Album Review #32: Green Onions by Booker T. and The M.G.s (1962)

Green Onions, Booker T and the M G s

If Jimmy Smith broke new ground by opening the gate for the organ to enter the world of mainstream music, Booker T. and The M.G.s were the ones to truly refine it to its peak potential as an artform. Whereas Jimmy Smith used it as a jazz instrument, providing mostly cool backing to the other performers, The M.G.s used it as a Rock and Roll instrument, bringing it to the forefront of the band and unleashing its full potential as an artistic tool. Coupling the organ with an electric guitar, bass, and drums, they created an iconic, instantly recognizable sound that both ties it to its time period and never grows old.

Although the M.G.s changed their lineup quite frequently, it is their original lineup, featured here, that is most well-known. Maintained from their debut until three years later in 1965, it featured Booker T. Jones on the Hammond organ, Steve Cropper on guitar, Lewie Steinberg on bass, and Al Jackson Jr. on drums. While it’s hard to deny that Booker T.’s organ is the highlight of the ensemble, credit must be given to Steve Cropper’s guitar. He has a distinct playing style that compliments the organ quite well. The band’s overall style is unmistakably theirs, and still holds up very well today. It sounds somewhat like a strange marriage of classic rock and roll and baseball stadium music, and it is absolutely a good thing. Even the covers on this record sound more like M.G.s songs than their original artist’s. You could listen to a song of their’s that you’ve never even heard before, and still easily identify it as their song, and that really is the mark of a band who’s perfected their craft.

Booker T. and The M.G.s rollingstonedotcom

From left to right: Booker T. Jones, Steve Cropper, Al Jackson Jr., Lewie Steinberg.

Image source: rollingstone.com

When it comes to tracks, boy does this album pack a punch. Right off the bat there’s the title track, their most successful single and one of the most recognizable songs of the first half of the Sixties. The organ on this track is borderline perfect, providing without a doubt the most memorable melody of the entire record. Cropper’s guitar plays with short, chopped-up notes that go excellently with the organ line underneath it. The whole track really is just a joy to listen to, and is absolutely deserving of its enduring popularity. Up next is “Rinky Dink,” a nice, catchy tune with a great guitar hook, and after that is a superb cover of the Ray Charles staple “I Got a Woman” that more than does the original justice. However, with the exception of the final track “Comin’ Home Baby,” Side B kind of just falls flat, at least compared to Side A. It isn’t bad, but just isn’t really as interesting as the first side. “Comin’ Home Baby” is incredible however, with a quiet, subtle mood and strangely sad organ part that wraps up the album quite nicely.

So even if the second side wasn’t the greatest, this album is more than worth a listen. Even if you’ve never heard of the band before, “Green Onions” and to an extent the songs that follow it are so ingrained in American culture that you’ve more than likely heard it before without even knowing it. And their success is deserving: they created their own style and refined it to perfection, further solidifying the organ as an acceptable instrument in popular music. Even regardless of its importance, it’s just a fun listen. I would highly recommend this one.

Favorite Tracks: “Green Onions,” Rinky Dink,” “I Got a Woman,” “Comin’ Home Baby”

Next Up: Jazz Samba by Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd (1962)

Album Review #31: Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music by Ray Charles (1962)

Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music Ray Charles

Ray Charles’ previous album on this list, The Genius of Ray Charles, was really just a warmup. This is Ray at his peak. Every track is passionate, soulful, and moving, even the fast and upbeat ones. This record is pure innovation at its finest. It’s just bounding with creativity, and each of the twelve tracks on display here are Ray Charles at the absolute pinnacle of his artistic abilities. He takes classic country songs that you would never think would be compatible with his R&B/Big Band style and makes them work beautifully, making the old standards feel new and exciting while retaining the emotion of the original. It’s a perfect fusion of the old and the new, and it holds up marvelously even today.

