Friday Song: "Green Onions"
Recorded when the main player was a senior in high school, it's a classic
Booker T. Jones, Jr. — the son of a science teacher who himself was named after the famous educator and author Booker T. Washington — was identified as a musical prodigy at a very early age. He became a multi-instrumentalist, playing the saxophone, piano, organ, oboe, guitar, trombone, clarinet, and double bass professionally, and mostly from a young age. In high school, he was director of the school band. He also wrote and recorded his best-known song — “Green Onions” — as a senior in high school, while working as a professional musician at Stax Records in Memphis, TN.
Some people just “have it.”
Along with Steve Cropper (guitar), Lewie Steinberg (bass), and Al Jackson Jr. (drums), Jones formed the famous band, Booker T. & the MGs. (Donald “Duck” Dunn later replaced Steinberg on bass.) The group was named after the British MG sports cars, but when the company expressed disapproval, they claimed the initials stood for “Memphis Group.”
One of the first racially integrated rock groups, Booker T. & the MGs backed artists like Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Bill Withers, Sam & Dave, and Albert King, and created “the Stax sound,” which artists on both sides of the Atlantic sought to emulate. Cropper and Dunn were later part of the Blues Brothers band, and can be seen backing Jake and Elwood in the movie.
“Green Onions” was developed while the band waited for a singer from Sun Records to show up for a session. About to release a song called, “Behave Yourself,” they needed a B-side for the single, so they used the downtime to record a song based on something Jones had been tinkering with. That song turned out to be “Green Onions,” so named because, as Jones said later, “. . . that is the nastiest thing I can think of and it’s something you throw away.”
The song immediately eclipsed the planned A-side. The MGs’ guitarist took a copy to a local radio station, where the DJ “. . . 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.” Needless to say, the sides of the record were switched before it was pressed, with “Green Onions” becoming the A-side, and “Behave Yourself” the B-side.
A playground for soloists, the song isn’t always recognized by its title, but you’ve definitely heard it. It’s deceptively difficult to get right. As Jones later said, “‘Green Onions’ appears to be a simple song, but every time I play it I have to pay attention. I have to remember, and school myself on how the notes go, because it’s just not as simple as it sounds.”
Written in Bb major with a fast tempo of 137 bpm, the song almost invariably makes people happy. The musicians in the clip below are having a blast, so go ahead, dance around your home office. Nobody’s watching.
Booker T. & the MGs was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992, the Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville in 2008, the Memphis Music Hall of Fame in 2012, and the Blues Hall of Fame in 2019.
The version below is from the oft-excellent show Live From Daryl’s House, and was recorded in 2013.