The legendary Stax label featured the stellar roster of Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, and Wilson Pickett. But without the backing of its house band, Booker T. and the MGs, Stax would never have reached the heights of success. The label's backbone also scored some instrumental hits, their most famous being 1962's "Green Onions." To celebrate its 50th anniversary, Stax (now a Concord subsidiary) has reissued their seminal album Green Onions; along with the number one R&B hit, the CD also features "Can't Sit Down," a funk workout which later became a 1963 dance hit for the group The Dovells.
In 1960, Booker T. Jones, a multi-instrumentalist particularly known for his superb organ playing, met guitarist Steve Cropper during a session at Stax. Soon teaming with drummer Al Jackson and bassist Donald "Duck" Dunn, the group quickly achieved success with "Green Onions" and its accompanying album; indeed, their grittier sound that melded rock and soul (later refined by Sly and the Family Stone) with a Southern twist sounded like nothing else on the music charts. While the title track became their biggest hit, other songs deserve equal attention, including the sequel jam "Mo' Onions." But "Can't Sit Down" pleasantly surprises the listener, especially those mostly familiar with the smoother Dovells version.
Retaining the song's upbeat, danceable tempo, the group emphasizes Jones' driving organ that functions as a percussive instrument as much as the drums. Cropper, a still influential musician, lays down an edgy solo that exemplifies his economic style. In other words, he inserts fills and chords when necessary, never attempting to dominate the entire tune. Even Dunn gets his turn in the spotlight, playing a brief bass break before returning to his anchoring role. Listen to "Can't Sit Down" with headphones to completely appreciate Dunn's intricate fretwork.
The Green Onions reissue includes two bonus live tracks, one being a furious rendition of "Can't Sit Down." Performed at Los Angeles' 5/4 Ballroom in 1965, the song mostly replicates the studio recording except for a raspier Cropper solo and a soulful sax solo by Packy Axton. Jackson turns in some tasty extended drum breaks, his beat propelling the track into a frenzied tempo. Like the album, this performance illustrates how closely the group worked together, each member never overpowering the other. For any band to succeed, its individual members must serve as pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, with each person contributing their "piece" of the overall picture. Similarly Jones, Cropper, Jackson, and Dunn are excellent musicians on their own, but their combined effort produces sublime soul music.
Although they never topped "Green Onions," Booker T. and the MGs continued recording together throughout the 1960s. Perhaps their most ambitious effort remains McLemore Avenue, an all-instrumental remake of The Beatles' Abbey Road. Gradually the group split apart, mostly due to conflicting schedules. A complete reunion was made impossible when a home intruder killed Jackson in 1975; earlier this year, Dunn died in his sleep while on tour with Cropper and Eddie Floyd.
While the band may no longer exist, their place in soul and rock music history is assured. They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992, and they paved the way for integrated bands such as Sly and the Family Stone, War, and the Doobie Brothers. Other artists such as Jimi Hendrix and Prince also owe them a world of thanks, as Booker T. and the MGs established that deep R&B and rock could blend together. In addition to "Green Onions," "Can't Sit Down" perfectly represents the band's down-home soul sound. Pick up a copy of the Green Onions reissue to relive the Stax era and hear true pioneers. At the very least, you won't be able to "sit down" while hearing such serious grooves.