Booker T & the MG’s – Green Onions (50th anniv)

Booker T & the MGs – Green Onions (reissue) (Stax / Concord Music Group) review

Some of the greatest art is made out of pure accident.  The liner notes that accompany this new 50th anniversary edition of Green Onions tells the unbelievable story of how this legendary band came together during a session for rockabilly almost-legend Billy Lee Riley.  Depending on which story you believe (there are several different ones in the booklet), Riley either was a no-show, or in true rock n’ roll fashion, was too drunk to record the session, leaving his de facto backup band with a surplus of recording time.

Keyboardist Booker T Jones began vamping on an old blues progression, something that Ray Charles might’ve laid down.  Stax label owner Jim Stewart was in the control room and liked what he heard, ordering the engineer to roll tape, and “Behave Yourself” was born.  Now, since they needed another song to complete a single, Jones began playing a riff from a Sonny Boy Williamson song called “Help Me” (check it out, it’s pretty similar).   The result was “Green Onions,” one of the greatest instrumentals in all of music.  And, with that happy accident, an entire genre of music was created.

Led by Booker T’s deep, distinctive Hammond organ and Steve Cropper’s slinky, stinging guitar lines, the band had two secret weapons.  For the first time, here was soulful music that was so good, it didn’t need vocals.  And, the band chooses an eclectic set of songs, from Ray Charles’ “I Gotta Woman” to Acker Bilk’s ballad “Stranger on the Shore,” but all of it has that soon-to be legendary groove.  “Rinky Dink” was a variation on the Mickey & Sylvia classic “Love is Strange.” It’s also a delight to hear the band work their magic on classics like “Twist and Shout” and “The One Who Really Loves You,” turning the soul knob all the way up.  Even when they repeat themselves, as on the obvious followup “Mo’ Onions,” it still manages to sound fresh, with Jones’ exploring more with his organ, while Cropper tears up the fretboard, outdoing the original in energy.

This new 50th anniversary remaster restores the album to its original, punchier mono mix, while adding two live bonus cuts from three years after this album’s release.  This version of “Green Onions” is juiced up, played at a much faster tempo, while “Can’t Sit Down” features a saxophone not heard on the original.  These cuts show the MG’s as a formidable live outfit, but don’t really add anything to the already excellent original album.   Even a half a century later, this album still cooks.  –Tony Peters