Posts Tagged ‘Bobby “Boris” Pickett & the Crypt Kickers’

CHRIS MONTEZ – CAROLE KING – BOBBY “BORIS” PICKETT & THE CRYPT KICKERS – STAX RECORDS – BOOKER T AND THE MGs – RUFUS THOMAS – OTIS REDDING – AND OF COURSE, ELVIS PRESLEY

by Robert Seoane

THE MISSILES, AND HITS, OF OCTOBER

For thirteen days in 1962, between October 16th and 28th, the world was bracing itself for a possible nuclear confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. After the Kennedy Administration discovered that the USSR was responsible for the buildup of medium-range ballistic missiles in Cuba just 90 miles away from American shores, President John F. Kennedy delivered an ultimatum: dismantle the missiles or face war.

“It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.” –President John F. Kennedy, October 16, 1962

As Russian bluster clashed with American determination, the world held its breath. Cuban Premier Fidel Castro, expecting another US invasion at any moment after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, encouraged Soviet Premier Nikita Kruschev to launch an attack. Kruschev wasn’t so sure, and delivered a personal letter to Kennedy on October 26th. Attorney General Robert Kennedy described the letter as “very long and emotional”. Kruschev proposed that the United States take away the Jupiter missiles aimed at the USSR in Turkey and Italy, which ironically enough were nearly obsolete anyway, and the USSR would take away the missiles aimed at the US in Cuba. They also asked for one more thing. To never invade Cuba again.

“I propose: we, for our part, will declare that our ships bound for Cuba are not carrying any armaments. You will declare that the United States will not invade Cuba with its troops and will not support any other forces which might intend to invade Cuba. Then the necessity of the presence of our military specialists in Cuba will disappear.” –Nikita Kruschev

By the 28th, the two leaders arrived at an agreement. The United States withdrew the Italian and Turkish missiles, and Kennedy promised that the United States would never attempt to invade Cuba again. Kruschev dismantled the missiles and returned them to the USSR.

Admittedly, the American and Soviet governments did indeed avoid nuclear conflict, but the approximation this world had to a nuclear winter was not just prevented by the highest echelons of government. Nuclear annihilation was deterred at one point by one Soviet commander with common sense.

On October 27, a Soviet submarine armed with nuclear missiles was discovered near American shores. A small depth charge was deployed by a U.S. Navy missile near the sub trying to signal it to come up, but the submarine was down too deep to have the ability to signal to the Navy ship, so they assumed war had begun. The personnel in the Soviet sub immediately prepared to launch a nuclear torpedo. The decision to launch had to be made unanimously by the three commanding officers on the submarine. The Captain and the political officer authorized the launch, but Second Officer Vasili Arkhipov refused. As a result, the torpedo never launched. Yes, it took one man to prevent the world from blowing up, and had he not made that decision, we could very well not be here reading this blog today.

In the meantime, life went on as usual. Except for regular news broadcasts on the crisis, all other media ignored the event. Rock ‘n’ roll music, still, its infancy in 1962, was completely apolitical. The only political commentary heard in song came from folk music. Political folk songs were heard on the radio in the 1930’s and 1940’s by folk groups like the Weavers to protest World War Two. It wasn’t until Bob Dylan recorded his original work in 1963 that folk music returned to political commentary, and it wasn’t until 1965 that Dylan single-handedly melded folk protest with rock ‘n’ roll simply by walking on stage at the Newport Folk Festival with an electric guitar in hand, much to the horror of folk purists. That day alone marked the advent of political commentary in rock music and opened the door to many a protest song during the Vietnam War and many other causes. But in October of 1962, the top songs on the charts were mostly fluff, comprised of dance music, love tunes and a timeless “novelty” song.

 

LET’S DANCE – CHRIS MONTEZ


Chris Montez

Still years away from Carlos Santana’s fusion of Latin rhythms with rock music, there was barely a smattering of Hispanic-American musicians playing rock ‘n’ roll in 1962. The first and most famous of them all at the time was Ritchie Valens, but his sudden, shocking death at age nineteen with Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper in the infamous plane crash on February 4, 1959, halted any further blending of the two genres. It wasn’t until the early part of the Sixties that another Hispanic musician managed to make it to the higher echelons of the Billboard Pop chart with a song of his own, a fun little rock ‘n’ roll ditty called “Let’s Dance.”

