Rockabilly singer Billy Lee Riley had booked some studio time and needed a backing band. Little did anyone realize at the time that those musicians would be inducted into The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame.
Organist Booker T. Jones, guitarist Steve Cropper, bassist Lewis Steinberg, (replaced by Donald “Duck” Dunn), and drummer Al Jackson Jr. were respected session musicians when they decided to jam with the leftover studio time from the Riley sessions. The result was “Behave Yourself,” which Stax label president Jim Stewart decided to release as a single. The only problem was that a B-side was needed and so one of the most recognizable instrumentals in rock history was born. “Green Onions” became a huge pop and rhythm & blues hit as Booker T. & The M.G.’s began their journey toward The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame.
Their debut album, named after their big hit, was released during October of 1962. It included both sides of their hit single, another original titled “Mo’ Onions” and nine covers. It remains a seminal instrumental release and a key issue in the brilliant Stax catalogue. It now returns as a part of the Stax Remasters series in a cleaned up form with 24-bit remastering, a nice booklet which presents a history of the band and album, plus two live bonus tracks.
The three original tracks are the highlights of the album as they are a fusion of funk and blues. Steve Cropper’s riff on the title track is both subtle and memorable. One can almost feel the rhythms as the song percolates along. “Behave Yourself” is a lot rawer and has a more jam-like feel to it. “Mo’
Onions” may not be the equal of the first two but it remains a fine, funky concoction in its own right. Cropper’s playing off Steinberg’s bass lines was unique at the time.
It was customary during the late-1950s and early-60s to surround a hit or two with covers of some memorable songs of the day when creating an album. Booker T. & The M.G.s followed this formula but managed to take many of the songs in unexpected directions. Ray Charles ‘ “I Got a Woman” and “Lonely Avenue,” The Isley Brothers’ “Twist and Shout,” Herbie Mann’s “Comin’ Home Baby,” and Jackie Wilson’s “A Woman, a Lover, a Friend” are twisted and turned all out of shape but eventually return to their basic structure.
The two bonus tracks are live versions of “Green Onions” and “Can’t Sit Down,” recorded at the Ballroom in Los Angeles during 1965 with Duck Dunn on bass. While they have been released previously, they are always welcome.
In many ways, Green Onions is a trip back in time but one well worth taking as it catches one of the best instrumental groups in American rock history at the beginning of their career. Booker T. & The MG’s have created a lot of good music during the last 50 years, but Green Onions remains one of their best works of art.