Sometimes perfection comes through painstaking labor and precise refinement. Sometimes it just spills out. In 1962, keyboardist Booker T. Jones was just a kid, a 17-year-old thinking about high school even as his music career began to move quickly. Guitarist Steve Cropper wasn’t much older, but the two found themselves playing in the Stax house band along with bassist Lewie Steinberg and drummer Al Jackson Jr. Fooling around in the studio with some free time, they ended up with one of pop’s most perfect instrumentals, a pivotal moment in Booker T. & the M.G.’s becoming one of the essential bands in soul music, and in the sound of pop in general. Their moment was no fluke, and as the newly reissued Green Onions shows, they had an unlimited reservoir of style, groove, and skill.
The song “Green Onions” remains the immortal part of the bunch, but “Behave Yourself” began the cascade. As Booker T. & the M.G.’s played around in the studio, Jim Stewart (producer and president of Stax) recorded the impromptu performance. He liked it enough to release it as a single, and it holds up well. The slow, blues-based number gives Booker T. a chance to wander. His Hammond M-3 organ (he wouldn’t use the famed B-3 for a few more years) still sounds timeless. “Behave Yourself” shows a tight band ready to play off each other – as when Cropper’s entrance switches the song around enough to send Jones in a new direction – but it didn’t announce what was about to come.
With “Behave Yourself” set as a potential single, Booker T. & the M.G.’s needed a B-side, and Jones and Cropper recovered a riff that Jones had recently been fiddling with. That riff, recalled to provide B-side material, quickly led to their definitive recording. “Green Onions” is just a 12-bar blues cut played in F, but Jones and Cropper take it to remarkable places. The organ alone provides all the necessary swing, but Cropper’s guitar hits come off the beat at the end of each measure, giving the track an irresistible groove. The song sounds at once slinky and dangerous, with Cropper providing a constant edge right through the fade out.
With those two songs in place (and “Green Onions” would become the A-side for the pair’s second release later that year), Booker T. & the M.G.’s had the start of an album. The group would only write one more original for it, the follow-up “Mo’ Onions”. Following the style of its predecessor, the cut barely broke into the top 100 when it was released a few years later, but it works better than an obvious cash-in should (see also Chubby Checker’s “Let’s Twist Again”).
The rest of the album comprises covers of recent hits. “I Got a Woman” remains the clear standout. The group keeps the groove but turns it into a rocker. Cropper gets his moment here, leading the song with energy and skill. When Booker T. & the M.G.’s later return to a Ray Charles number, they give “Lonely Avenue” plenty of atmosphere, holding back any flamboyant tendencies. “Twist and Shout” follows “I Got a Woman”. It starts a bit by the numbers, but the band – particularly Cropper – find ways to put their stamp on it.
“I Can’t Sit Down” makes an exciting moment, partly updating the Bim Bam Boos sound by dropping the saxophone. It sounds like a quintessential Booker T. & the M.G.’s moment even as it draws on tradition. The record closes with “Comin’ Home Baby”, most notable as a hit for Mel Tormé. The band runs it through the “Green Onions”, filter, slowing it into a late-night bit of suspense, bringing a Henry Mancini sort of feel into it even while taking away the bright polish of Tormé’s memorable performance.
The key to all of these covers, whether from expected or unexpected sources, lies in Booker T. & the M.G.’s ability to make them their own. If, in 1962, you wanted to know who Booker T. & the M.G.’s were, any performance from Green Onions would tell you. The title track remains the group’s pinnacle, but every cut they played on carried an inimitable feel. It’s now 60 years later, but if you don’t know who these fellows are, you can find out just as quickly from the same album.