Booker T and the MGs | Green Onions (October 1962)
Soul Jazz / Rhythm and Blues / Proto-funk / Electric Blues / Instrumental Rock – 34:55
“What a good session musician does is listen to the song, to the artist, and to the other players… It’s never about you stepping out and showing you can play something fancy.”
There are numerous unsung heroes in the world of entertainment, but are there any as forgotten as the session musician? It is easy to talk about the work of great artistes such as Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Isaac Hayes or Bill Withers, all of whom are talented singers who rightly stand tall among the legends of the music industry. But without a backing band, these men and women are nothing; it is the instrumentation behind the words which can help lift the songs to another level. Many of the studios of the 1960s and 1970s had their own house bands to help bring tracks to life. They proved to be the starting ground for musicians who would go on to show their skill in their own way – from John Paul Jones and Jimmy Page to Rick Wakeman. Perhaps the most famous, in terms of success outside of the recording studio is Toto. But were any able to hold a torch to perhaps the greatest – Stax Records’ own Booker T and the MGs?
At the turn of the 1960s, the band consisted of Booker T Jones on organ, Steve Cropper on guitar, Lewie Steinberg on bass and Al Jackson Jr on drums. The story of how the went from backing to front is one of pure chance. While taking a breather from recording the music for rockabilly star Billy Lee Riley, the group began to jam together. It is amazing to think that such a group of young musicians could click so quickly – Al Jackson was on his first session for Stax while the group’s erstwhile leader, Booker T, was just 17-years-old. But whatever was coming out of the speakers in the recording studio certainly sounded good to the studio’s president, Jim Stewart, who quickly pressed the record button. After a little urging, the band recorded a second song and, with Stewart’s backing, agreed to release it. Despite having no name (and a small dispute over which of the two tracks should be the A side), the band suddenly found themselves in demand after the single – Green Onions – proved to be a million seller.
Very few session musicians get away with recording their own album, let alone see it become a hit. Even some of the greatest never achieve it – organist Billy Preston was regarded by the end of the 1960s as an unofficial member of The Beatles, but could never match their success elsewhere (although, to be fair, who could?). So for a group of unknowns, who when their first single was released didn’t even have a name, to become so successful suggests there must have been something more to them. True, all session musicians need to be sympathetic to what those around them are doing, so as not to distract from the stars of the recordings. But there was clearly something more for Booker T and the rest of the group for them to achieve such success.
Listening to Green Onions, it isn’t hard to hear why. The title track kicks things off with an instantly recognisable beat (thanks to Quentin Tarantino including it in his first movie, Reservoir Dogs), with the bass and guitar complementing the sound of Booker T’s organ to perfection. You can hear the tightness of the band, effortlessly cool as they work their way through the track. It is something rather special, even more than 50 years later, an indication of how talented they were as musicians. Admittedly, it is unlikely you get to back some of the great names of early soul without having some ability, but this album is an excuse for them to show what they can do. However Rinky Dink, while just as fun, begins to reveal the failings of the album. While the tune itself isn’t bad, the over-emphasis on the organ makes it sound incredibly dated. It is a problem which a number of the tracks reveal (some worst than others). I’m not sure what it is that causes it – Jimmy Smith’s whole album, released a year or so earlier, clearly featured the organ heavily, yet that one retained a sense of modernity to it, even after five decades.
Perhaps this is an unfair assessment. After all, the musicianship cannot be faulted. Take a listen to the drumming on the start of the group’s version of I’ve Got a Woman (many of the tracks are cover versions of existing songs, with just a couple being original compositions); the sound is incredible. Indeed, the organ once again works well here, creating a feel of a jam to it as it progresses to a fantastic guitar solo. Throughout, the instrumentation is faultless. Mo’ Onions is a fun track, if a little pointless so soon in the album; I have no problem with reprises, but this is only a couple of tracks after the opening number and is so similar that it makes you wonder if the record has jumped back to the beginning. The song is so good, however, that it is easy to forgive them returning to it so soon. Twist and Shout, another fun number, will always suffer comparisons with the later version released by The Beatles and, as such, becomes an easy one to skip over. Behave Yourself slows things down; it is interesting to hear such a slow number as this after the faster numbers, particularly as this was the one which Stewart had first recorded during their jam session. It seems odd that he would want this track to be the A side; it clearly is the weaker, when compared to Green Onions.
Some albums have aged better than others and, sadly, this is one which does show its age. That is not to detract from the talent of the musicians, playing tightly together, and there aren’t any numbers which deserve skipping. Instead, this is a great album which will still appeal to the cool cats. It may sound like it was recorded in the early 1960s, but that is no bad thing. While there is nothing here which pulls it to the level of genius, it is one that is well worth a listen.
If you have a Spotify account, you can listen to Green Onions here:
Next time: Jazz Samba by Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd