Here is the groove test. Spin “Green Onions” by Booker T. & The M.G’s and if your booty doesn’t shake, your hips don’t swivel, your head doesn’t nod or your fingers snap, man, you dead to the rhythm.
“Green Onions” was the lead track and hit single from the 1962 album of the same name, possibly the greatest ever LP with vegetables on the cover. Leader of the band, Booker T Jones, played a sweet and soulful Hammond organ, fusing R&B licks into his soul-jazz lines so smoothly there were no visible joins. That smooth, funky lyricism was the defining feature of the whole band, who locked in behind Booker T like a tail behind a comet; you cannot tell where the lead rock stops and the spectacular rhythm section tail begins. In fact one of the key features of the Booker T & the MGs (we’ll discard the dodgy punctuation right here), is not that the whole rhythm section was a purple gang, but that the whole gang was a right royal purple rhythm section. Booker’s organ either pumping in the foreground or pulsing in the mix; Steve Cropper’s sharp, penetrating guitar leads alternate with rhythm scaffolding you could build a pyramid on. And under this pair of modest virtuosos, a foundation both limber and unshakeable laid down by Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn on bass and Al Jackson, Jr. on drums.
They were a jazz-soul R&B backing group made—not in heaven—but in the deep south. As the house band for Stax Records in Memphis, Tennessee, Booker T Jones and the boys made essential contributions to hits by Sam & Dave, Wilson Picket, and perhaps most famously, Otis Redding. But after this, their debut record, proved so popular (Billboard #1 R&B, #3 Top 100), Booker T and the MGs continued with a string of popular albums.
The one I want to tell you about today is their fifth LP, from the year 1967*.
The cover of ‘Hip Hug-Her’ has always fascinated me. There is something so quintessentially Carnaby Street about the photograph, something so emphatically not deep-South USA. The Twiggy-slim lass with long Barbie-blonde hair sits in a fashion-model pose before a trio of willowy models wearing the eponymous pants. It is exactly the kind of photo you imagine David Hemmings’ character in Blowup ripping off in a late morning studio session before going for a romp in the loft with one (or all) of the delectable young ladies. In other words, about as far from humid R&B motherlode as you can imagine. One suspects this was a blatant attempt at courting a mod young urban audience, the swinging kids and groovy chicks who were less acquainted with seedy Memphis bars than happening city clubs.
And the music? Eleven tracks clocking in at a smidge over 30 minutes is scarcely over-doing things, even by the standards of the day, yet within this half-hour we have a colourful and varied plate of the band’s tasty morsels.
The title track lays out the bill of fare in the opening moments. A descending double-tracked guitar figure is followed by a drum-crack announcement that a vamping organ, jumping bass and rolling hit-on-the-third percussion are inviting you to the table. The leader picks out the melody before another chorus, then Cropper drops in one of his economic cool-as-fuck solos and the band reconvene to vamp us out with some by-play between Jones and Cropper. It’s all over in 2’25” and is the basic recipe for most of this upbeat, good time jiving. Second piece “Soul sanction” is possibly even better.
Not that it’s all mid-paced groove. The band throw in some covers, including The Young Rascals “Groovin’” and two popular ballads, in addition to six band originals. Not having the benefit of a vocalist to reach out and grab listeners, Booker T & the MGs include these to provide recognition and perhaps an entry point for those less familiar with R&B instrumentals.
The ropey ballad “More”, for example, begins like something Andre Kostelanetz would arrange for mums and dads, yet builds nicely to a chugging chorus quietly stripping back the schmaltz so that by the conclusion you’ve forgotten how you rolled your eyes at the cheesy opening. The pulsing “Double or nothing” continues with an almost rocking boogie groove and a fine little Cropper solo. “Pygmy” is a soul-fossa groove enlivened by Jackson’s brilliant off-the-beat drumming and a neat Cropper solo. A personal fave is the piano-lead organ blues (true!) of “Slim Jenkins’ place” (no relation).
The title of “Carnaby Street” certainly seems to support the hypothesis that Booker and the band were keen to extend their audience. It’s melodic and quite romantic; the sort of tune you can imagine humming as you sit on a sunny door-step watching lissom London chicks sashay down the famous fashion street on a summer’s day in ’67. Or even ’17. Sigh.
As a post-script, you can get Green Onions, Hip Hug-Her and three other Booker T & The MGs discs from the mid-60s in one of those no-frills Original Album Series 5-CD sets for much much less than you’d pay for an original of any one LP. Soul food for thought.
Booker T. & The MGs - Hip Hug-Her Label: Stax Released: June 1967 Duration: 30:26
* Over the next twelve months I hope to periodically focus on a release from 1967. With so many interesting albums that are not Sgt Pepper, I reckon it is worth picking a few to see what we hear half a century later. I might also get on the old soap-box and rant about music and context, trying to convince anyone interested (or not) that without some 60s ground work you can never really figure out pop/rock at all. You have been warned.