BOOKER T. & THE M.G.'s: GREEN ONIONS (1962)
1) Green Onions; 2) Rinky-Dink; 3) I Got A Woman; 4) Mo' Onions; 5) Twist And Shout; 6) Behave Yourself; 7) Stranger On The Shore; 8) Lonely Avenue; 9) One Who Really Loves You; 10) You Can't Sit Down; 11) A Woman, A Lover, A Friend; 12) Comin' Home Baby.
Back in those early days, fully instrumental albums were the norm for jazz performers — the much younger world of R&B was still predominantly oriented at the «popular» market, so most of Atlantic's classic hits in that style were driven by vocalists: a somewhat unfair deal, since many of the employed musicians were first-rate pros and deserved a good piece of the action themselves. No better way to prove this than by donating our full attention to Booker T. & The M.G.'s, the Stax house band behind Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, and other Memphis greats that was seriously responsible for the appeal of their hits — except that the popular ear in all these cases always tends to be attracted to the singer first.
Like so many good things in the world, Green Onions came about by accident: the band was loosely jamming in the studio, warming up for an upcoming session, when they were overheard by Jim Stewart, president of Stax, who surreptitiously recorded the results (ʽBehave Yourselfʼ) and proposed to put it out as a single. For the B-side, the band wrote and recorded another instrumental — upon hearing which, it was decided that the B-side should become the A-side, and on that day, a piece of history was made.
Most serious instrumentalists of the day could probably have laughed ʽGreen Onionsʼ off as a simplistic, repetitive, primitive groove, seductive only for aspiring teenage guitar players (indeed, most of the young British R'n'B-ers would cut their teeth learning how to play ʽGreen Onionsʼ, and you can still hear The Who, for instance, digging into it on some of their earliest bootlegs). Yes, but what a groove, though! If ʽLouie Louieʼ was the defining «simplistically rebellious» groove of its era, then ʽGreen Onionsʼ pretty much invented the «scary blues-rock groove» paradigm. The youngsters didn't just like it because it was simple — they loved it because it sounded so «dangerous» and so «cool» at the same time.
Booker T. himself, the 17-year old organ wiz Booker T. Jones, that is, is unquestionably the star of the show, a complete master of tone, timing, and «un-flashiness»: his lines seem fairly simple, but there is a deep understanding of each played note behind them, whether he is punching out the main rhythmic groove in perfect tandem with bassist Lewie Steinberg or engaging in economic, razor-sharp solos that make their point as coolly, leisurely, and deadly as Yul Brynner in one of his Westerns. However, he has a perfect partner in guitarist Steve Cropper, who shares the same aesthetics — «do not play too many notes, but make each one count», so that on ʽGreen Onionsʼ, each chord he picks produces the effect of a well-placed bullet. Complemented by the always reliable and metronomically steady Al Jackson, Jr., on drums, in less than three minutes of playing time Booker T. & The M.G.'s suddenly emerge as America's most badass bunch o' sons o' bitches — especially for 1962, a year not particularly well known for «badass» qualities, a year when instrumental recordings on the pop scene were more associated with The Ventures (a great group, by all means, but «harmless fun»-oriented next to these guys).
Knowing a little about the general context of the times, we could easily predict that the sudden (if totally deserved) commercial success of ʽGreen Onionsʼ, the single, would inevitably lead to the appearance of Green Onions, the LP, and that none of the tracks on that LP would come close to the greatness of the single because they were not even supposed to — the LP was just a matter of making more money, and would necessarily be rushed, and, indeed, most of it consists not of original instrumentals, but of instrumental covers of contemporary hits by Ray Charles, the Isley Brothers, Motown people, etc. Apparently, the band just did not have enough time to come up with melodies of their own — or, more likely, saw no need to come up with any additional melodies, viewing, like most other people, the LP format as filler-oriented by nature.
That said, the contemporary hits were good, and the band to play them was good, and it does make aesthetic sense to hear Booker T. use his Hammond M3 to substitute the vocal melodies of Uncle Ray or Mary Wells — particularly if you dislike generic R&B lyrics, but also if you just like a good hand and mind controlling a nicely tuned keyboard instrument. While a few of the choices are admittedly silly (ʽRinky-Dinkʼ, going neither for eeriness nor for excitement, more or less matches the seriousness of its title), already on the third track, ʽI Got A Womanʼ, they show that they can capture and put new sparkle on just about any classic — Booker T. surrounds the original vocal notes with quirky additional flourishes to compensate for the lack of human voice, Cropper adds a fussy, ecstatic guitar solo, and the rhythm section totally puts to shame the players on Ray's original version.
Stylistically, the album is quite diverse: they cover a highly representative territory, from fast Ray Charles to slow, soulful Ray Charles (ʽLonely Avenueʼ) to lively, life-asserting dance numbers (ʽTwist And Shoutʼ) to lush Motown balladry (ʽOne Who Really Loves Youʼ) to «easy listening» mood-setters (ʽStranger On The Shoreʼ). None of these covers rise up to the challenge of the dark mystery of ʽGreen Onionsʼ (not even their own «sequel», entitled ʽMo' Onionsʼ and sounding like a less creepy variation on its elder brother), but the album still has a very noble ending with their rendition of the Dave Bailey Quintet's ʽComin' Home Babyʼ — again, totally made by the harmony between Steinberg's bass and Booker T.'s organ that seems to drag us down into some eerie sonic vortex at the end of each verse.
For those of us who can still appreciate «the oldies» by detaching ourselves from our contemporary values, Green Onions, even as an LP, will be enjoyable throughout — if only because people simply do not play that way any more, and with the passing of that style, simple, direct, and deep, something was irretrievably lost, no matter how many other things were gained. For those who cannot, the record will sound boring and dated, but even then, at least the basic primal punch of ʽGreen Onionsʼ, the song, would be hard to deny. In any case, the album (and I do stress — the album, not just the single) gets a reliable thumbs up from me, and a secret wish that the band might have played on all the originals... then again, that would hardly be fair to the singers, wouldn't it? Uncle Ray and Aunt Aretha were probably these guys' only genuine competition that they wouldn't have blown off the stage with their presence.