The Stax house band had some down time, so they started messing around with their own ad-libbed material, and much like what would soon happen with Otis Redding, label owner Jim Stewart liked what he heard enough to record the session. The song, a moody, slow burning blues called "Behave Yourself," was a striking instrumental, but the session also yielded another instrumental that Stewart wasn't as keen on. Guitarist Steve Cropper disagreed, feeling that the second song should be the a-side, so he brought it to radio disc jockeys who agreed with his assessment and wore the record out. Promptly released as the a-side, "Green Onions" became an instant classic and is still the song most associated with the group, newly named Booker T. & The MG's (the latter named after a car but soon changed to "Memphis Group" to avoid any possible legal complications). Trust me, you know this song even if the title doesn't ring a bell, as it has appeared in countless movies (I always think of the movie Quadrophenia when I hear it) and shows as well as on oldies and/or classic rock radio stations over the years. Maybe the group should've called themselves The Moody Blues, because that's an apt description of this song, which oozes a sophisticated cool, with its intense mid-tempo grooves (driven by drummer Al Jackson Jr., who was simply the best soul/r&b drummer ever), punchy guitar stabs from the ever-economical and tasteful Cropper, and especially atmospheric organ from 17 year old Booker T. Jones. There's a reason the group was named after Booker, as his keyboard noodlings dominate this all-instrumental album, which is comprised primarily of covers and was quickly put together to capitalize on the success of "Green Onions," a #3 pop hit. Though none of the other songs come close to the excellence of that singular song, the album works surprisingly well, though it has something of a dated quality to it and the band's signature lineup with Donald "Duck" Dunn on bass was not yet in place. Still, original bassist Lewie Steinberg was no slouch, and from the get-go Booker T. & The MG's were one of those great bands who I simply enjoy hearing play. Sure, these dozen tracks start to blend together at times ("Mo' Onions" is an obviously inferior rewrite of "Green Onions"), and the album probably works better as background music than when listened to attentively, but I dig most of it just the same. Aside from the original two-sided single, the songs that stand out to me are a pair of Ray Charles numbers (the briskly paced "I Got A Woman" and the Doc Pomus written "Lonely Avenue," another slow blues on which Booker dazzles), the gorgeously laid-back "Stranger On The Shore," with more soulful organ from Booker and pretty guitar from Steve, and the jazzy "Comin' Home Baby," which ends the album with a sweetly simmering groove. I can easily live without the tepid "Twist and Shout" and the boringly repetitive "A Woman, A Lover, A Friend," but by and large Green Onions was a strong first album from a group who weren't content merely being the best backing band ever.
Soul Dressing (Stax ’65) Rating: B+
The band took three years to record this one, unlike the rush job that was Green Onions, and it is a slightly better album, albeit one that's not quite consistent enough from a compositional standpoint to warrant an A- rating. On the plus side, there's only one cover tune this time (sorry, but after The Beatles there's no point in anybody doing "Twist and Shout" now, is there?), and the group again deliver subtly soulful, sometimes funky background music that's seemingly tailor made for movie soundtracks. The album gets off to an outstanding start with the title track, whose mesmerizing low-key groove is bolstered by Jackson Jr.'s great bottomed out drum sound. "Tic-Tac-Toe" is also excellent, with Booker T. kicking ass, the rhythm section locked in on the groove, and occasional guitar stabs from Cropper, who really steps up on this album. His stellar playing certainly highlights "Big Train" and "Jellybread," the latter yet another obvious ripoff of "Green Onions" that rules anyway. Anyway, I'm not going to provide song-by-song write ups here, but will instead summarize the rest of the album by saying that its competent but monotonous mid-section drags it down a bit, though the album ends strongly with "Plum Nellie," which sees the multi-talented Jones on trombone, and "Can't Be Still," an aptly titled finale on which Steinberg supplies a great creeping bass line. So, this album delivers some outstanding songs but suffers somewhat from inconsistent songwriting, though the playing of course is always damn near dazzling, at least from the three main members who weren't soon to be replaced (and again Steinberg wasn't bad at all). In all honesty, it's tough to review these guys, since many of their songs sound similar, albeit with subtly enriching differences. You might not remember too many of these individual songs after the fact, but you'll almost certainly remember and appreciate the groovy overall vibe that these guys give off.
