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.