- by Joe Nolan, Friday, January 18th, 2008
Despite the Mar-Keys initial, blockbuster success, they had trouble following up with another hit. While they struggled to stay afloat under Packy Axton’s guidance, many of the original touring band’s members had left the road and found themselves back in Memphis becoming the studio band that would create “The Memphis Sound.”
The horn section, always a round-robin mix of players, was beginning to solidify into what trumpeter Wayne Jackson and baritone sax-man Andrew Love would dub the “Memphis Horns.” Meanwhile, Booker T. Jones had taken on all of the keyboard responsibilities, while Al Jackson and Lewis Steinberg anchored the rhythm section on drums and bass, respectively. Packy Axton had lost his place at the table, while Steve Cropper had made himself an invaluable asset above and beyond his slash-and-burn guitar playing.
“Steve was my right hand man. He would come to the studio and sit there and keep the doors open and take care of business; he was disciplined and responsible. Steve was the key.” - Jim Stewart, from Sweet Soul Music, by Peter Guralnick
While there doesn’t seem to have been bad blood between the old friends, Cropper was not impressed with Packy’s intermittent commitment to the music that was being made at the studio, and was all-too-ready to step-up when the opportunity presented itself.
“Packy was a playboy. He was a mama’s boy. He wasn’t a total goof-off, but Packy was allowed to do what Packy wanted to do.” - Steve Cropper, from Sweet Soul Music, by Peter Guralnick
It was in this conflicted atmosphere, full of bruised feelings, that “Green Onions” was recorded. The guys recorded two sides one night when a singer failed to show for a country session. Both songs were immediate and exciting, and both Jim and Estelle wanted to release them as soon as possible.
The “A” side of the single was a tough, little blues number entitled “Behave Yourself.” The “B” side was the slinky, second tune the boys put together that night, “Green Onions.” By the time the 45 shipped, DJ’s around the country took it upon themselves to flip the record, promoting “’Onions” over the intended “A” side “hit.”
The success of “Green Onions” established the unit as a popular recording group as well as the band that would play on every song that was to come out of Stax for the next five years. Soon, teeny-boppers around the country were grooving to a new thing called the “Memphis Sound,” as interpreted by a group of racially-integrated musicians known as Booker T. and the MG’s. Although the origins of the band’s name are somewhat hazy, it is most likely that they took their moniker from Chip Moman’s Triumph automobile. Moman had named an earlier incarnation of the band The Triumphs, and he hypothesizes that the conflicting stories regarding the name were invented after what followed in the wake of “Green Onions’” success.
With yet another hit on their hands, the little studio was experiencing growing pains. Stax was becoming a music industry player and was reaping the monetary benefits of that success. As so often happens, this success began to tear the family that created it apart.
Almost fifty years after the fact, events are difficult to recreate. There is no doubt that there were bruised feelings over the creativity in the studio: Chip and Estelle had been instrumental in making “Last Night” a hit, while Jim took the credit for producing “Green Onions.” There was also the question of money. Moman, seeing the kind of success the label was having, began to feel he wasn’t getting his fair share. In the meantime, Estelle wasn’t about to give up any of her 50% after having mortgaged her house, and Jim felt entitled to at least half the rewards of his dream. The arrangement left little room for Moman as anything other than a producer-for-hire, and he decided to walk.
Given the creative role the producer occupied, the impact of Moman’s departure surely left an artistic and emotional void in the studio. However, that was a spot Steve Cropper was all-too-ready to take for himself. With Cropper at the helm, Stewart finally quit his job at the bank, while Booker T. and the MG’s continued to gel into one of the finest studio bands ever.
Moman’s departure marks the end of Stax’s early rise to prominence on the national music scene, and the beginning of Moman’s own American Studio, that would produce some of the biggest hits of the late ’60’s. However, in 1962, it all began to come together for Stax – and not a moment too soon. That was the year a young man named Otis Redding first visited the studio.
Peter Guralnick’s Sweet Soul Music, Harper and Row, 1986
James Dickerson’s Goin’ Back to Memphis, Simon and Schuster Macmillan, 1996
Michael Haralambos’ Right on: From Blues to Soul in Black America, Drake Publishers, 1975
Respect Yourself: The Stax Story, documentary film, produced by Tremolo Productions,
Concord Music Group and Thirteen/WNET New York, for PBS’ Great Performances, 2007
Joe Nolan is a poet, musician and freelance journalist in Nashville, TN. Nolan writes about visual art for the journal, Number, published by the University of Memphis. Find out more about his projects at www.joenolan.com.