How we made Booker T and the MGs' Green Onions
‘It was originally called Funky Onions – but to laced-up, deep-south America, that sounded like a cuss word, so we had to retitle it’
‘We had problems with things like segregated eating’ … Booker T Jones, front, with Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn, Steve Cropper and Al Jackson. Photograph: Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo
Booker T Jones, organist
I grew up in Memphis and by the time I was 17, I was learning saxophone, piano and Hammond organ, paid for by my paper round. I started going over to Stax Records after school. Soon enough, I was the keyboard guy in the house band.
One Sunday, we were supposed to be working with a singer called Billie Lee Riley, but something hadn’t worked out. He’d packed up and left, so we had the studio to ourselves. We started playing around with a piano groove I’d been performing in the clubs, trying to emulate Ray Charles. It sounded better on the organ, so I kept on playing that. Stax owner Jim Stewart liked what we were doing and wanted to put it out. Then it occurred to him that we needed a flip-side.
So I started playing another bluesy riff I had. This was how Green Onions began. That band – Al Jackson on drums, Lewie Steinberg on bass, Steve Cropper on guitar – was a once-in-a-lifetime unit. We clicked because of our devotion to simplicity. The bassline was basic 12-bar blues. Al was a human metronome on the drums. Lewie called this doodling jam Funky Onions, but Jim’s sister said: “We can’t use that word.” To laced-up, deep-south conservative America, it sounded like a cuss word. So we retitled it Green Onions.
We were a racially integrated band before civil rights. One white person and three black people – one of whom looked white! Nobody realised this until we started performing in public. We had problems with things like segregated eating, but we survived.
Green Onions started the “Memphis soul sound”, that deep organ. Years later, in the 70s, I was sitting in a restaurant on Hollywood Boulevard and this dude jumped up and started dancing on the table, plates flying. Everyone was laughing, then he just took off. I said: “Who was that guy?” It turned out to be Keith Moon from the Who, paying me a form of tribute. Shortly afterwards, the Who used Green Onions in Quadrophenia, and it became a hit in the UK all over again.
It’s still one of my favourite songs. It’s defined my life. But it’s deceptively simple. There’s a magic in there that’s hard to capture. To get it right, I still have to practise.
Steve Cropper, guitarist
When Jim Stewart said he liked what we were doing and wanted to record us, we were dumbfounded. “Is this guy serious?” we thought. On the original master tape, you can actually hear us laughing at the end. I was 21 and playing at my limit. By the third take, we had Green Onions.
There was no name for the group, nor even a title for the track, but I knew it was a hit. I called my buddy Scotty Moore over at Sun Records and asked him if he could cut a disc. I took it to Reuben Washington, the drivetime DJ on the Memphis station WOLK. He gave it a spin and said: “That’s pretty catchy!” Then he played it again – but this time live on air. The phones lit up. Everyone wanted to know what this record was and where they could get it.
At that point, Green Onions was being pressed as the B-side to Behave Yourself. But it was quickly reissued as the A-side and became a smash. I don’t remember it being called Funky Onions, but I do remember it being called Onions until I said: “But onions make you cry and give you indigestion.” So it became Green Onions because we had them for Sunday dinner.
Someone at Stax had an MG motor car, so we called ourselves Booker T and the MGs. When the British car firm’s lawyers told us to desist, we told them it stood for Memphis Group. We all had to swear to secrecy that we’d never talk about the car again. Years later, we were being interviewed and someone asked: “What does MG actually stand for?” Duck Dunn [who replaced Steinberg in 1964] said: “Musical geniuses!”
Booker and I looked at each other. I think we wanted to kill Duck, because we’d never say that about ourselves. But at least they got an answer to their question.