Fifty Years of Grooving to “Green Onions.”
Accidents happen. Whether it’s a 13-car pileup or a plate of spaghetti all over a nice white carpet, no one escapes this life unscathed. The one similarity that all accidents share is a need for the right conditions: one person not paying attention while they’re texting, another not noticing that skateboard left in the middle of the living room. Sometimes, that most exciting and joyful of all accidents, serendipity, deals a hand even the house didn’t see coming. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the release of Stax Records’ “Green Onions”, a song that helped put a company, a genre and a culture into the ears of an audience, hungry for a new, yet familiar groove to call their own.
In the summer of 1962, conditions were ripe for a breakthrough at Stax. The release of, and subsequent success of “Last Night” in 1961, had brought the fledgling studio into the national spotlight, followed by William Bell’s first charting single, “You Don’t Miss Your Water” by early 1962. Things were picking up, with a batch of musicians that would soon become the nexus of the Stax sound, backing up everyone who walked through the door. “I was called down to Stax”, says bassist Lewie Steinberg. “They said, ‘We got a session we wanna cut on a country-western artist, name of Billy Riley’. I think it was Billy Riley. We sat in there and we fumbled around him, and fumbled around him, and it just wasn’t workin’”. Rather than waste what was left of the session after Riley left, Steinberg, along with Al Jackson Jr., Booker T. Jones and Steve Cropper began jamming.
“Now, the studio time was already paid for, so we took a little break, and came back in there”, continues Steinberg. “We were just sittin’ around and I told Al and Booker, I said, ‘Tell you what let’s do, while we just sittin’ up here killin’ time, let’s play some blues’. I says, ‘play us some good old-fashioned blues’. And that’s when we played “Behave Yourself”. Hearing something he liked, Jim Stewart, Stax co-founder and head engineer at the time, began to roll tape.”We didn’t even know he was recording it”, said Steve Cropper, in Rob Bowman’s book, Soulsville U.S.A: The Story of Stax Records. After the guys finished their second run through, he called them into the control room to listen to the finished product. Sensing a hit, Stewart sent them back into the studio to cut a B-side. What ensued is nothing short of a miracle.
Tim Sampson, Communications Director at the Stax Museum and Soulsville Foundation, outlines what happened next: “They had recorded it, and Jim Stewart liked it, but he told them he couldn’t release a 45 with only one song on it; they needed something on the other side. So, they started playing on a riff that Booker T. Jones had written not long before that. They just did it, recorded it, gave it a name”. Originally christened “Funky Onions” by Steinberg, Estelle Axton, co-founder of Stax and head of the adjoining Satellite Record Shop, put her foot down. “Miss Axton said, ‘Now Lewie, you know we can’t put that out like that, ‘funky’. You know you can’t put that’’, Steinberg reminisces. “The public wasn’t ready for that then. So, she changed it to ‘Green Onions’”.
As musicians know, not every song you put out is as good as it could be, but when it is, there’s no doubt. Cropper and the rest of the guys knew that the second cut of that session was far more important than the original blues cut. Stewart wasn’t convinced that “Green Onions” should be the A-side, but on Tuesday morning, Cropper took it down to Reuben Washington at WLOK to give it a listen. One spin on the turntable lit the phones up, and they didn’t stop. Back at Satellite, they couldn’t pick up the phone fast enough: people wanted to know where to find what they just heard on the radio!
Stax put the single out on their subsidiary label, Volt, and “Green Onions” was released as Volt 102, b/w “Behave Yourself”. In an effort to spread the word beyond Memphis, Cropper hit the road and handed out promotional copies to every radio station within a 200 mile radius. Soon enough, they caught the attention of Jerry Wexler at Atlantic Records, Stax’ distribution partner. Due to the recent successes on the Stax label, he recommended pulling “Green Onions” from Volt and reissuing it on Stax. On August 4, 1962, Stax and Atlantic took out an ad in Billboard Magazine, in support of Stax 127, “Green Onions”, which went on to reach number one on the Billboard R&B chart and number three on the pop chart. By the end of 1962, “Green Onions” was coasting on sales of 700,000 copies.
