Booker T. & the M.G.'s’ instrumental R&B/funk groove laid the blueprint for the sound of Southern soul. As Stax Records’ house band, they played on hundreds of recordings by iconic artists like Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Isaac Hayes, Carla Thomas, Johnnie Taylor and Albert King. They also released records under their own name, including their still-ubiquitous 1962 hit "Green Onions." The group was one of the most prolific and respected of its era: By the mid-’60s, bands on both sides of the Atlantic were trying to sound like Booker T. & the M.G.'s.
But in 1970, the quartet applied their oft-imitated signature sound to some surprising source material: the Beatles’ Abbey Road. Abbey Road is a lot of things – trippy, bold, lush, joyous – but one thing it isn’t is funky. You’d never know that listening to McLemore Avenue, though. The band turns the songs on their head, wringing out fiery grooves from every note. In an interview with AV Club, Booker T explained what prompted him to reinterpret the English rockers’ adventurous final album: “I thought it was incredibly courageous of the Beatles to drop their format and move out musically like they did. To push the limit like that . . . They were the top band in the world, but they still reinvented themselves.” Listening to McLemore Avenue, you can tell the M.G.’s were inspired to push themselves to a similar degree.
The album consists of only four tracks, three of them medleys and not in the order you might expect! For example, the first track is a nearly 16-minute suite of “Golden Slumbers,” “Carry That Weight,” “The End,” “Here Comes the Sun” and “Come Together.” In less able hands, that track sequence wouldn’t work, but here it does beautifully. There is also a standalone version of the George Harrison-penned “Something,” which was released as a single. Rhythmic organ from Jones, a Bo Diddley-esque hand clap section and a bluesy guitar break played by Steve Cropper imbue the love song with soulful swagger.
In which Wax Poetics makes the case that McLemore Avenue transcends “covers album” status, and should be judged as a great work of art in its own right.
An informative review from music journalist and author Bill Kopp (who writes for No Depression, Shindig! and Record Collector, among many other music outlets).
Dive deeper into the band’s history with an archival interview with the band, by Barney Hoskyns from Mojo in August 2001.
DEEP CUTS WE LOVE…
“Here Comes the Sun” is reinterpreted as a jaunty Jimmy Smith-styled jazz/lounge number, Jones’ gurgling synths and anthemic organ in tight, groovy interplay with Cropper’s brilliantly bluesy guitar (starts at 5:45 in “Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight /The End/Here Comes the Sun/Come Together” medley).
“Come Together” - As elsewhere throughout the album, Booker’s organ is the dominant instrument here, but listen closely to Cropper’s guitar work, too: It’s pure Memphis R&B and gives the songs a very different flavor from their British rock origins, as he bends the notes far differently than George Harrison did. It’s also revelatory to hear Al Jackson’s tom fills–he somehow plays just like Ringo and, at the same time, sounds not the least bit like him (starts at 10:19 in “Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight /The End/Here Comes the Sun/Come Together” medley).
“I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” - The band closes the album with this dramatic, blues-drenched rendition, Cropper mimicking the original's famous guitar lick while Jones replicates the famous chorus on his organ. Powerful. (starts at 7:25 in “Sun King/Mean Mr. Mustard/Polythene Pam/She Came In Through the Bathroom Window/I Want You (She's So Heavy)” medley)
DID YOU KNOW?
- John Lennon was a Stax fan, who fondly called the group "Book a Table and the Maitre d's" (in 1974, Lennon facetiously credited himself and his studio band as "Dr. Winston and Booker Table and the Maitre d's" on his original R&B-inspired instrumental, "Beef Jerky."
- The Beatles were also known to be fans of Cropper's guitar playing and his production work with artists like Otis Redding, with whom he co-wrote "(Sittin' On) the Dock of the Bay" with. Beatles manager Brian Epstein even travelled to the famed Stax Studios in Memphis to see about recording some of the album Revolver there, although the recording session was later canceled, apparently for financial reasons.
- The Beatles may have snuck a tribute to Booker T. & the M.G.’s on their album Revolver, released 4 years before McLemore Avenue: The record’s opening cut, “Taxman,” centers around Paul McCartney and George Harrison doing their best impression of Dunn’s repetitive bass riffs and Cropper’s choppy, metallic rhythm guitar.
Listen to McLemore Avenue in its entirety on your preferred streaming platform or purchase on wax below.