"Green Onions" is an instrumental composition recorded in 1962 by Booker T. & the M.G.'s. Described as "one of the most popular instrumental rock and soul songs ever", the tune is a twelve-bar blues with a rippling Hammond M3 organ line by Booker T. Jones that he wrote when he was 17, although the actual recording was largely improvised in the studio.
Cover of the 1962 US single
|Single by Booker T. & the M.G.'s|
|from the album Green Onions|
|Booker T. & the M.G.'s singles chronology|
The track was originally issued in May 1962 on the Volt label (a subsidiary of Stax Records) as the B-side of "Behave Yourself" on Volt 102; it was quickly reissued as the A-side of Stax 127, and it also appeared on the album Green Onions that same year. The organ sound of the song became a feature of the "Memphis soul sound".
Booker T. Jones was the keyboard player for the house band of Stax Records with Al Jackson on drums, Lewie Steinberg on bass, and Steve Cropper on guitar. They started jamming in the studio one Sunday when a recording session with another singer, Billie Lee Riley, failed to take place. They played around with a piano groove that Jones had performed in clubs before, although Jones decided to use a Hammond organ because he thought it sounded better on the tune. The owner of Stax Jim Stewart became interested in recording the resulting tune, "Behave Yourself", they were playing. However, the band needed a B-side for this song. Using a riff with a 12-bar blues bassline that Jones had, the band came up with a song that became "Green Onions". The guitarist Steve Cropper used a Fender Telecaster on "Green Onions", as he did on all of the M.G.'s instrumentals.
After recording, Cropper contacted Scotty Moore at Sun Records to cut a record. He then took the record to a DJ on the Memphis station WOLK, who played "Green Onions" on air. Due to positive reaction of the public to the song, it was quickly re-released as an A-side.
According to Booker T Jones, the composition was originally to be called "Funky Onions", but the sister of Jim Stewart thought it "sounded like a cuss word"; it was therefore renamed "Green Onions". According to Cropper, the title is not a marijuana reference; rather, the track is named after the Green Badger's cat, Green Onions, whose way of walking inspired the riff. Songfacts.com, however, ascribes the track's title to Jones. When asked by Stax co-owner Jim Stewart why he had given the track this title, Songfacts reports, Jones replied, "Because that is the nastiest thing I can think of and it's something you throw away." On a broadcast of the radio program Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me! on June 24, 2013, Jones was asked about the title and said, "The bass player thought it was so funky, he wanted to call it 'Funky Onions', but they thought that was too low-class, so we used 'Green Onions' instead."
Single track listingsEdit
|Name||Location||Format||Record label||Release date|
|"Behave Yourself" b/w "Green Onions"||US/UK||7" 45 rpm||Volt Records (US)||May 1962|
|"Green Onions" b/w "Behave Yourself"||US/UK||7" 45 rpm||Stax Records (US)/London Records (UK)||September 1962|
|"Green Onions" b/w "Boot-Leg"||United Kingdom||7" 45 rpm||Atlantic Records||March 1967|
"Green Onions" entered the Billboard Hot 100 the week ending August 11, 1962, and peaked at No. 3 the week ending September 29, 1962. The single also made it to No. 1 on the R&B singles chart, for four non-consecutive weeks, an unusual occurrence in that it fell in and out of top spot three times. It first appeared on the UK Singles Chart on December 15, 1979, following its use in the film Quadrophenia; it peaked at No. 7 on January 26, 1980, and stayed on the chart for 12 weeks.
The Surfaris recorded a version in 1963 on their album Wipe Out (Dot DLP 3535 and DLP 25535). Harry James recorded a version in 1965 on his album Harry James Plays Green Onions & Other Great Hits (Dot DLP 3634 and DLP 25634). In 1969, "Green Onions" was covered by Dick Hyman; his version peaked at No. 87 on the Canadian singles charts. During the 1968 jam concerts at the Fillmore West in San Francisco that produced The Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper, guitarist Mike Bloomfield and organist Al Kooper performed a jam of "Green Onions" that was included on the album. The song was sampled for Maxi Priest and Shaggy's 1996 recording of "That Girl".
Booker T. & the M.G.'s released a follow-up to "Green Onions", titled "Mo' Onions", on the album Green Onions in November 1962 and as a single in February 1964. It reached No. 97 on both the R&B singles and Billboard Hot 100 charts.
Sonny Boy Williamson's 1963 recording "Help Me" was based on "Green Onions" and features Willie Dixon performing an upright bass riff very similar to the riff in "Green Onions" performed by Lewie Steinberg.
"Green Onions" was ranked No. 181 by Rolling Stone in its list of the 500 greatest songs of all time; it is the only instrumental in the list. The track is currently ranked as the 137th greatest track of all time, as well as the best track of 1962, by Acclaimed Music.
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