Episode 105: "Green Onions" by Booker T.and the MGs
Episode 105 of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at "Green Onions", and how a company started by a Western Swing fiddle player ended up making the most important soul records of the sixties. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.
Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on "He's So Fine" by the Chiffons.
Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt's irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/
I used three main books when creating this episode. Two were histories of Stax -- Soulsville USA: The Story of Stax by Rob Bowman, and Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion by Robert Gordon.
Country Soul by Charles L Hughes is a more general overview of soul music made in Tennessee and Alabama in the sixties, but is useful as it's less likely to take statements about racial attitudes entirely at face value.
This is a good cheap compilation of Booker T and the MGs' music.
If the Erwin Records tracks here interest you, they're all available on this compilation.
The Complete Stax-Volt Singles vol. 1: 1959-1968 is a nine-CD box set containing much of the rest of the music in this episode. It's out of print physically, but the MP3 edition, while pricey, is worth it.
This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?
And now we come to the end of the backfilling portion of the story. Since "Telstar" we've been looking at records from 1962 that came out just before "Love Me Do" -- we've essentially been in an extended flashback. This is the last of those flashback episodes, and from next week on we're moving forward into 1963.
Today we're going to look at a record by a group of musicians who would be as important to the development of music in the 1960s as any, and at the early years of Stax Records, a label that would become as important as Chess, Motown, or Sun. Today, we're looking at "Green Onions" by Booker T. and the MGs, and how a white country fiddle player accidentally kickstarted the most important label in soul music:
[Excerpt: Booker T. and the MGs, "Green Onions"]
Our story starts in Memphis, with Jim Stewart, a part-time fiddle player. Stewart was in a Western Swing band, and was hugely influenced by Bob Wills, but he wasn't making any real money from music. Instead, he was working a day job at a bank.
But he was still interested in music, and wanted to be involved in the industry. One of the gigs he'd had was in the house band at a venue where Elvis sometimes played in his early years, and he'd seen how Elvis had gone from an obscure local boy all the way to the biggest star in the world. He knew he couldn't do that himself, but he was irresistibly attracted to any field where that was *possible*.
He found his way into the industry, and into music history as a result of a tip from his barber.
The barber in question, Erwin Ellis, was another country fiddle player, but he owned his own record label, Erwin Records. Erwin Records was a tiny label -- it was so tiny that its first release, by Ellis himself, seems not to exist anywhere. Even on compilations of Erwin Records material, it's not present, which is a shame, as it would be interesting from a historical perspective to hear Ellis' own playing.
But while Ellis was unsuccessful both as a fiddle player and as a record company owner, he did manage to release a handful of rockabilly classics on Erwin Records, like Hoyt Jackson's "Enie Meanie Minie Moe":
[Excerpt: Hoyt Jackson, "Enie Meanie Minie Moe"]
and "Boppin' Wig Wam Willie" by Ray Scott, who had written "Flyin' Saucers Rock & Roll" for Billy Lee Riley, and who was backed by Riley's Little Green Men on this single:
[Excerpt: Ray Scott, "Boppin' Wig Wam WIllie"]
Ellis' label wasn't hugely successful, but he made some decent money from it, and he explained the realities of the music industry to Stewart as Stewart was sat in his barber's chair. He told Stewart that you didn't make money from the records themselves -- small labels didn't sell much -- but that he was making some good money from the songs.
The formula for success in the music business, Ellis explained, was that when you got a new artist through the door, you told them they could only record originals, not cover versions -- and then you made sure they signed the publishing over to you. If you sold a record, you were just selling a bit of plastic, and you'd already paid to make the bit of plastic. There was no real money in that. But if you owned the song, every time that record was played on the radio, you got a bit of money with no extra outlay -- and if you owned enough songs, then some of them might get covered by a big star, and then you'd get some real money. Hoyt Jackson, Ellis' biggest act, hadn't had any hits himself, but he'd written "It's A Little More Like Heaven (Where You Are)":
[Excerpt: Hoyt Jackson, "It's A Little More Like Heaven (Where You Are)"]
Hank Locklin had recorded a cover version of it, which had gone to number three on the country charts:
[Excerpt: Hank Locklin "It's a Little More Like Heaven"]
And Johnny Cash had rewritten it a bit, as "You're the Nearest Thing to Heaven", and had also had a top five country hit with it:
[Excerpt: Johnny Cash, "You're the Nearest Thing to Heaven"]
Ellis explained to Stewart that he was still getting cheques every few months because he owned the publishing for this song that someone else had written and brought to him. If you owned the publishing for a song that became a hit, then you had a steady source of income without having to lift a finger. And people would just give you the publishing on their songs if you agreed to put a record of them out.
For someone like Stewart, who worked in a bank and knew a little bit about finance, that sounded just about perfect. He pulled together a singing DJ, a piano player, and a rhythm guitarist he knew, and they pooled their savings and raised a thousand dollars to put out a record. Stewart wrote a song -- the only song he'd ever write -- Fred Byler, the DJ, sang it, and they hired Ellis and his tape recorder to record it in Jim's wife's uncle's garage. They came up with the name Satellite Records for their label -- nobody liked it, but they couldn't think of anything better, and satellites were in the news with the recent launch of Sputnik. "Blue Roses" by Fred Byler, came out to pretty much no sales or airplay:
[Excerpt: Fred Byler, "Blue Roses"]
The next record was more interesting -- "Boppin' High School Baby" by Don Willis is a prime slice of Memphis rockabilly, though one with so much slapback echo that even Joe Meek might have said "hang on, isn't that a bit much?":
[Excerpt: Don Willis, "Boppin' High School Baby"]
That also didn't sell -- Stewart and his partners knew nothing about the music business. They didn't know how to get the records distributed to shops, and they had no money left. And then Erwin Ellis moved away and took his tape recorder with him, and Stewart's wife's uncle wanted to use his garage again and so wouldn't let them record there any more. It looked like that would be the end of Satellite Records. But then three things changed everything for Jim Stewart, and for music history.
The first of these was that Stewart's new barber was also interested in music -- he had a daughter who he thought could sing, and he had a large storage space he wasn't using, in Brunswick on the outskirts of the city. If they'd record his daughter, they could use the storage space as a studio.
The second was Chips Moman. Chips was a teenage guitarist who had been playing a friend's guitar at a drugstore in Memphis, just hanging around after work, when Warren Smith walked in. Smith was a Sun Records rockabilly artist, who'd…