Ezekiel Christopher Montañez was born in Los Angeles, California and grew up in Hawthorne, the same hometown as the Beach Boys. Born of Mexican immigrants, Chris was raised in a musical family, often singing falsetto on Mexican “rancheras” with his brothers as a pastime. They taught him to play guitar, and by the time he reached his junior year in Hawthorne High School, he had formed his own band. Inspired by Richie Valens, Chris shortened his last name from Montañez to Montez, just like Valens shortened his from Valenzuela, and with his high school group, they managed to record a few of Chris’ own original songs.

A representative from a local label named Monogram Records heard the recordings and released “All You Had To Do Was Tell Me” a slow, steamy burner ideal for slow dancing at the high school hop. It became a local hit but didn’t make a dent in the national charts.

In 1962, Montez recorded his first and only national Top Ten hit. It was an insanely catchy song that begins with a war drum-like percussion before an organ comes in to fill in Montez’ vocals. It was one of the first records to showcase an organ, a musical instrument that would become ubiquitous in many classic Sixties recordings. Like so many other songs of the day, its simple lyrics enumerate the dance crazes that were sweeping through teenage America at the time.

“Hey baby, won’t you take a chance? Say that you’ll let me have this dance, well, let’s dance, well, let’s dance… We’ll do the twist, the stomp, the mashed potato too, any old dance that you wanna do but let’s dance, well, let’s dance…” –Chris Montez, “Let’s Dance”

“Let’s Dance” is also featured in “National Lampoon’s Animal House” (1978) to showcase John Belushi’s character instigating a food fight in the University cafeteria.

The song made it to Number Four in the Billboard Pop chart on October 6, 1962, and Number Two in the UK. The success of the song made Montez a headliner and he toured for the next year with Clyde McPhatter, Sam Cooke, the Platters and Smokey Robinson. In a tour of Liverpool in 1963 with co-headliner Tommy Roe, Montez’ opening act were the Beatles.

“Who are these guys The Beatles? I try to keep up with the British scene, but I don’t know their work.” –Chris Montez

Unlike that opening act, Chris Montez never cracked the Top Ten again. His early music didn’t much reflect his Hispanic roots either. When he signed with A&M Records in 1965, he was determined to capture his earlier success by singing rock ‘n’ roll songs, but A&M label owner Herb Alpert suggested he tone down his style to sing soft ballads instead. The result was a recording originally sung by Petula Clark, called “Call Me” that, although only reached Number 22 in the Pop chart, made it to Number Two in the Easy Listening chart and has become more popular over the ensuing years, having been used in many movies, most notably, Harrison Ford’s “Frantic”.

Chris Montez’ popularity waned throughout the rest of the Sixties. By 1972, he finally tapped into his Latin roots and began to record songs in Spanish, which did quite well internationally, but never managed to break through in the United States. He recorded his final album in 1983, “Cartas de Amor”, exclusively Spanish-language material.

As of 2017, 74-year-old Chris Montez continues to tour occasionally in the US and the UK as part of the Solid Silver 60s show, a nostalgia tour showcasing various performers from the decade that was to change music forever.

 

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IT MIGHT AS WELL RAIN UNTIL SEPTEMBER – CAROLE KING


Carole King

By 1962, Carol Joan Klein had changed her name to Carole King and was already a songwriter with a few Number One hits under her belt. The Shirelles became the first girl group in the rock ‘n’ roll era to make it to Number One with King’s “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” on January 1961. The song was written along with her husband Gerry Goffin when they both worked for famed record producer Don Kirshner in New York’s Brill Building, where young, up-and-coming talented artists such as Neil Sedaka and Burt Bacharach, along with King, were writing for Kirshner to supplement the pop stars of the day with original material.

Each week, Kirschner would hold a meeting to listen to all his songwriters’ newest compositions, and the best songs would be assigned to any of a long list of recording artists in need of material. King and Goffin had already composed “The Loco-Motion” a dance song written for their babysitter, who would record the song under the name Little Eva and make it to Number One Pop on August 25, 1962, and “Chains” for Little Eva’s backup vocalists called the Cookies who took it to Number 17 on December 29, 1962, and was later covered definitively by the Beatles on their debut album “Please Please Me” in 1963.

