liner notes for Stax compilations. He earned a Grammy award for the notes he penned to accompany The Complete Stax/Volt Singles, Vol. 3. He talks about the beginnings of the MG’s, and the story behind their name. It’s a good story, but Booker T. & The MG’s never depended on words.