And Now! (Stax ’66) Rating: B+
This is the album where Donald "Duck" Dunn (who previously played with Cropper in the Mar-Keys) replaced Lewie Steinberg on bass, so now each band member was a virtuoso on their chosen instrument. Dunn was certainly a more sophisticated and funky player than Steinberg, who was more blues-based and certainly held his own - but let's face it, this is the band's "definitive" lineup, hell, their only real lineup that mattered. Being a racially integrated band (Dunn and Cropper were white, Jones and Jackson black) in Memphis, Tennessee in the mid-'60s was in of itself a groundbreaking maneuver, but Stax was colorblind in those days when making great music was all that mattered. The band doesn't quite deliver a great album here, merely a very good one; there's nothing that's as awesome as "Green Onions" or "Soul Dressing," but this is arguably the band's most consistently enjoyable set yet. Whereas the previous album contained mostly self-composed material (and let's not forget that Cropper and Jones in particular wrote or co-wrote many soul classics outside of the band), this album primarily leans on covers, though there are a couple of impressive originals such as "My Sweet Potato," which is led by a really nice Jones piano groove. Other highlights include the funky "Jericho" and the "Green Onions"-styled stomper "One Mint Julep" (another song previously associated with Ray Charles), which also cribs some guitar riffs from the Stones' "Satisfaction." "No Matter What Shape" is catchy and has a really good melody, and other well-done covers come in the form of a slow and moody take on George Gershwin's "Summertime" and a rethinking of James Brown' "Think" on which Cropper's sparse, harsh guitar leads the way. Actually, it's tough to pick out highlights, like I said this album's strength is in its consistency, whether it be the bright keyboards and brisk beats that pace "Don't Mess Up A Good Thing" and its jazzier counterpart, "Soul Jam," or a faithful recreation of "In The Midnight Hour," which Cropper co-wrote with Wilson Pickett in the first place. There are a couple of tracks that never really catch fire, and like I said there are no real drop-dead classics here, but this was another strong entry by a newly solidified band who was ready to take the next step.
Hip Hug-Her (Stax ’67) Rating: A-
Following the 1966 Christmas album, In The Christmas Spirit (which I've yet to hear), Booker T. & the MG's really hit their stride on Hip Hug-Her, which featured a near-perfect mix of originals and cover songs while also adding just the right blend of jaunty upbeat tunes alongside moodier, mellower meditations. In addition to delivering their most consistent set of songs, this album is notable for introducing the Hammond B-3 organ sound with which Booker T. Jones is synonymous, plus the overall sound quality is simply spectacular, with each crystal clear instrument standing out in the mix, though as always these sympathetic players always attempt to enhance rather than overwhelm their bandmates' parts. As for the actual songs, one stellar original comes in the form of the funky yet rocking title track, which became the band's first top 40 pop hit since "Green Onions" and features great guitar and organ as per usual. The same can be said for "Soul Sanction," which has a slower, mellower groove, unlike "More" which is a melodic and upbeat highlight. Other impressive band compositions are "Carnaby St.," probably the prettiest song on the album, and "Booker's Notion," which features Booker on piano rather than organ and is a bit jazzier than the group normally gets. As for the covers, their low-key takes on The Temptations' "Get Ready" and The Rascals' "Groovin'" (an R&B top 10 hit) are decidedly different than the original classics and are almost as impressive in their own way, while their version of Bobby Hebb's "Sunny" provides a moodily adventurous album closer. As with most of their albums, this one is strongest at the beginning and end and sags a bit in the middle, only this time it's ever so slightly as the album is basically filler free. I still can't quite give it an A rating since we're basically talking about an album that's best appreciated as background music. Still, when I played this recently more than one person asked "who is this?" as they grooved along to the band's sleekly sinuous, head bobbin' rhythms (needless to say Dunn and Jackson Jr. are stellar as usual). Booker T. & The MG's were the epitome of laid-back cool, and rarely were they cooler than on Hip Hug-Her.