During that time, King had written another song that Kirshner liked called “It Might As Well Rain Until September”. Kirshner gave King’s song to Bobby Vee, who had had a hit the year before with another King Number One, “Take Good Care of my Baby”. Carole recorded a demo version of the song for Vee, but Kirshner liked her demo recording so much that he decided to release it as a single. Other Kirshner artists, particularly Sedaka, were both songwriters and performers of their own work, so releasing the demo with King performing it was nothing new, but because it was a demo and never intended for release as a proper single, there is no master tape but only an acetate, and therefore the quality of the song is inferior. Still, “…September” managed to climb to Number 22 on October 6, 1962. In the meantime, Bobby Vee buried his recording of the song in his 1963 album and didn’t release it as a single because King’s version was already out.

“IMAWRUS” was Carole King’s first self-performed single. She wouldn’t record herself again until nine years later, in 1971, when she released her landmark solo album “Tapestry” and paved the way for future female songwriters to do the same.

Part of the reason it took Carole King nine years to record her own songs again can be traced back to her 1962 singing debut on TV’s American Bandstand when she first performed “It Might As Well Rain Until September”. King never fancied herself to be a pop star. She considered herself much too plain looking and boring for that. Besides, she already had two kids to take care of and had no interest in going on tour for the record, so going on TV was her best alternative.

King lip-synced the song just like everyone else did on the show, but because it was a demo, it sounded muffled. At the end of the program, the studio audience graded her performance as being the poorest that week and gave her a 42 rating out of 100. Although the record sold well, the disappointing reaction to her AB appearance could have had a lot to do with King’s reticence to record her own voice again. But the audience could very well have also been responding to the poor quality of what they were hearing and because of that, gave the overall performance a bad rating.

It’s a good thing for music fans everywhere that she ultimately overcame her initial setback because “Tapestry” is a fine album, filled with classics such as “I Feel The Earth Move”, It’s Too Late”, “So Far Away”, “You’ve Got A Friend”, “You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman”, and her own, slowed-down version of the song that first made her a songwriter to be reckoned with, the way she meant to have it performed, “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow”.

 

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THE MONSTER MASH – BOBBY “BORIS” PICKETT

Riding the tide of Sixties dance songs was a novelty record that’s still heard to this day, particularly around Halloween. Its popularity made a career out of one Robert George Pickett, the tune’s author, whose abilities to imitate the voices of Frankenstein’s Boris Karloff and Dracula’s Bela Lugosi, made famous by their respective Universal movie releases in the 1930’s and 40’s, made for an affectionately funny nod to the macabre world of the undead.

Pickett, a horror movie fan since childhood, was a struggling actor by day and lead vocalist for a band called the Cordials by night. One evening, he decided to satirize the Diamonds hit single “Little Darlin’” by singing it like Boris Karloff. The audience loved it, and fellow band member Leonard Capizzi noticed. Capizzi urged Bobby to capitalize on the impersonation. In May 1962, they sat down to write a novelty song incorporating Bobby Pickett’s talent for mimic. Much like rock ‘n’ roll itself, Pickett and Capizzi took two different genres, horror movie monsters and the current dance crazes, the Twist and the Mashed Potato, and blended them together. Due in large part to alliteration, they chose the Mashed Potato as opposed to the Twist to spinoff a dance reserved for creatures of the night, and called it “The Monster Mash”.

“I was working in the lab late one night when my eyes beheld an eerie sight. For my monster from his slab began to rise and suddenly to my surprise he did the mash, he did the monster mash, the monster mash, it was a graveyard smash, he did the mash, it caught on in a flash, he did the mash, he did the monster mash…” – Monster Mash – Bobby “Boris” Pickett & the Crypt Kickers

Every major record label passed on the song except for one producer by the name of Gary S. Paxton. Paxton had already scored a Number One Pop novelty hit in 1960 called “Alley-Oop” with his group, the Hollywood Argyles. He also had modest chart success in 1959 with a Top Twenty single called “It Was I” when he was part of a singing duo named Skip and Flip. When Paxton heard Pickett perform “Monster Mash”, he saw another novelty hit, so he agreed to produce and engineer the recording. Paxton quickly put together a backup band that included twenty-year-old pianist and future star in his own right, Leon Russell, and called them the Crypt Kickers. “The Monster Mash” was released through Paxton’s Garpax Records on August 25, 1962.