It was certainly a radical creative decision. His current audience would be averse to the country, and the country crowd would be averse to the jazz/R&B. It seemed, to the record executives at least, to be career suicide. But somehow, against all odds, he pulled it off. It wasn’t chance either. Ray Charles’ genius as a musician turned the album that would never be a success into a cultural phenomenon, winning over the critics, the public, and even his own fans in one fell swoop. Listening to it, his mastery of the artform is impossible to deny. Each and every lyric is sung with emotion and passion so strong you can feel it in your chest, and the arrangements that back his vocals are masterful, perfectly complimenting the lyrics with soul-melting harmony. Most of the album is slow balladry, but the one or two fast big band tunes are exciting as anything on The Genius of Ray Charles. No matter what kind of song it is, Ray just seems to know exactly what to do to make it perfect.

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Image source: kalamu.com

The album’s first track, “Bye Bye Love,” doesn’t pull any punches. It’s explosive, energetic, and so catchy it should be considered a cognitohazard. That said, at the same time it’s bizarrely sad. The lyrics, like the majority of the album, are a pretty depressing tale of lost love, and despite being completely at odds with the tone of the music, it weirdly works. The backup singers will stick in your head for days, and the percussion drives the song along excellently.The next track, “You Don’t Know Me,” is my personal favorite song off the album. Here, Ray trades out the brass band for a string section, and goes full on depressing string ballad with lyrics about unrequited love and isolation. The chords and harmonies are haunting, and Ray’s vocals are just painfully sad and mournful. He sure does know exactly what to do to pull at your heartstrings in a moment, and he doesn’t hold back. The rest of the album keeps up the standard set by the first two tracks, and even though most of the lyrics deal with the same topic, it still feels fresh throughout. He may not have written the lyrics, but the way he performs them with every inch of his soul, he might as well have. The final track, “Hey Good Lookin’,” ends the album on a more uplifting note, dropping the doom and gloom and leaving the record on a happy, upbeat big band tune that’s a welcome shift from the rest of the record, and does a great job of helping your mood recover before it closes.

This album is indispensable. Not only did it help bridge barriers in a time of severe racial tension, but it also broke down the barrier between genres for future style experimenters, all while simply giving the world an excellent album to enjoy. It’s without a doubt Ray Charles’ greatest achievement, and anyone interested in his music should give this record a listen.

Favorite Tracks: “You Don’t Know Me,” “Bye Bye Love,” “I Love You So Much It Hurts,” “Hey Good Lookin'”

Next Up: Green Onions by Booker T. and The M.G.s (1962)

Album Review #29: Muddy Waters at Newport by Muddy Waters (1960)

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Muddy Waters was among the first to bring the electric guitar into the blues, and this live recording is one of the best showcases of his talent. It’s the second live album recorded at the Newport Jazz Festival I’ve reviewed for this list, the first being Duke Ellington’s in 1956, but this album is of course wildly different. Featuring boundless energy, powerful rhythms, and soulful vocal performances, this is a defining album for the genre, introducing blues to a much wider audience than it previously had.

I’m going to be honest: the harmonica makes this album. Something about its mournful, harmonious voice just propels these already good songs into the realm of pure excellence. Without James Cotton’s harmonica playing, this album wouldn’t be nearly as memorable as it is. Its fluttering, unsteady and shimmering tone injects passion into the slow songs and vigor into the fast songs. But it’s not the only virtue this album has. Francis Clay’s drumming makes the uptempo tracks exhilarating, but it’s the slow tracks where the percussion really shines. The drums give slower songs a feeling of sheer power and strength not seen anywhere else in music at the time. Each and every beat is like a punch to the chest, and I mean that in the best possible way. Couple that with Otis Spann’s piano and Muddy Water’s guitar and vocals, and you’ve got a recipe for some of the best classic blues ever put to record.

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Muddy with his legendary Fender Telecaster. Image source: telegraph.co.uk

When it comes to which specific track is the best, that’s a tough choice, but I’d have to say “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man” takes the cake. With a slower tempo, stomping beat, and an absolutely iconic hook, it’s probably the strongest and most memorable track on the entire record. The harmonica, piano, guitar, and bass just seem to kind of meld together into a single sound, and the result is just pure blues bliss. Some other great tracks include the opener “I’ve Got My Brand on You”, “Baby, Please Don’t Go,” and “I’ve Got My Mojo Working,” which is so good that the audience makes them play it twice. But, second to “Hoochie Coochie Man,” the highlight of the record has to be the haunting closer “Goodbye Newport Blues.” It’s by far the gloomiest track the album has to offer, and it ends the concert on a high, if depressing, note.

