As the Stax Records house band, Booker T. & the M.G.s played on an absurd number of classic soul records, including releases by Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Sam & Dave, and The Staple Singers. On their own as an instrumental group, they were quite prolific throughout the ‘60s and into the early ‘70s. Concord Music Group, who now distributes the Stax catalog, has been remastering and reissuing their albums. In 2011 they offered an expanded version of the 1970 all-Beatles cover album McLemore Avenue. Now they’ve served up the group’s debut, Green Onions (1962), adding a pair of previously available live tracks.
The title track was, of course, a gigantic hit (number three on Billboard’s Hot 100 and number one on their R&B singles chart) that remains one of the most recognizable popular instrumentals ever recorded. Booker T. Jones and Steve Cropper casually riff on organ and guitar, respectively, over the tightly controlled rhythm section of Lewis Steinberg on bass and Al Jackson Jr. on drums. Steinberg was the band’s original bassist. By 1965, Donald “Duck” Dunn would take over, providing a melodically soulful bottom end for the band until his passing on May 13, 2012. Dunn is represented on the remastered Green Onions only on the two bonus live tracks, recorded in 1965 at the 5/4 Ballroom in Los Angeles. All the studio cuts feature Steinberg.
“Mo’ Onions” is the closest thing to a follow-up hit, a similar groove to “Green Onions” that squeaked into Billboard’s Hot 100, just barely. The only other group original here is the slow, achingly bluesy “Behave Yourself,” with Jones’ great stuttering organ lines. The Ray Charles songbook is plumbed via “I Got a Woman” and “Lonely Avenue” (actually written by Doc Pomus), the former taken at a considerably quicker tempo than Charles’ original. “Twist and Shout,” best known at the time as an Isley Brothers song (whose version preceded this by only a few months), is given a jaunty workout.
The two live tracks were originally available as part of Funky Broadway: Stax Revue Live at the 5/4 Ballroom. “Green Onions” is taken slightly faster than on the album, with more aggressive guitar work by Cropper. “Can’t Sit Down” (a hit, with lyrics, for The Dovells in 1963 but originally by Phil Upchurch as “You Can’t Sit Down”), is also more aggressive than its album counterpart. Unlike that version, Packy Axton steps up for a raw, bellowing saxophone solo.
In addition to Bob Altshuler’s original liner notes, the booklet includes a new essay by Rob Bowman, author of Soulsville U.S.A: The Story of Stax Records. It’s great to have this collection of short, punchy, R&B instrumentals sounding so good. Hopefully the Stax Remasters series continues to reissue the rest of the Booker T. & the M.G.s catalog.