Booker T. and the MGs – Green Onions (1962; 2012 reissue)

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A sizzling outburst of lean pre-funk soul-rock, Green Onions introduced the world to the genre-jumping delights of Booker T, and the MGs. They were a little bit funky, a little bit rock and roll, even a little bit country at times — and completely, as this new Concord Music Group reissue makes clear, a thing unto themselves.

Unfortunately, after the debut hit “Green Onions,” Booker T. and the MGs would settle back into relative Billboard anonymity — notable mostly to careful liner-note readers after years as the house band for Stax Records in Memphis. It seemed they had made everybody around them famous, even while staying essentially unknown. That finally began to change when the group (featuring organist Booker T. Jones, guitarist Steve Cropper, drummer Al Jackson Jr. and bassists Lewie Steinberg and Donald “Duck” Dunn) earned induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992. Guest turns at the gala Bob Dylan 30th anniversary concert and on a Neil Young tour would follow, and then the recording of their first studio effort in two decades.

By that point, though, Jackson had been murdered. Dunn, who replaced Steinberg early on in the band’s history, died suddenly earlier this year, as well. That’s left Jones and Cropper, each of whom has issued well-received recent albums, to carry on. Each is given a moment to shine on this new edition of Green Onions, which — with 24-bit remastering by Joe Tarantino, and new notes from Grammy-winning Stax historian Rob Bowman — illustrates definitively how their early legends were formed.

That starts with the song selection which, going beyond the familiar title track and its sequel “Mo’ Onions,” reflects the essential diversity — musically, socially — at the heart of this hard-grooving group of multi-culti hipsters. They were a group designed both to move hips, and to change minds.

They reformulate Ray Charles’ rollicking back-pew gospel number “I’ve Got A Woman” into a lickety-split early rock number; build a bridge between the Isley Brothers’ R&B version of “Twist and Shout” and the Beatles subsequent pop interpretation; offer a simmering version of Jackie Wilson’s “A Woman, A Lover and a Friend”; then conclude things with smoke-filled and understated take of Herbie Mann’s jazz favorite “Comin’ Home Baby.” Along the way, there is ladle after ladle of gravy-sopping down-home blues — from Charles’ “Lonely Avenue,” to their own “Behave Yourself” (originally the A-side to the “Green Onions” single) to a winking take on Smokey Robinson’s “One Who Really Loves You.”

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Steve Cropper talks about key moments in his tenure with Booker T. and the MGs, and his stirring tribute to childhood heroes the 5 Royales, ‘Dedicated.’]

The result is a song cycle — powered as it is, both by the jooky gurgle of Jones’ organ and the hillbilly scratch of Cropper’s guitar — that feels deeply Southern, with all of the contradictions.

And Booker T. and the MGs, in many ways, only got better with the subsequent addition of Dunn — as evidenced here by a pair of hard-grooving bonus tracks recorded in concert at the 5/4 Ballroom in Los Angeles three years later. Boisterous live versions of Green Onion’s charttopping title track and “Can’t Sit Down” (featuring a rare bass solo from Dunn) send this new reissue out with a unforgettable, concussive force.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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