Muddy Waters at Newport is simply put one of the greatest blues albums of the decade, if not of all time. It’s got melodies and rhythms that’ll stick in your head for days, and is possibly the best showcase of Muddy Water’s musical genius of his entire catalog. If you’re not familiar with the blues, this is an incredible place to start, and if you’re a fan of the blues, you’ve probably already heard it, but just listen to it anyway.

Favorite Tracks: “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man,” “Goodbye Newport Blues,” “I’ve Got My Brand on You”

Next Up: Sunday at the Village Vanguard by Bill Evans Trio (1961)

Album Review #28: Back at the Chicken Shack by Jimmy Smith (1960)

Back At the Chicken Shack, Jimmy Smith

A new instrument’s in town, and it’s called the Hammond organ. Creating a completely original, fresh sound that no other jazz musician was doing at the time, Jimmy Smith paved the way for a whole new generation of musicians such as Booker T and the MG’s, not to mention later rock bands such as The Doors. It truly is a shame that, despite this record’s huge impact and influence, Jimmy Smith is largely forgotten about when discussing the jazz greats.

This album’s sound is cool, relaxing, and unique, and none of it would happen without Jimmy Smith’s signature instrument, the organ. It is simultaneously a great lead and background instrument, with its smooth, muted chords providing both an excellent centerpiece and a superb accompaniment to the record’s other performers. The other instruments that make up the quartet are drums, sax, and guitar, and they are equally as important as the organ. Donald Bailey’s drum playing is minimalistic but perfect for the music being played. It’s simple, usually playing just a basic rhythm throughout the song for the other three to play off of, but he still gets in the occasional improvised flourish. Kenny Burrell’s guitar is understated, but effective, complementing the organ with quietly strummed chords. Even though it stays quiet and in the background for most of the record, it still adds quite a bit to the album as a whole, working with the organ to create an instantly recognizable sound that’s ludicrously catchy and incredibly soothing at the same time. And of course, Stanley Turrentine on saxophone is absolutely excellent. Almost all the time he appears on the album he immediately takes center stage, getting in solo after incredible solo, with an improvisational skill that is just a marvel to behold. All four of these instruments are excellent on their own, but put together, they create a mood and tone that simply can’t be done justice with words.

Jimmy Smith musicbloodline.info

Jimmy Smith at his fabled keyboard. Image source: musicbloodline.info

The album is composed of four extended tracks, and each one is great. The opening title track kicks off with a hypnotic mix of organ chords and rhythmic guitar strumming, and for the next 8 minutes takes the main melody and puts it through countless improvised variations, never once losing momentum or becoming boring. The saxophone takes the lead on the second track, “When I Grow Too Old to Dream,” and goes on a quiet, understated journey over the next 9 minutes that truly showcases Stanley Turrentine’s skill as a sax player. Seriously, how you can be so good at your instrument that you can just step up to the microphone and play a masterpiece on the fly is beyond me. This track doesn’t feature any guitar, and as such has a more minimal, quiet feel to it. The third track, “Minor Chant,” is the shortest of the four, at only 7 minutes in length. What it lacks in (relative) length it makes up for completely in content. It’s definitely the most repetitive of the four, but that is absolutely a good thing in this case. The organ plays a catchy bassline that repeats throughout, while the saxophone and even the drums improvise over it. It doesn’t sound like much, but in execution it makes for probably my favorite out of the four tracks. It’s quiet and yet exciting, and if it doesn’t make you want to get up and move at least a little, then you might just be a little dead inside. And finally, “Messy Bessie” closes out the album with a lengthy jam incorporating all four performers perfectly. Pretty much everyone gets at least a little time in the spotlight on this one, and it’s a great showcase of the pure talent contributed by everyone involved.

Jimmy Smith truly deserves more credit than he gets. Almost single-handedly responsible for introducing the organ into popular music, he created a whole new sound in a near vacuum; the organ had never been used in a jazz ensemble before, let alone made the centerpiece of the group. And even if you take the album as it is, with no consideration of its importance or impact on both contemporary and future musicians, it still holds up as a masterpiece of a jazz album, and is thoroughly enjoyable by the jazz fiend and the complete outsider alike. So if you’ve never heard this one, you have my highest recommendation. Now go give this one a listen.

