on 5 August 2013
My first brush with Stax occurred when I bought - unheard! - "Green Onions" by Booker T & The MGs. Via the US chart printed in New Musical Express, I'd watched this odd combination of title and group name hit the highs and thought it worth risking 6/4d (or was it 6/7d?). Well rewarded and even tho it was a laid back mid-pace r&b instrumental, it was so obviously 'black'. Great surprise to later learn that the MGs were an integrated group, more surprised that it never charted in the UK. Which added smugness to my enjoyment. (Since when it's become one of the top ten most played toons on radio, TV and wherever in the world. And the only 45 to be issued on Stax and subsidiary Volt).
Although an earlier release and hit on 'original' label Satellite - and Stax - I didn't get to hear "Last Night" by The Mar-Keys until after "Green Onions". Whereas Booker & Co were a four piece, The Mar-Keys added brass, along with some distinctive Booker T organ. So what was going on? The notes from Bob Fisher explain all, as he goes thru the two Mar-Keys LPs "Last Night" (1961) and "Do The Popeye With..." (1962) and a handful of singles (inc one interloper from The Triumphs) and the "Green Onions" album (1962) from Booker T & MGs, which 42 tracks make up this rather fine double CD.
Stax offered a more bluesy, r&b feel than its nearest rival in the field, Motown. Whereas the latter was more structured and production orientated, Stax was looser, intent on a 'feel', more of a ger-oove, smoother than Detroit's more formulaic output. A typical Mar-Keys cut, hardly ever more than mid-pace, would revolve around a brass riff, with stabs and glissandos, usually a sax break, marginally jazzy (tho organ was not unusual), guitar - if present - way down in the mix. Up to seven players, uh huh, rifftastic! Yeah, couple of tracks I didn't enjoy so much, "Misty" and "Ebb Tide", but more than compensated by the bulk.
If legend is to be believed, Booker T & The MGs were just noodling around in the studio when they cut "Green Onions" and gave it the "stinkiest" title they could come up with. Bob's notes indicate that they were actually working on its flip, "Behave Yourself", released as the original A side. There would be many fine singles to follow, but after the success of the B side, an album was hurriedly called for and as can be seen, they were probably forced into doing a selection of mainly covers to meet the deadline. "Mo' Onions", not an immediate follow-up to "Green"' good enough, but not as good as. I get the idea that this was worked on, whereas "Green" jus' came outta the air!
Spring 1967, Finsbury Park Astoria, London, the Stax/Volt tour. Marvellous, they were all there, Otis, Sam & Dave, Arthur Conley etc., backed by Booker T & The MGs (opening with an upbeat version of "Green" which slightly offended me) and The Mar-Keys, being Joe Arnold, Wayne Jackson and Andrew Love, two saxes and a trumpet, all in green suits. What a backing band! Riotous approval throughout, I went home a very happy chappie. Yes, it all comes back to me...tho I never did get the live recordings of the tour...
Excellent notes give original US release number, LP and 45 where relevant, chart placing from Billboard, Record World and Cashbox, again where relevant, and recording personnel. I'm not too happy about how the tracks have been sequenced, would prefer the LPs in full, 45s by way of bolt-ons, but hey, I'm fussy that way. Bit more imagination on the cover art wouldn't have gone amiss (head and shoulders shot of Booker T), but you can't play a cover. Most importantly, great music, a happy combo of early, slightly greaser soul and r&b. And I saw 'em at their peak! (Recommended reading: "Soulsville USA: The Story of Stax Records" by Rob Bowman, 1997, paperback still available via Amazon).