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This is an instrumental with a simple but unusual 2/4 time signature. Booker T. & the MG's were the house band for the Memphis Soul music label Stax Records
. They recorded with many of the Stax artists, including Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, and Isaac Hayes, but they also recorded their own material between sessions.
The band developed this song while they were waiting for rockabilly singer Billy Lee Riley (a Sun artist) to show up for a session. In an interview with National Public Radio (NPR), Booker T. Jones said: "That happened as something of an accident. We used the time to record a Blues which we called 'Behave Yourself,' and I played it on a Hammond M3 organ. Jim Stewart, the owner, was the engineer and he really liked it and wanted to put it out as a record. We all agreed on that and Jim told us that we needed something to record as a B-side, since we couldn't have a one-sided record. One of the tunes I had been playing on piano we tried on the Hammond organ so that the record would have organ on both sides and that turned out to be 'Green Onions.'"
As the guys were calling it a night after recording this song, Jim Stewart asked them to listen to what he'd recorded on one particular take. They listened but weren't as impressed as Jim, who asked: "If we released this as a record, what would you want to call it?" "Green Onions," was Booker T. Jones' reply. "Why 'Green Onions'" Jim asked. Booker T: "Because that is the nastiest thing I can think of and it's something you throw away."
The group's guitarist Steve Cropper brought this song to the Memphis radio station WLOK the day after they recorded it. The morning DJ, Rueben Washington, was a friend of Cropper's, and put the song on his turntable to hear off-air. After listening to just part of the song, he cut off the record that was on air and started playing "Green Onions" for his listeners. Says Cropper: "He played it four or five times in a row. We were dancing around the control room and believe it or not, the phone lines lit up. I guess we had the whole town dancing that morning."
The response to the song proved Cropper's point that it should be the A-side of the single instead of "Behave Yourself," and subsequent singles were pressed with the sides flipped.
The group was named after the British MG sports cars, but when the company expressed disapproval, they claimed the initials as "Memphis Group." Members of the band were Booker T. Jones, Steve Cropper, Al Jackson, and Lewie Steinberg (who was replaced in 1964 by Donald "Duck" Dunn). Jackson was killed in 1975, but the remaining members have gotten together often to play various events, including the "Bobfest" Bob Dylan tribute concert in 1992, and Neil Young's 1993 tour. The band was integrated, which was unusual at the time in Memphis: Three members were black, and one was white (Cropper). When Martin Luther King Jr. was shot in Memphis in 1968, igniting already high racial tensions, they had two white and two black members.
The sound is driven by the Hammond Organ played by Booker T. Jones, who was 17 when this was recorded. The Hammond organ was invented in 1934 by Laurens Hammond. Its mournful sound made it the instrument of choice for military chapels, but then in the 1960s the rockers got wind of it and the device became a standard keyboard instrument for jazz, blues, rock and gospel music.
In the UK, this was popular in dance clubs, but didn't become a chart hit until 1979, when it was used in the movie Quadrophenia. A character played by Sting danced to it in the movie. (thanks, Edward Pearce - Ashford, Kent, England)
In his book Seekers Guide To The Rhythm Of Yesteryear
, Shiloh Noone writes about the UK impact of this song: "The 'Green Onions' groove has maintained an epic accountability filtering into a variety of styles, yet its roots have a double-edged sword. Let us chop up the onions and savor the stinging that shed its tears over the last forty years. Strangely the infectious hook never charted in the '60s and took 17 years to reach UK #10. Admittedly Atlantic had slipped up failing to recognize that the instrumental 'Memphis Sound' had conjured a bluesy dance fashion in the '60s. The 1967 'Green Onions' single was backed by the badly recorded 'Bootleg.' The riff took fashion during the mod revival in the '70s and found itself included on The Who's Quadrophenia
soundtrack. For many it was the first introduction to Booker T. It was re-issued as a single in 1979 and cracked the UK #10 due to Steve Cropper and 'Duck' Dunn joining the Blues Brothers and featuring in the film of the same name. The stinging riff again re-surfaced in 1985 on 'Old Gold Records,' this time backed by 'Chinese Checkers.' Some of the more definitive versions of 'Green Onions' were featured by Georgie Fame (Fame at Last), the Ventures (Lonely Bull), King Curtis (Memphis Hits). The irresistible groove also hooked the high and mighty as in 'Stoned
' by the Rolling Stones that was issued as B-side to 'I Wanna Be Your Man
.' The rhythm would move from generation to generation starting with the Blues Brothers (Made in America
- 1980), Johnny Thunders (eponymous album 1982) and the acid jazz Penthouse Suite
(1990) by the James Taylor Quartet. Barring the original that kicks like a mule, their are four exhilarating interpretations: Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield & Al Kooper
, which has Mike improvising on the decisive Al Kooper Hammond drone. Bloomfield's articulate tone frolics and jostles with absolute ease amazing the crowds at Bill Graham's Fillmore. England's Downliners Sect released the most authentic version and probably the only played purely on guitar in 1964, probably also the first British version and to my knowledge the first cover to wax the globe. For the purists the frenzied guitar solos were reinforced by Muleskinner axeman Ian McLagan, future organist with the Small Faces. Guitar maestro Roy Buchanan recorded this one in 1967 for his Loading Zone. He shares the lead solos with none other than authors Steve Cropper and bassist Donald 'Duck' Dunn."
This song provides broadcasters with a wonderful instrumental bed which they can talk over or leave on its own without losing the audience. The NPR program Fresh Air uses it to great effect, and the song has also appeared in a number of films and TV shows, as well as in TV commercials for Mercedes. (thanks, Bertrand - Paris, France)
According to Q magazine, a few years after this was released, Georgie Fame met Booker T and told him that he thought the Hammond sound on this song was amazing and asked him what the levers on the organ were set to. Apparently Booker T had been unaware that the settings could be changed and he replied, "What, those things move?"
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