The Story Behind “Green Onions” by Booker T. and the M.G.’s

Discussions about songs usually revolve around the concepts of hooks, bridges, choruses, and of course lyrics. But the 1962 instrumental “Green Onions” by Booker T. and the M.G.’s has few of these. Yet it’s one of the most famous, resilient, and influential songs to emerge from the golden age of soul music.   

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How Did That Happen?

We can thank rockabilly singer Billy Lee Riley for helping create one of music’s most enduring and timeless instrumentals, even though his name is nowhere on it.

Riley was reportedly too hoarse to complete a scheduled session at Memphis’ Stax studios on a late spring day in 1962. The musicians who gathered to support him—players who would soon be the house band at Stax—killed some time by jamming. 

It was a Sunday, and Stax label owner Jim Stewart was off from his full-time bank job. Instead, he was in the Stax studio to engineer the Riley recording. But when Riley’s session was aborted, the assembled musicians—a 17-year-old Booker T. Jones on keyboards, guitarist Steve Cropper, bass player Lewie Steinberg, and drummer Al Jackson Jr.—started jamming on a slow blues.

Stewart liked what he heard and pushed record. The resulting piece, eventually titled “Behave Yourself,” impressed Stewart enough for him to want to release it as a single. Now they needed a “B” side.

Cropper remembered a lick Booker T. had been playing around with a few weeks earlier and asked him to start it again. Jones remembers it this way in the notes to the album’s 60th-anniversary reissue: “I’d forgotten those riffs … so I asked Steve to stand next to the organ and help refresh my memory. I played several licks before Steve stopped and shouted, ‘That’s it!’ He identified the opening notes of what would become ‘Green Onions.’ The song burst to life on the spot.” 

Even the Mistakes Worked

When Cropper, who was mostly a rhythm player, takes his first solo, the guitar is too loud. Cropper detailed the issue to writer Scott B. Bomar. “What happened was, I hit it a lot harder when I hit that opening note and it probably scared the crap out of Jim Stewart. … I’m sure he grabbed that knob and turned me down a lot lower than he probably needed to. The final version was the first and only take with a guitar solo in the middle, which is probably why I hit it harder than expected.”

Then What?

Even though it was only supposed to be a B-side—Cropper knew he had something special. The next day, he brought the tape to Sam Phillips’ studio where Elvis’ guitarist Scotty Moore mastered the music and pressed some acetates. On Tuesday, Cropper took one to WLOK DJ Reuban Washington, who played it back-to-back four times on the air. The phones went wild.

What About the Band’s Name?

The playersweren’t an official band, so they needed to find a name quickly to get the song out to radio. Everyone liked the sound of “Booker T.” Drummer Jackson suggested the M.G.’s part to reference the popular British MG sports car. However, the company refused to allow that. So they kept the initials which they then said were short for Memphis Group.

[RELATED: Booker T. Drafts The Roots, The National, Lou Reed, My Morning Jacket For New Album]

How Popular Was It?

Enormously. The single was initially released on the small regional Volt label. It was quickly recalled and re-pressed on the larger Stax imprint, which was distributed by Atlantic—an entity that could handle national coverage. Radio play snowballed, which was unusual for an instrumental, and Stax had their first big-selling record.

The track hit No. 1 on the R&B charts and No. 3 on the pop charts in the summer of ’62. It sold more than 750,000 copies in its first year and has since logged more than 1 million in sales. 

How About the Album and Its Cover?

The newly formed outfit recorded 10 more songs, many of which were covers. They also added the “Green Onions” B-side “Behave Yourself,” and rewrote the hit in the slightly altered “Mo’ Onions.” 

The Green Onions album—the first LP issued on the Stax label—was released in September 1962. However, since the quartet was mixed-race, and segregation was still an issue in the South, the decision was made to exclude a band photo on the cover. Instead, a shot of green onions was used. 

What Is “Green Onions”’ Legacy?

“Green Onions” kickstarted the Stax label’s Southern funk, blues, and soul sound, which picked up steam with Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, and dozens of others from the ’60s through the ’70s. The song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999, appeared on Rolling Stone’s 2004 Top 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list, and has been covered by acts as disparate as Roy Buchanan, Tom Petty, Vassar Clements, and even modern rock band Khruangbin—the latter generating approval from Cropper himself. The song is featured in dozens of movies and has been streamed over 200 million times.

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