Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.
Booker T. Jones, Steve Cropper, Lewie Steinberg, and Al Jackson were the core of the MGs, the house band of Stax Records in Memphis. They played on scores of the R&B hits of the day, backing Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, and Wilson Pickett, amongst many others. In 1962 they got some downtime to mess around on their own in the studio. Utilizing a standard 12-bar format, and working from the germ of an idea of Jones, they largely improvised it into sounding something special. They called it “Green Onions” – green at label co-owner Estelle Axton’s suggestion, and onions because they were the funkiest thing Steinberg could think of. “To him they were funky because they were stinky,” Cropper later said.
Suitable as a b-side for a track, “Behave Yourself,” that had already been commissioned of them by Jim Stewart, Cropper rushed the tapes off to Scotty Moore at Sun Records to cut the disc. Once it had secured a few radio plays, it became apparent the a and b were the wrong way around, and they were flipped, with “Green Onions” racing up the chart, hitting a peak of number 3. In the near 60 years since, it has never lost appeal, with numerous releases gaining a nod from successive generations. Both of its time and timeless, it has become musical shorthand by film makers and advertisers to evoke a the image of the early 60s, all beehives and flat tops, prime American Graffiti-styled mythologizing.
So what could you possibly do if you decide to cover this most iconic of instrumentals, other than to kill it or copy it? Which, pretty much, is what most versions do, often at the same time. That includes a whole host of folk who should know better (looking at you, Tom Petty and Dave Edmunds), jumping on the coattails of the song for either a quick fix of audience nostalgia or a quick buck in a fading career. Plus a shedload of ultimately weird discoveries, like the California Raisins and a pre-Beach Boys Bruce Johnston, doing little other than to let it sell their product, whether that be dried fruit or party music for co-eds. But there are some absolute belters tucked away out there, where much thought has been taken to give a little more back to the tune than Booker T and co. ever gave. From some surprising sources. Plus one liberal helping of good ol’ messy just for the hell of it.
Downliners Sect – Green Onions (Booker T and the MGs cover)
For a song that so smacks of cool, how about this ramshackle version, all clatter and echo, enthusiasm trumping any sense of expertise? If Jackson was, in Cropper’s words, “the greatest drummer to ever walk the earth,” the drummer here probably isn’t, but his brash thumping has a bizarre appeal. A live version, it comes from Downliners Sect, who were neither a garage band from Albany nor punks from Poughkeepsie, hailing rather from an early 1960s London. In the same vein as the nascent Rolling Stones and the Pretty Things, they were defiantly raw, with “a finesse that made the Pretty Things seem positively suave in comparison” (Richie Unterberger). No organ here, just guitar, bass and those unforgettable drums. They did vocals too, of a sneer and snarl easy to imagine. They play on to this day, still with a core of original members. An intriguing footnote is that both Rod Stewart and Steve Marriott once auditioned for the band.
Count Basie – Green Onions (Booker T and the MGs cover)
From the ridiculous to the sublime. Like most jazzers of the 40s and 50s, by 1967 Count Basie had been somewhat sidelined by the explosion of popular music, reduced to big-band versions of hits of the day. But this reinterpretation is a joy, especially the sotto voce piano and walking bass intro. Even when the horn section swoop in, it maintains some semblance of dignity. If you shun any thought of Glenn Miller and think latter-day Zappa, it even becomes credible, if the piano then goes a bit supper club. There are a host of versions in this format, but this is the front runner. The album this came from, Basie’s in the Bag, mainly featured music from Stax and Motown, although Chuck Berry’s “Memphis, Tennessee” snuck in at the end. Big band sort of suits this style, horns already prominent in the originals. His set of Beatles’ interpretations have lasted a whole lot less well.
Machito & His Orchestra – Green Onions (Booker T & the MGs cover)
I can’t resist this version, featuring another bandleader struggling against the turn of the musical tide. But, beneath the cha cha cha beat and the exuberant horns, listen carefully to the congas y timbales, the Afro-Cuban engine room of his band surely an influence on one Carlos Santana. Machito has been unjustly somewhat set aside in the history of American 20th century music, his footstep, I believe, as important as any, with many of those who have had better recognition, passing through his ranks at one time or another. Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Buddy Rich were all onetime members of his orchestra. Unlike Basie, he never harmed any Beatles, but the album the featured track comes from, Machito Goes Memphis, does offer an execrable destruction of the Stones’ “Satisfaction.”
Michaela Rae – Green Onions (Booker T & the MGs cover)
Michaela Rae, a largely unheard-of blues guitar slinger, latches onto the 12 bars of “Green Onions” and doesn’t let go. With a beautiful tone to her guitar, it is little more than an excuse for some perfectly formed extemporization, slipping back to the main melody just enough to underline the source. The balance between the Cropper clipped chops and Rae’s more flowing ribbons of notes works better than many the similar blues based work outs available. So who she? Actually only 16 when this came out on her debut, 2009’s Blues With a Backbone, some sources suggest she was 13 when she recorded it. But don’t let that skew any appreciation; it is a solid rendition, and the rest of the record also warrants attention, even if her debt to Stevie Ray Vaughan is written somewhat indelibly on her sleeve. That release seems to be her only one, and the trail runs somewhat dry thereafter. A neglected Facebook page has her working with and in other bands, with even that information six years adrift.
Vassar Clements – Green Onions (Booker T & the MGs cover)
Sticking with the blues, this wondrous skip through is from Vassar Clements, the avuncular fiddle maestro who belied his benign appearance by working, variously, with Jerry Garcia, Dickey Betts, and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Starting his career as one of Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys, his is the fiddle in the Flatt & Scruggs theme to The Beverly Hillbillies. But it was his work as the inventor and prime proponent of what he called hillbilly jazz that most cast his legacy, a down-home blend of bluegrass, big band, and jazz, encompassing literally anything else that was passing. It is very much in this vein that he made the more blues inflected Livin’ With the Blues in 2004, his last album, and this joyous version of the featured song is centered on a fiddle and harmonica duet, with Charlie Musselwhite providing the latter. If you get nothing more from this piece, make it the name Vassar Clements. I especially endorse Deadgrass, his year 2000 set of Grateful Dead covers.