Paxton added special effects to the recording, reminiscent of the old Universal horror movies. The single opens with what sounds like a creaky coffin lid slowly opening, but is actually the sound of a nail being pulled out of a wooden board. The sound of a cauldron bubbling was simply Paxton blowing bubbles through a straw into a glass of water, and the rattling chains were actual chains being dropped on the studio floor. Amidst it all, Bobby spoke/sang the tune in his best Karloff impersonation, and gave us a smattering of his Lugosi impersonation for good measure.

“Out from his coffin, Drac’s voice did ring, seems he was troubled by just one thing, he opened the lid and shook his fist and said ‘Whatever happened to the Transylvania Twist?’”

“The Monster Mash” remained in the Number One position on Billboard’s pop chart from October 13th through October 27th, 1962, smack dab in the midst of the aforementioned Cuban Missile Crisis, and soon became a million seller. That wouldn’t be the end of the song’s chart success, however. In fact, it was only the beginning of a cottage industry that would sustain Pickett for the rest of his life. “Monster Mash” was re-released in August, 1970 and again in May, 1973 where it climbed to Number Ten and sold another million records. It was then released that same year for the first time in the UK where it reached Number Three, having been censored back in 1962 because it was deemed “too morbid”. It re-entered the UK charts again in 2008 where it climbed up to Number 60.

To capitalize on “Monster Mash”, Pickett recorded a follow-up Christmas single called “Monster’s Holiday”, reaching Number 30 during the 1962 holiday season. An album filled with monster-themed novelty tunes like “Me and My Mummy” and “Irresistible Igor” soon followed. The album had to be called “The Original Monster Mash” to distinguish it from another version of “Monster Mash” that had been quickly recorded by a singer named John Zacherle for the Cameo-Parkway record label.

In 1967, Pickett took his song concept to the stage and wrote a musical play with TV author Sheldon Allman called “I’m Sorry the Bridge Is Out, You’ll Have to Spend the Night”, which was produced in a smattering of local theaters around the US, then followed it up a few years later with another musical called “Frankenstein Unbound”. In 1995, Joel Cohen and Alec Sokolow, who had just written “Toy Story” for Disney, produced a movie version of “Frankenstein Unbound” and called it various titles, including “Frankenstein Sings” and “Monster Mash: The Movie”, starring Pickett himself.

When Rap music became popular in the Eighties, Pickett recorded “Monster Rap” in 1983, a worthy successor to “Monster Mash”, and found cult popularity on a national radio show hosted by a DJ named Barry Hansen, better known as Dr.Demento, whose show can still be heard online.

In 1993, Pickett wrote yet another “…Mash” spinoff and called it “It’s Alive” which also played regularly on Dr. Demento’s radio show.

He dusted off his novelty songwriting pen yet again in 2005 when he wrote “Climate Mash” in protest of the American government’s inaction towards global warming. That same year, Pickett released his autobiography called “Monster Mash: Half Dead in Hollywood”.

“Monster Mash” has been re-recorded and sampled by other artists throughout the years, from the Canadian arena rock group Rush, incorporating bits of it in their instrumental track, “Limbo” off their 1996 album, “Test for Echo” to the Misfits, a horror punk band who released a music video of them performing “Monster Mash” live in 1997, then recorded it twice, in 1999 for release as a single and again in 2003 for their album “Project 1950”.

Bobby Pickett died on April 25, 2007 of leukemia at age 69. The Dr. Demento show paid tribute to him two weeks later on May 13 with a retrospective of his work. Although most of his songs are only known by a small cult following, his “Monster Mash” has become the most played song during Halloween. It’s interesting to note that the two fads the song was inspired from, Universal monster movies and Sixties dance fads, are now lost in the cobwebs of nostalgia, but their offshoot child, “The Monster Mash” lives on.

 

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STAX RECORDS AND THE BIRTH OF MEMPHIS SOUL

The refurbished Capitol Theater located at 926 East McLemore Avenue in Memphis, Tennessee became Stax Records in 1961.