Doin' Our Thing (Stax ’68) Rating: B
A transitional album tucked between two superior efforts, Doin' Our Thing is even more overlooked than most of their albums, which is saying something. It's a worthwhile get for fans of the band, however, even if it falls several notches below the band's best albums. For one thing, the album was recorded extremely (i.e. too) quickly, mostly in a single day, and the album is a bit heavy on covers, with only three original band compositions, none of which are especially inspired. Still, there are some choice cover versions and as always the band's superior musicianship and chemistry are on ample display. Among the highlights is their take on Gamble and Huff's "Expressway to Your Heart," on which Booker's keyboards lead the way (so what else is new?). Not to be outdone, Jackson Jr. lends some superlative fills to "You Don't Know Me," which also features some first-rate Cropper guitar, while their version of The Association's "Never My Love" is as pretty and understated as you'd expect. Their "Ode To Billy Joe" (Gentry, that is) and Ray Charles' "Let's Go Get Stoned" provide slow, soulful, extremely good chill out music, while their version of "You Keep Me Hanging On," obviously inspired by Vanilla Fudge rather than The Supremes, is suitably dramatic and intense. It's also extremely long by their exacting standards, approaching five minutes, and a couple of other songs eclipse four minutes as well, which is highly unusual for these guys. Again, there are a few too many uninteresting numbers - for example, the deep groove of "The Beat Goes On" is atypical but not in an especially appealing way - and it's also likely that few of these songs will make my eventual "best Of" playlist, but Doin' Our Thing was another solid installment within the incredibly consistent career of the 1960s premiere instrumental soul-rock combo.
Soul Limbo (Stax ’68) Rating: A-
Among the band's best albums, Soul Limbo features a nice mix of originals and covers, though more the latter than the former. Some of the songs they cover are so well known that it hurts my appreciation of them a bit, but they're still excellently rendered, so this is merely a minor misgiving. This was the band's first album after Stax stopped being associated with Atlantic (or more accurately "since Stax were screwed over by Atlantic"), so it was an important album for the band and the label, and the band delivered the goods in no uncertain terms. Simply put, Soul Limbo is superior to Doin' Our Thing in every way, starting with "Be Young, Be Foolish, Be Happy," a bright upbeat groover that gets the album off and running. A cover of The Delfonics "La-La (Means I Love You)" is low-key and pretty, even if the original is better, and their cover of "Hang 'Em high" features a sweeping melody and the group's organic interplay, highlighted by Booker's swirling organ. Is it me, or does this Dominic Frontiere song sound like the theme song to Gilligan's Island? No matter, it's still enjoyable, and the next two tracks are atypical, as Booker heads over to piano while leading the band on a pair of jazzy ballads ("Willow Weep For Me" and "Over Easy") that are seemingly tailor made for the supper club set. These songs may not be particularly exciting, but they are refined and elegant as the band pursues a different direction while also giving the album some needed variety. The Caribbean flavored title track, later the theme song for Cricket on the BBC, features more upbeat keyboards and Jackson Jr. at the top of this game, while a cover of The Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby" is appropriately moody and mysterious. It's nice to hear Cropper's guitar step to the forefront on this impressive rendition, and all band members take turns shining on "Heads Or Tails" as Al holds the whole thing down. More great drumming is what I remember best about Aretha's "(Sweet, Sweet, Baby) Since You've Been Gone," and this version of "Born Under A Bad Sign" maintains the moody strut of Albert King's original, which isn't surprising given that they played on that one too and Booker co-wrote it. Anyway, the cover of Hendrix's "Foxy Lady" is inessential, but by and large this album hits far more often than it misses, and overall it sees a relaxed, confident band delivering a consistently strong set. The increased jazz influence and an even more commanding than usual Jackson Jr. drum performance are other things I'll note about the album, which is a "must-have" for big fans of the band. Note: Next, the band recorded a soundtrack album, Uptight (containing the hit "Time Is Tight") and The Booker T. Set, neither of which I have but neither of which is supposed to be among the band's best.