Despite being labeled as “serendipitous” by everyone involved, there is more to the story than that. Accidents always have a back story; there are always factors that play into the outcome of any situation. First of all, the musicianship that had evolved in Memphis, was of such a rare caliber that it made the creative process feel as natural as breathing. Booker T. was a musical genius, having picked up and mastered guitar, bass, organ, piano, baritone saxophone and trombone by the age of 17. He could regularly be found in the Satellite record shop, listening in to what was happening in the studio. When he wasn’t there, he was playing in either Willie Mitchell’s or Ben Branch’s bands around Memphis. Alongside Booker T. were two of Memphis’ finest and most sought after rhythm players: drummer Al Jackson Jr. and bassist Lewie Steinberg. Both Jackson and Steinberg came from whole families full of musical progeny. Steinberg, in particular, came from a long line of talent, starting with his father, who held the piano chair at PeeWee’s Saloon, on Beale Street. The elder Steinberg was the piano player when W.C. Handy, the “Father Of The Blues” wrote his famous “Memphis Blues” and “St. Louis Blues”, right there in the bar. Lewie’s sister Nan, along with his brothers Luther, Morris and Wilbur, all played with greats such as Cab Calloway, Lionel Hampton and Fats Waller. Steinberg himself was well-known around Memphis as a go-to bass player, being one of the first in Memphis to pick up electric bass, and playing with such notable acts as Phineus Newborn and Rufus Thomas, among others. Steve Cropper had been around Stax since the beginning, becoming Stewart’s right-hand man in the studio. Cropper took over A/R duties and took part in almost every recording Stax put out before 1970, as either an engineer, player or both. The combination of these four forces may have been accidental, but the combined chops each brought to the studio accounted for years of precision mastery, allowing each of them to know how the other would move.
Second, the cultural conditions were prime for reaching an expanded audience. 1962 found America in the throughs of the Civil Rights movement: sit-ins and church bombings. Rock and roll and grabbed it’s youth culture by the throat and teens had the buying power to make it last. New dances were being created everyday on national television to keep teens going for their wallets. The backbeat was king, with Memphis as it’s gilded palace, and while Memphis continued doing what it had done in it’s clubs all along, more and more people were itching for it on the radio, color line be damned. Yet, despite the color blindness of the studio atmosphere, it was still too taboo for bands to integrate on the bandstand. According to Steinberg, “You could cut a session in a day, and the same guys could be, you know. And you playin’ across town somewhere, I couldn’t come sit in with you. I couldn’t play with you”. One can look at the success of “Green Onions”, and the ensuing successes of Booker T and The MGs, as one more step in the undoing of segregation. By 1965, the Civil Rights Bill did away with legal public separation, allowing members of the musical community to take what they were creating in the studio live to the masses. “Without them even knowing it at the time, it was a pretty big step in the civil rights movement”, adds Sampson. “Booker T. and the MGs were integrated, and Memphis at the time was so segregated, there were a lot of places they couldn’t go together. They couldn’t go to the zoo together, they couldn’t eat at the same places together, they couldn’t stay at the same hotels, but inside Stax Records they were a family. I think the fact that this integrated band had a million-selling hit was something that would have reverberations years later, and still today”.
Finally, there’s something oddly familiar about the underlying riff. It’s been said that there’s nothing new under the sun. Culture is always feeding off of sources, both foreign and familiar, putting new spins on old ideas. In the process of researching this article, I found myself in Memphis, at the Stax Museum. I picked up a copy of Green Onions on vinyl, admittedly having never listened to the entire album. I got home and threw it on the turntable to find what came out of the speakers was not what I had been expecting. What I heard was a chipmunk-esque organ, squealing over a bass line thumping at breakneck speed. Upon further inspection, I realized that I had the speed of my turntable cranked up to 45RPM, instead of the necessary 33RPM speed used to cut the album. I kept listening. In fact, I flipped the needle back and listened again. There was something so familiar about what I was hearing: I’ve heard that bass line somewhere else, but where? It wasn’t on a record; maybe it was in a movie, or on TV; I’m still not sure. I invite feedback on this point, for anyone who wants to try an experiment of their own, but I digress. The point is, I bet I’m not the only one to pick up on that. Once I put the record on at the right speed, I could still hear traces of that vaguely familiar groove, echoed in Cropper’s snarling guitar tone and subtly rocking back and forth between Jackson’s ride cymbal. People are drawn to the familiar, and if I caught onto it 50 years after the fact, imagine what it sounded like to the kids hearing it for the first time, in real time.
The events that transpired at Stax on that summer day in 1962 began as nothing more than four men doing what they do best: playing music. They held no allusions of grandeur; they were killing time. And why not? It was one more opportunity to develop a melodic idea, one more chance to play a lick that had been nagging at the back of someone’s mind, one more excuse to stick around just a little bit longer. The thing about a good song is that you can’t predict when and where it will happen, but when the conditions are right, it only takes one to change the course of history. “It doesn’t take but one”, adds Steinberg, “the right one. You know, it’s a miracle and a blessing, that you can take a song that can last over fifty years and still sound as good today as it did then”.
Bowman, Rob, Soulsville U.S.A.: The Story of Stax Records, Schirmer Trade Books, New Tork, 1997
Guralnik, Peter, Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom, Back Bay Books, New York, 1986, pp. 112-128.