Besides Detroit’s special brand of R&B coming out of Motown Records, there was another city that came to the fore in 1962 playing host to a unique sound that was to become known as Memphis Soul. It was comprised of music legends that could have otherwise been ignored had it not been for one record label in particular that was born out of Memphis thanks to a forward-thinking pair of siblings named Jim and Estelle.

Until then, Memphis had been not only known for its C&W music but also for pioneering rock ‘n’ roll in the Fifties, thanks to Sam Phillips’ Sun Records and his golden boy, Elvis Presley. But it took a handful of young producers and entrepreneurs to lead the way during the subsequent decade in defining and releasing classic soul records that represented the new Memphis sound of the Sixties through a record label called Stax. Stax Records would become one of the most popular soul music record labels during the Sixties and Seventies, second only to Motown in sales with its raw, gritty, un-Motown-like sound. The two competitor labels paralleled themselves even in slogans. While Motown dubbed their headquarters the all-encompassing “Hitsville USA”, Stax retorted with their more urban “Soulsville USA”.

Undiscovered until the label’s advent, renowned musical legends soon blossomed over the ensuing years. People like Steve Cropper, Donald “Duck” Dunn, Booker T. Jones, Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Johnnie Taylor, Albert King, Wilson Pickett, Bobby Womack, the Box Tops, Isaac Hayes, the Staple Singers, the Dramatics, The Bar-Kays, Delaney & Bonnie, the Delfonics, Eddie Floyd, the Spinners, Joe Tex, Rufus Thomas, and his daughter Carla, all got their start with Stax, and it all began when a twenty-seven-year-old young man decided to indulge himself in his love for music.


Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton

Inspired by Sun Records’ owner Sam Phillips, Tennessean Jim Stewart wanted to start a record label, so in 1957 he founded Satellite Records in Memphis. Over the next two years, the label’s recording output would consist of country & western and rockabilly music. In 1959, he hired a twenty-one-year-old recording engineer named Lincoln Wayne “Chips” Moman to be Satellite Record’s staff producer.


Chips Moman

Moman, not content with just recording C&W artists, introduced Stewart to R&B music and suggested he scout local R&B talent to record, whetting Stewart’s interest in this uniquely ethnic but delightfully catchy new sound. By the summer of that same year, Satellite Records would release its first R&B single called “Fool In Love”, written by Moman and performed by their first, newly discovered doo-wop group called the Veltones.

The early Satellite recordings were sub-par and Stewart knew this, but he needed money to buy his own recording equipment. Like him, his sister, bank clerk Estelle Axton, was also a music lover. Wanting to become totally self-sufficient and improve the quality of his recording output, Stewart asked his sister to invest in Satellite Records with him by helping him purchase recording equipment for the label. Estelle persuaded her husband to mortgage their home and they used the funds to purchase an Ampex 300 tape recorder for $2500 (approximately $21,000 in 2017 dollars). By 1959, Estelle quit her job and the siblings joined forces. Moman helped them find the former Capitol Theater at 926 East McLemore Avenue in Memphis and together they turned it into a recording studio. The stage was the control room and the auditorium was converted into studio space. The size and various floor levels of the auditorium were left intact, creating interesting acoustics and adding a unique sound to the recordings.

“The studio wasn’t designed like studios are today,” Cropper recalls. “I mean, we took this old theatre and pulled the seats out of it. We had to go and hammer all of the screws down into the concrete before we could put carpet down. And we were all there helping to do that, making burlap baffles and so on, without any knowledge at all of what we were doing.” –Steve Cropper

One of the first jobs at hand for the fledgling record label was to find session musicians who could play C&W as well as R&B to back up their artists in the recording studio. Estelle’s son and Jim’s nephew, Charles “Packy” Axton had that ability. Packy was an aspiring tenor sax musician who played in a high school group named the Royal Spades. Besides Packy, the Royal Spades consisted of Wayne Jackson on trumpet, Jerry Lee Smith on keyboards, Donald “Duck” Dunn on bass and legendary guitarist, then seventeen-year-old Steve Cropper. In 1958, Estelle and Jim offered the Royal Spades the opportunity to play back up for their artists as session musicians for Satellite Records. The teenage boys eagerly agreed and worked for them from that moment forward in various incarnations. It wasn’t always harmonious however, as Packy had a penchant for alcohol and could become overbearing. During one session, he actually came to blows with his guitarist Cropper, who briefly quit the band after the fight. Packy’s alcoholism never abated after that incident, and he ultimately died in January of 1974 at age 32 of cirrhosis of the liver.


