September 4, 2009

The Best Recording Ever

Okay, I picked a provocative title, and if you clicked on this blog entry you probably came to it with the understandable attitude that there is no way you are going to agree with my choice for best song ever recorded. In fact I was inspired to pick such a title because I am in the midst of reading a book by music author Elijah Wald entitled How The Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘N’ Roll -- an alternative history of American popular music. If you’re in Borders and you see a book about The Beatles destroying Rock & Roll, there’s no way you won’t pick it up, which I think was the point of the title. (I am two-thirds of the way through the book and The Beatles have barely been mentioned.)

One particular song has fascinated me for years, and I will eliminate other possibilities by narrowing my choice to instrumentals. The instrumental radio hit is almost a thing of the past, becoming rarer as time passes. In the fifties and sixties it was a different story. Instrumental tunes like “Honky Tonk,” “Stranger on the Shore,” “Tequila,” and “Harlem Nocturne” could be heard on AM radio and showed up on Billboard’s Top 100 List, almost always one-hit wonders for the artist. In 1962 Booker T and the MG’s recorded and released an instrumental song called “Green Onions” on the Stax label. I know you’ve all heard it, you might not even be aware what it was called, but this song has musical magic in every measure.

“Green Onions” has received its share of attention over the years. “Rolling Stone” places it #181 out of 500 on their choice of best songs ever. Movie-wise it has been used in the films “Quadrophenia,” and “Get Shorty,” it’s been in numerous commercials, as radio bumper music, and is still played at ballparks across the country.

What makes this song stand the test of time? First of all, Booker T (I will assume), or perhaps Al Jackson, counted off the perfect tempo. It clocks in at 142 beats per minute. It’s not particularly important to put a number to it, but it is a tempo that is upbeat but not too fast to become frantic. You can snap your fingers on two and four with great ease, and even people with two left feet can move back and forth to its insistent groove. The original tempo will not be heard if you visit YouTube to see live performances of “Green Onions” saved on film. As is usually the case, the live performances of recorded songs are considerably faster and you will hear the difference from the record to live versions by Booker T and his band.

On the recording, the introduction starts with four measures of organ accompanied only by the hi-hat, with a little bit of dirt in the organ sound that made the Hammond B3 the keyboard of choice at the time. The form is our old friend the 12-bar blues. People who’ve read this blog know that I’m a great lover of the 12-bar blues and you can see my entry “Why I Love the Blues” from 3/30/09. There is a particular sound to this opening lick and the following 12 bars that I find fascinating. At the risk of getting too musically technical, the bass line, in quarter notes, plays F-F-A flat-B flat, clearly indicating a minor bass line and an overall minor flavor. At the same time, on the top, the melody (if you could even call it that) starts with a beat of rest followed by quarter notes on F-E flat-D, in a descending line contrasting with the ascending line of the bass. While the bass line is playing in a minor mode, the top three chords underneath the melody tones are all major triads: F, A flat and B flat. I’m convinced that this major on top and the minor on the bottom is what gives this song a certain darkness but also an indefinable hip sound, that’s hip with a capital H. There’s no getting around the fact that the song oozes cool.

After the four-bar intro, the drums, bass and guitar kick in and immediately take it up a notch. Guitarist Steve Cropper found the perfect thing to play over the first 12 bars, as he nails an accented chord on the second half of every beat 4, slightly anticipating beat 1, giving a forward propulsion to the whole affair. Bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn doubles the left hand of the organist in unison on the ascending minor bass notes.

The first 12 bars has to be considered the melody of the song, as simple as it is. After that we launch into two 12-bar choruses of improvised organ solo, single note lines that include a beautifully placed choppy dissonance in the entrance to chorus number two. At the end of Booker T’s first two choruses, someone yells an enthusiastic but barely audible “yeah!” probably picked up by the drum mics. Check it out at 1 minute and 10 seconds into the song.

Al Jackson provides a minimal but forceful beat. These three elements, a unison guitar/bass line on the bottom, a single note solo on top, and the basic backbeat drum groove, may be the ultimate example of the whole equaling more than the sum of its parts.

The guitar steps up in the third chorus and affirms my theory that this song was one-take wonder. When the guitar solo starts you can hear it is significantly too loud, and it takes about five licks before somebody (either the man behind the control board or Steve Cropper himself) fiddles with the volume until the solo balances with the accompaniment. In today’s huge multi-tracking studios and months for making an album, this would never have been allowed. In the final mix there would never be any discrepancies regarding the balance between instruments. Cropper plays his second 12-bars with one lick repeated over and over, transposed up a fourth, back down, up a fifth, etc., in order to match the three basic chords of the 12-bar blues. The organ returns, filling two more 12-bar phrases with single note lines. The song fades out much like the intro. And after 2 minutes and 50 seconds the musical magic is complete.

Steve Cropper credits the name “Green Onions” to an attempt to come up with a title as funky as possible. The fact that Booker T and the MG’s was a quartet that was half black and half white only adds a certain hipness and panache to the song.

It’s nearly impossible to put into words what makes this song so seemingly perfect, and I’m sure there are people out there who think I’ve chosen an odd choice for my nomination for the most perfect song ever recorded. Everyone has a personal short list of songs that belong in “perfect” territory.

Some years ago I was hired to go down to Memphis to provide keyboard parts and string arrangements on a recording for an up-and-coming heavy metal band called “Young Turk.” While I was there one of the engineers happened to point to a Hammond organ sitting in the hallway. “You see that B3?” he said. “That’s the organ Booker T used on ‘Green Onions.’” Do you suppose I succumbed to the childish impulse to run my fingers over the keyboard? I did.


  1. I love that tune too, and although it, and a number of other records of theirs have been in my collection for years, I always regarded them as 'soul' music rather than jazz, because that's right wherd it hits you - in the soul.

  2. Duck Dunn did not become the bassist for the MGs until 1965 on the recording of "Bootleg." Lewie Steinberg was the original bassist for the MG's and played on "Green Onions."

    1. Right you are! Thanks for the reminder. I now recall reading that in a book about the top recording studios in pop music.

  3. And Stax was responsible for other noteables too. Irma Thomas (Gee Wiz) , her Dad Rufus,the Midnight Hour guy Wilson Pickett and more. The musicians worked together in close harmony (remember it was a mixed group in Memphis) to develop a feel, the theatre studio resonance adds, and the soul around the place all act as sidemen to cause our heads to bop, toes tap....

  4. Remember this was Memphis in the 60's, the musicians were mixed, the theatre studio had resonance, and the people there had Irma Thomas (Gee WIz), her Dad Rufus, Wilson Picket (Midnight hour) and others also turned out head nodding, toe tapping records which still cause autonomic response...Good!!Bill Niland