“Green Onions” Historical Background

Soul band Booker T. & the M.G.'s.

The first hit of their own that Booker T. and the M.G.’s recorded was “Green Onions.” The curious title came, according to guitarist Steve Cropper, from the band’s desire to name the song after “something that was as funky as possible.” The band played on the double meaning of the word funky, as both a song with a strong rhythm and as something that smelled badly. Indeed, as anyone who has heard “Green Onions” knows, it is built around a fantastic groove, and yes, the vegetable green onions, from which the song was given its name, can have a really strong odor.

More that just a funky soul band, Booker T. and the M.G.’s was the background band for many classic Stax recordings and they were an integrated group at a time when opposition to desegregation kindled violent conflicts throughout the South. Stax co-owner Al Bell described the unique business environment at Stax that made it possible for a white man to play with three black men in the South during the 60s:

I was amazed to sit in the same room with this white guy [Stax co-owner Jim Stewart] who had been a country fiddle player. . . . We had separate water fountains in Memphis and throughout the South. And if we wanted to go to a restaurant, we had to go to the back door—but to sit in that office with this white man, sharing the same telephone, sharing the same thoughts, and being treated like an equal human being—was really a phenomenon during that period of time. The spirit that came from Jim and his sister Estelle Axton allowed all of us, black and white, to come off the streets, where you had segregation and the negative attitude, and come into the doors of Stax, where you had freedom, you had harmony, you had people working together. It grew into what became really an oasis for all of us.1

This was especially significant in the racially segregated city of Memphis. When thirteen black 1st graders were allowed to attend formerly all-white schools—nearly a decade after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling that said public schools must integrate—many white families took their children out of those schools. In 1968, black sanitation workers went on strike because they endured worse working conditions than their white counterparts.

Steinberg described the contrast between the Stax studios and the outside world: “We integrated Stax and didn’t think no more about it than the man on the moon. We couldn’t go and play on the same bandstand together in Memphis! But we’d get together inside the studio and do everything we want to.”2

When bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn replaced Steinberg in 1965, notes Rob Bowman in Soulsville, U.S.A., “they became literally half-white and half-black.” He explains, “While such collaborations were not uncommon in the studio, they were still relatively rare for a publicly performing band, and hence, ultimately political.”3

While on tour, band members were not always allowed to dine together or stay at the same hotel. In Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion, author and documentary director Robert Gordon describes an incident that took place at an Alabama truck stop:

When the four were told to go outside to the rear window to place their order, they left instead; Duck lingered, and went back in alone. He ordered forty hamburgers, staying at the counter to see them go on the grill, to see the buns laid out and dressed, and even the bags come out to hold the order. But when the counter help looked up to deliver the food and settle the bill, Duck had vanished, the MGs on their way to a place where they could all eat Together.4

Solidarity came first for the band, whether that meant accepting routine inconveniences or unexpected danger. In 1965, the group performed in Los Angeles as part of the Stax Revue and lingered for a recording gig. This was when riots broke out in the predominantly black Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts. According to the Civil Rights Digital Library, this event was the “largest and costliest urban rebellion of the civil rights era.”5

The violence erupted when a black driver was arrested by a white California Highway Patrolman, causing tensions to flare between angry onlookers and law enforcement officials. Six days of rioting laid waste to whole neighborhoods, claiming the lives of thirty-four people, causing more than $40 million in damages, and leading to more than one thousand injuries and nearly four thousand arrests. As people and businesses were targeted with violence, fear seized those caught in the vicinity of rioters.6

It was in the minutes after Booker T. Jones wound up a recording session with Al Jackson and Steve Cropper that he first heard about the violence—and found himself in a peculiar position. He had telephoned his sister for a ride, only to be told she couldn’t pick him up. He soon learned the reason why:

So I walk outside the studio and there are National Guardsmen on the corner. It happened so quickly and it was so devastating. We ended up feeling very protective [of Cropper and the other white guys at the session]. I remember the feeling of having to get these guys out of there with us somehow.7

While they were able to leave safely, three years later another wave of inner-city violence shook Stax severely. After Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, tensions in the predominantly black neighborhood surrounding Stax heated up. The riots that followed included arson attacks on a number of white-owned businesses, but neither the Stax studios nor the Satellite Record Shop was touched. The toll from King’s murder took a different form:

“'It had a tremendous impact,' attests Jim Stewart: 'It kind of put a wedge, or at least opened up that suspicious element, [within] the company. Although we tried to bond together and continue to work together, from that point on it changed considerably. There wasn’t that happy feeling of creating together. There was something missing. You couldn’t quite put your finger on it, but you knew things had changed and there’s no way you could go back. Everybody started withdrawing, pulling back from that openness and close relationship that we felt we had....While we were in the studio I don’t think that was ever affected, but once we were through, everybody went their separate ways. There wasn’t that mixing and melting together like we had before.'8

'It heightened internally the racial sensitivity amongst those of us at Stax,' affirmed Al Bell. 'Up to that point in time I don’t think we focused in on that much. Dr. King’s death had a tremendous impact at Stax. We were there in the middle of the black community and here we were an integrated organization existing in a city where integration was an issue. Dr. King’s death caused [some] African-American people in the community to react negatively toward the white people that worked for Stax Records. Immediately after [King’s] death we had to protect some of the white people who worked at Stax.'9

'There were pressures outside the studio,' confirmed Cropper, 'in terms of gang-related situations in the neighborhood. Feelings were heating up. People were being influenced by what they were seeing in the news and reading in the paper. They had made the decision that they were gonna stand up to this and crusade behind it. I think just the fact that the public thought that Stax was a solely white-owned company had a lot to do with the feelings in the neighborhood.'"10

The company building stood right across the street from Jones’s Big D grocery store, where many Stax employees parked their cars. After the riots, Cropper and “Duck” Dunn found that they were being routinely hassled by a couple of street-corner toughs. “They got on me one day,” related Cropper, “and accused me of slapping this little kid who used to run errands for me. It never happened. They made the stupid story up just trying to harass me and get money out of me. They all of a sudden made it a black and white thing, and we had been everybody’s friend there for years. They stuck a knife in my back and made all kinds of threats. Somehow I talked them out of it.”11

Saxophonist Floyd Newman, a regular session player with the MGs, shrugged off talk of tensions invading the studio. He explained that the anger so many saw in the neighborhood and across the country “didn’t destroy us. It didn’t separate us. We were together. We could take care of that [because] nobody stressed about, wasn’t [anybody] thinkin’ about [any] black, white, green, purple. None of that. We just had a fantastic relationship working at Stax. Musicians, we were together.”12 The band continued to play together until 1970, when Booker T. left the band.

  1. Citations

    • 1 Robert Gordon, Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion (New York: Bloomsbury, 2013), xiv.
    • 2 Robert Gordon, Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion (New York: Bloomsbury, 2013), 67.
    • 3 Rob Bowman, Soulsville, U.S.A.: The Story of Stax Records (New York: Schirmer, 1997), 74.
    • 4 Robert Gordon, Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion (New York: Bloomsbury, 2013), 69.
    • 5 Watts Riots, Civil Rights Digital Library, accessed July 20, 2013.
    • 6 Robert Gordon, Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion (New York: Bloomsbury, 2013), 69.
    • 7 Rob Bowman, Soulsville, U.S.A.: The Story of Stax Records (New York: Schirmer, 1997), 77.
    • 8 Rob Bowman, Soulsville, U.S.A.: The Story of Stax Records (New York: Schirmer, 1997), 77.
    • 9 Rob Bowman, Soulsville, U.S.A.: The Story of Stax Records (New York: Schirmer, 1997), 146.
    • 10 Rob Bowman, Soulsville, U.S.A.: The Story of Stax Records (New York: Schirmer, 1997), 146.
    • 11 Rob Bowman, Soulsville, U.S.A.: The Story of Stax Records (New York: Schirmer, 1997), 147.
    • 12 Floyd Newman, in discussion with the author, August 2013.

Connection Questions

These text-dependent questions are based on the Common Core Anchor Standards for Reading and Literacy in Social Studies:
  1. How did the song “Green Onions” get its name?
  2. How did the song’s title play on the double meaning of the word “funky”?
  3. How did the environment at Stax differ from other parts of Memphis?
  4. At the end of the video Musicians Booker T. & the M.G.'s, Booker T. uses the word “family.” Whom does he include in his family?

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