The Royal Spades; left to right, Don Nix, Steve Cropper, Packy Axton, Duck Dunn, Terry Johnson, Ronnie Doots and Wayne Jackson

In order to make ends meet as they struggled to record hits, Estelle and Jim turned the Capitol Theater’s foyer into a record store, which would ultimately prove more valuable than just being a center of profit at the time. Estelle stocked the store with the best in R&B records of the day, inadvertently expanding her knowledge of the competition and influencing the music Stax recorded, and encouraged young folk attracted to her inventory to use the store as a meeting place while they listened to their favorite songs. She would often play the acetates of their own latest recordings for the store visitors to gauge the song’s popularity. Sixteen-year-old Booker T. Jones was a frequent visitor, and he would often spend hours there listening to records and chatting with Estelle and Cropper, who Estelle hired to work at the store part time.

“She just loved music, loved people. She was always bringing us up there (the record shop), having us listen to records. She kept us in touch with the music industry. I doubt there would have been a Stax Records without Estelle Axton. She encouraged the entire Stax roster from her little perch behind the counter.”–Booker T. Jones

 

RUFUS THOMAS


Second row, from left, Steve Cropper, Donald “Duck” Dunn, unknown man, Andrew Jackson. Front row, from left, unknown couple, Cara & Rufus Thomas, Janis Joplin and Sam Andrew

“Rufus Thomas embodied the spirit of Memphis music perhaps more than any other artist, and from the early 1940s until his death… occupied many important roles in the local scene.” –The Mississippi Blues Commission

One of the first African-American artists to record in the new Stax studio was Rufus Thomas, with his daughter Carla sharing lead and her brother Marvell on keyboards on an R&B wailer called “’Cause I Love You”.

Booker T. Jones began his musical career there playing baritone sax on the recording. The record caught the ear of Atlantic Records co-founder Jerry Wexler. The song gave Stewart the opportunity to work out a deal with Atlantic Records to distribute Satellite’s output nationally. One of the artists Atlantic wanted Stax to keep as part of their agreement was Rufus Thomas’ daughter, Carla who had a hit in 1961 with her debut single, “Gee Whiz (Look At His Eyes).”

Rufus Thomas enjoyed a long career with Stax, particularly during the Sixties and Seventies, with popular novelty singles like “Walking the Dog” (1963) and “Do the Funky Chicken” (1969).

 

BOOKER T & THE MGs

Stewart attributed his new-found love for R&B music as being “a blind man who suddenly gained his sight.” From then on, Jim and Estelle agreed to record exclusively R&B music, but they had an image problem, since for the last four years, Satellite Records was known as a C&W record label. He and Estelle soon realized that they needed to re-invent themselves. By September of 1961 they had changed the name of the record label from Satellite to Stax Records, deriving “Stax” from a portmanteau of their surnames, Stewart and Axton. From then on, with Moman sharing the helm, Stax Records would come to define Memphis Soul.


Booker T & the MGs; from left to right, Donald “Duck” Dunn, Booker T. Jones, Steve Cropper and Al Jackson

Witnessing all this change, the label’s young session musicians wanted to also record a single of their own. Packy bugged his mom for years, along with the rest of the group, until Estelle ultimately agreed in 1961, but on the condition that they changed what she considered to be a dreadful name, “The Royal Spades”, to the Mar-Keys, referring to the old Capitol Theater’s marquee outside Stax. They agreed to the name change if it meant recording a song on their own. The result, “Last Night”, was written by Packy Axton, Chips Moman, Floyd Newman, Gilbert Caple and Jerry Lee Smith. The instrumental would climb to Number Three Pop and Number Two R&B on the national Billboard charts that year. The young group was thrilled and it marked the beginning of a varied musical career for them.

