Here’s a clip of one of the most important groups in music history with the one of the greatest instrumental tracks of our time; Booker T. & the MGs with their signature hit “Green Onions”. The clip shows the classic line-up of the band, with Booker T. Jones on organ, Donald “Duck” Dunn on bass, Steve Cropper on guitar, and Al Jackson, Jr. on drums.
“Green Onions” is probably their most recognized piece, a tune which would appear in several instances of pop culture, as well as being a huge hit for the group who released it in 1962. It made number one on the R&B charts, and crossed over to the pop charts too, reaching number three. The song is somewhat related to Ray Charles “What’d I Say” which is certainly an inspiration to its structure, yet is something special on its own. Listen to that organ riff – where the hell did it come from? And Steve Cropper’s guitar – just a series of razor-sharp stabs that serve as a call-and-response to it. This is not to mention the steady, relentless rhythm section that pushes the whole thing along.
The group would gel to an unbelievable degree when “Duck” Dunn joined the band in 1965, after original bassist Lewie Steinberg left. At this point, the group began a golden age in soul music, along with producer Chips Moman, and writers Isaac Hayes and David Porter, all under the watchful eye of Stax owner Jim Stewart. Due to how often they played and recorded together as a house band, while also releasing their own records, they became one of the most imitated bands of the era – everyone wanted to nail down their sound.
In addition to soul bands like the Bar-Keys and the Mar-Keys in the States, Booker T. and the MGs also had an effect on mod groups in Britain, like the Who, a group who also traded on soul music as a part of their musical engine. Take a listen to their early instrumental The Ox (so named after bassist John Entwistle), which is a clear tip of the hat to the Memphis group. The two bands would share a stage in 1967, when Booker T. & the MGs played the Monterey Pop Festival as Otis Redding’s back-up band. It was at this time that the imaginary barriers between soul music and rock music were revealed to be just that – imaginary. Further, the group’s last album on the Stax label “Melting Pot” was something of a block party favourite, later to be sampled by early hip-hop pioneers.
Yet by the early 70s, all was not well at Stax, and as a result Jones and Cropper left, leaving Dunn and Jackson behind as sessioners for the remaining years the label had. Although the group would reunite a few times, their run was over. A big comeback which was planned in the mid-70s was cancelled when drummer Al Jackson was murdered during a home invasion.
At the end of the 70s, Cropper and Dunn would play with Dan Ackroyd and John Belushi in the Blues Brothers both on record and on film, Levon Helm‘s RCO All-stars album, and with Booker T. Jones on Neil Young’s 2002 album Are You Passionate?, which featured the band as Young’s backing group on all of the songs. Jones would continue to be a sought-after session musician, and would reunite with his bandmates a number of times over the decades with a number of well-respected drummers in Jackson’s seat, including Willie Hall, Steve Jordan, and Steve Potts.
But, they never bettered “Green Onions”. Everytime I hear it, I get something new. And it never fails to excite me, to make me want to move. Even now, the groove they created has potency.
For more information on Booker T. & The MGs, I suggest you check out my fellow music geek, and a former professor of mine from my York University days, Rob Bowman and his book Soulsville U.S.A.: The Story Of Stax Records. It is the definitive work on the subject, and is written by a Canadian, eh.