McLemore Avenue (Stax ’70) Rating: B
Booker was a big fan of The Beatles and he spearheaded this effort, which was an all covers album of the bands then recently released Abbey Road. The band even went so far as to parody that album's iconic cover, although rather than Abbey Road they walked McLemore Avenue, which was the street that housed Stax's Soulsville U.S.A. studio. As for the music, it's much different than Abbey Road, and it isn't nearly as good on the whole quite frankly. I mean, this music is supposed to be sublime, not merely pleasant, and too often the band's laid-back, jazzy take on these pop rock classics comes across as loungey elevator music. I mean, there's laid-back cool and laid-back boring, and though the band has the good taste to mostly deliver the former, the latter category applies more often than is usual for these guys, making it a middle-tier Booker T. & The MG's album, which is disappointing because the idea was so good and the album had so much potential. Then again, McLemore Avenue has its fair share of fine moments, most coming on harder-edged songs such as "Come Together" and "I Want You (She's So Heavy)." The album consists of four songs, three of which are medleys (the other song, "Something," is a surprisingly hard rocking highlight), but the band smartly omits some of the lesser entries and reconfigures the order, and as such in some ways this album can be seen as a precursor to the Love album remixed by George Martin and his son in 2006. Other notable moments include the dramatic keyboard/guitar crescendos on "Here Comes The Sun," Cropper's gorgeously lyrical guitar on a splendid version of "Because," and a propulsive "Polythene Pam" on which Jackson Jr. (whose genius is again also apparent on "I Want You (She's So Heavy)") and Cropper stand out. Oddly enough, Cropper had never even heard the album aside from the hits before recording it, but this worked in the bands favor as what we're treated to is far from a carbon copy of the band's guitar parts. Really, the best songs here are where Cropper's guitar perks up, but the album on the whole is a mixed bag, as too much of it lacks the energetic fire and toe-tapping funkiness of the band's best efforts.
Melting Pot (Stax ’71) Rating: A-
These guys are Rock and Roll Hall Of Famers for good reason. Not only was each band member among the all-time best at their respective instrument, but their total greatly exceeded the sum of their individual parts. It's that magical quality called chemistry; when these guys lock into a groove it's as if they were born to play together. Rarely was that more apparent than on "Melting Pot," which is tight, funky, and loose all at the same time. Each band member shines (without ever getting in each other's way) on an 8-minute GROOVE that's tough to describe (it is indeed a melting pot of styles) but which you don't ever want to end. Though that's the clear high point, there are other stellar selections among these 8 self-penned songs. For example, "Back Home" begins on a brightly upbeat note, slows down for a slowly smoldering take on the blues, and then returns to its terrific original melody. "Fuquawi" hits on a great swampy groove that John Fogerty would've killed for way back when; it stomps along while Booker T. and Steve C. take turns soloing. Granted, the album sags somewhat on "Kinda Easy Like," which is too indebted to "Green Onions" only in a much less compelling, laid-back way. Plus, the song drags on for far too long at over 8-minutes (these guys definitely stretch out on this album), and even a rare attempt at vocal chants fail to interest me. "Hi Ride" is solid but inessential, but "Chicken Pox" is much better (damn, Jackson Jr. is funky). So is "L.A. Jazz Song," which is boosted by catchy upbeat chanted vocals, in contrast to "Kinda Easy Like," on which the vocals are secondary and do little to aid the cause. All of the other songs, like the lushly evocative "Sunny Monday," are instrumentals as per usual, but who needs vocals when the grooves are this good? Alas, record label problems and Al Jackson Jr.'s tragic murder in 1975 ensured that this would be the last album featuring this MG's lineup. Fortunately, they departed with this doozy of a recording, which contains exactly the type of rich textures and timeless qualities that we critics dream of discovering.
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