“Jerry Lee ‘Smoochy’ Smith came up with the piano riff that was played on organ. Since [producer Chips] Moman didn’t want a guitar on it for whatever reason, I wound up playing the hold-down on the organ on the root note. It hurts me in the Mar-Keys history when people say I wasn’t in the Mar-Keys because there’s no guitar on ‘Last Night’ but I have to differ with them.” –Steve Cropper

By 1962, shake-ups within the label had already begun. Moman left Stax towards the end of the year before due to a disagreement over song royalties. Stewart then turned to Cropper, who admired the young man’s maturity and talent, and offered him Moman’s vacated position as A&R director. Cropper immediately took to the job, working as writer, producer and session lead guitarist for scores of Stax singles. In one of his first recording sessions under this new configuration, Steve was backing former Sun Records artist Billie Lee Riley on a song with Booker T. Jones on keyboards, bassist Lewis Steinberg, and drummer Al Jackson. During downtime, the four session musicians would play around with a bluesy organ riff. Jim Stewart was in the control room at the time and liked what he heard, so he suggested they record the riff. Soon after that, they laid down another instrumental track and before they knew it, they had themselves an impromptu single.

GREEN ONIONS – BOOKER T & THE MGs

The resulting recordings were titled “Behave Yourself” and the profoundly funky “Green Onions”. Stewart wanted to release “Behave Yourself” as the A-side of the single but Cropper begged to differ. DJs who had heard the two tracks mostly agreed that “Green Onions” had a subversive rhythm that got under your skin and never let go, so Jim relented and released it as the A-side of Booker T & the MGs’ debut single.

“We were all real excited about this thing. The next morning I called Scotty Moore over at Sun and I said: ‘We got a hot one, can you make me a dub on it?’ So I ran over and he says, ‘Man, that’s funky!’ Then I took the dub over to Reuben Washington at WLOK and he just threw it on live, played it four times in a row. And I’m tellin’ you, the phones lit up.” –Steve Cropper

With Booker T. Jones handling the insanely funky keyboard, Steve Cropper adding his tasty, brief bursts of Fender Telecaster licks to the mix and Steinberg’s steadily unnerving bass, the sudden new group had to scramble for a name once the song hit the airwaves and settled on Booker T & The MGs. By September of 1962, “Green Onions” had climbed to its peak Number Three position on Billboard’s Pop chart.

Booker T. & The MGs would go on to be considered the Greatest Backing Band in the History of Soul, cooking up the funkiest rhythms for the artists they backed during their tenure at Stax. By 1964, Donald “Duck” Dunn replaced Steinberg on bass and along with the rest of the group, played on songs such as Aretha Franklin’s “Respect”, Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” and “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay”, Eddie Floyd’s “Knock on Wood”, Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour” and Sam & Dave’s “Hold on I’m Coming” among scores more.

“I like to pat ourselves on the back. When you hear Booker T & the MGs, you can pick one instrument and there’s a separation there. It’s not cluttered. It’s just like it was written, but it was all done off the top of the head. It was just a lucky marriage of us four, I think.” –Donald “Duck” Dunn

 

OTIS REDDING


Otis Redding

A promo man for Stax’ distribution label, Atlantic Records, by the name of Joe Galkin was so taken by “Green Onions” that he made it a point to send his Macon-based Johnny Jenkins & the Pinetoppers to the Stax recording studios to record with Booker T & the MGs, who were soon get the distinction of being the best backing band in the South. The session unfortunately, proved unproductive. At the end of it all, with hours of recording time spent and nothing to show for it, they begrudgingly allowed one of the members of the group, a 21-year-old singer/songwriter named Otis Ray Redding, to lay down a ballad he had written called “These Arms of Mine”.

“The cat sang about two lines and everybody’s eyes just went like this – Jesus Christ, this guy’s incredible!” –Steve Cropper

THESE ARMS OF MINE – OTIS REDDING

“These Arms Of Mine” was released through Stax’ subsidiary label, Volt, in October 1962 and charted the following year, ultimately selling over 800,000 copies and becoming Stax’ most popular record to date. It marked the beginning of the first chapter of the Stax Records legacy, the Otis Redding period, when the rising star would lead the label to unparalleled success until Redding’s tragic plane crash in 1967 ground everything to a halt.

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