The Concord Music Group is launching the Stax Remasters Series. It will consist of individual albums originally issued by Stax Records, which given the caliber of the artists who recorded for the label and the quality of their work, should make for an excellent set of releases. The first three artists to appear are The Staple Singers, Johnnie Taylor, and the subject of this review, Booker T. & The MG’s.
Booker T. & The MG’s was formed during the early 1960’s by members of the Stax house band. Keyboardist Booker T. Jones, bassist Lewie Steinberg, who was quickly replaced by Donald “Duck” Dunn, drummer Al Jackson, and guitarist Steve Cropper, would back such artists as Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Rufus Thomas, Johnnie Taylor, Albert King, The Staple Singers, plus dozens more.
In between backing gigs, they began recording together. Their first hit was 1962’s “Green Onions,” which topped the American R&B charts and reached number three on the pop charts. Seventeen more chart singles followed as would millions of albums sold.
The Beatles released Abbey Road October 1, 1969 in the United States. Booker T. Jones bought the album shortly afterward and decided to issue a soulful and instrumental interpretation of the music. He immediately had Jackson and Dunn lay down the rhythm tracks with Cropper adding his guitar parts a couple of weeks later. McLemore Avenue was released during January of 1970 and remains one of the more creative, excellent, and fascinating interpretations of Beatles music ever released. The title comes from the street where the Stax label was located.
The original album consisted of three extended medleys and one stand-alone song. “Something” was the only individual track and was released as the album’s only single. It begins traditionally but then goes off in a soulful, improvisational direction.
The first medley clocks in at close to 16 minutes, combining most of Abbey Road’s best known tracks, “Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End/Here Comes the Sun/Come Together” into one long, meandering and funky ode to The Beatles. While Booker’s keyboards are the dominant instruments, Cropper’s guitar work on “The End” and “Come Together” is pure Memphis R&B and gives the songs a very different flavor from their British rock origins, as he bends the notes far differently than did George Harrison on the originals.
Side two of the original vinyl release began with the seven-minute fusion of “Because” and “You Never Give Me Your Money.” This is my least favorite of the four tracks, probably because it is the least creative. Jones’ organ is somewhat overbearing and takes the overall sound a little too close to being easy listening.
Most interesting of all is the 10-minute union of “Sun King/Mean Mr. Mustard/Polythene Pam/She Came In Through The Bathroom Window/I Want You (She’s So Heavy).” The connectors that fuse the songs together are short, brilliant bursts of energy by Cropper and Jones, proving that which is brief can also be highly creative.
If you are keeping track, four songs — “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” “Octopus’s Garden,” “Oh! Darling,” and “Her Majesty” — are not covered.
The CD comes with requisite bonus tracks, which are all Beatles covers taken from different periods of Booker T. & The MG’s career. “Day Tripper,” “Michelle,” “Eleanor Rigby,” “Lady Madonna,” and two versions of “You Can’t Do That” complete the band’s Beatles catalogue.
The sound is clear as the music has undergone 24-bit remastering. The liner notes are excellent as they provide a nice history of the music and recording process.
McLemore Avenue is a soulful delight and an essential listening experience, as it takes the music of The Beatles in a unique direction. Best of all, as an instrumental album, the music stands on its own, even though it has been moved from its original form. This CD is a worthwhile addition to any music collection.