The curious grip that instrumental music had over pop in the days before The Beatles broke big saw The Shadows and Tornados cut largely voiceless records that hit on both sides of the Atlantic. In the US, numerous guitar-led acts, from The Surfaris to Duane Eddy, scored smashes. Even James Brown, soul singer supreme, enjoyed instrumental hits. But the rulers of soul without singing were Booker T & The MGs, four clean-cut guys out of Memphis (“MGs” meant “Memphis Group”), and Green Onions, released in October 1962, was their first album.
The formula was simple: organist Booker T picked out a melody that would stick in the least adhesive of heads; the bass and drums of Lewie Steinberg and Al Jackson kept it as tight as rush-hour sardines; and Telecaster-slinger Steve Cropper would cut in with to-the-point solos and the choppiest chord playing on the planet. It was downbeat and funky – and if you didn’t feel it, you definitely weren’t. At least, that’s the theory.
The hit single that gives the album its title kicks off the affair, and even from a many decades distance, it’s one of the best soul instrumentals ever created: many tried to copy it, including, elsewhere on this album, The MGs themselves, on “Mo’ Onions” and, to a lesser extent, their cover of the Mel Tormé hit “Comin’ Home Baby.” Ray Charles’ “I Got A Woman” gets a rave-up workout, as does Phil Upchurch’s hit “You Can’t Sit Down”; and the group proves adept at after-hours bluesy balladry on the standard “A Woman, A Lover, A Friend,” which they would return to when backing Otis Redding, three years later. They even squeeze some soul out of Acker Bilk’s “Stranger On The Shore.”
You may wonder why the album isn’t full of “Onions”-styled groovers, but that’s the way things were in 1962: instrumental bands played their own hits alongside everybody else’s, giving their audiences a certain familiarity to hold on to. They also had to prove their versatility, because back then nobody knew if pop fame was going to last and you might soon be back to playing the bars.
There’s enough cooking in Green Onions to keep you salivatin’, if not cryin’, and this is how the band that would become the best in the business really sounded back then.