Favorite Tracks: “Back at the Chicken Shack,” “Minor Chant”

Next Up: Muddy Waters at Newport by Muddy Waters (1960)

Album Review #23: Time Out by The Dave Brubeck Quartet (1959)

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The Dave Brubeck Quartet’s Take Five is the final album of the book’s 50’s section, being released in December of 1959, and oh boy, does it end the decade on a high note. This is an excellent jazz album, rivaling the likes of Brilliant Corners and even Kind of Blue. Featuring only four musicians and yet at times sounding like a full orchestra, this album is extravagant, and at the same time subtle, with expert musicianship shining through each and every second. I think it’s needless to say that I enjoyed this one greatly.

The track that pretty much everyone knows this album for (and by extent, Brubeck’s entire oeuvre,) has to be “Take Five.” If you’ve never even heard of Dave Brubeck, you’ve probably heard this song at some point, possibly without even knowing it. It’s a great melody, but what I like the song even more for is the rhythmic, persistent piano that serves as a sort of grounding point for the rest of the band to do its thing. Funnily enough, the iconic saxophone melody that the song is famous for only appears at the beginning and very end of the piece, with the bulk of the song being an extended drum solo, accompanied by piano and bass. With such sparse instrumentation and such a (relatively) long running time, you’d think the song would tire itself out before it ends, but it doesn’t. Joe Morello, the percussionist, is so talented that he easily carries the majority of the song on his own. Although I love the song, I have to admit that it’s a wonder the song became a major hit, being over five minutes long and about %70 drum solo. Good on the public for digging this song so much.

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The Dave Brubeck Quartet. Image Source: theguardian.com

But of course, “Take Five” isn’t the whole album. There are six other tracks that make up the record, and all of them are worth mentioning. My favorite of these is track number two, “Strange Meadow Lark.” It has an incredible introduction, with a little over two minutes worth of solo piano that I can only describe as “Gershwin meets Debussy.” Brubeck is truly talented with the piano, and it shines here more so than anywhere else on the album. The rest of the band is great as well, with the four instruments working together excellently to create a soothing, cool and highly relaxing mood for the remainder of the track’s seven minutes. More so than any other track (which is saying quite a lot), this one is simply a goldmine of pure, undiluted ear candy.

Time Out is truly a top-tier jazz album. The playing is masterful, the melodies are memorable and the freestyles are flowing and effortless. The Dave Brubeck Quartet was one of the 50’s greatest jazz combos, and this album is their crowning achievement. Give this one a listen, it deserves it.

Favorite Tracks: “Take Five,” “Strange Meadow Lark”

Next Up: Joan Baez by Joan Baez (1960)

Album Review #22: Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs by Marty Robbins (1959)

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I feel bad for people who don’t listen to country. The genre has such a stigma surrounding it for some reason, which confounds me, with the wealth of great country music that there is. Writing off an entire genre of anything is a terrible thing to do. My personal belief is that there’s great music to be found in every genre, so for all the country haters out there, Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs by Marty Robbins is proof of that theorem.

The title is accurate; every track is either a story-song about outlaws and shootouts, or a campfire folk song about the daily struggle. Marty Robbins has a good singing voice, and his band is a good accompaniment to his lyrics. He’s got a classic country croon, clean and almost never faltering on a tone. It’s simple, but it works. In fact, I’d say that that can describe the album as a whole: simple but good. The melodies are uncomplicated and difficult not to sing along to, and the instrumentation is minimal, with the only instrument other than guitar, bass and drums appearing on the album being a brief fiddle intro to “Cool Water.” He does more than well with what little he has to work with, making each and every track an engaging listen.

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Image source: Los Angeles Times

While the music itself is great, the album’s true strongpoint is the lyrics. Marty Robbins himself only has a writing credit on four of the album’s twelve tracks, with the others being either covers of fellow country artists or traditional folk songs, but he still infuses both his own songs and his covers with equal love and attention. My favorite tracks still tend toward Robbins originals, however. “Big Iron” starts the album off on a high note, and “In the Valley” is soulful and moving, with the only negative I can come up with being that it’s too short, at only 1:48. “The Master’s Call” is the only one of the four I don’t like; the lyrics are good, but musically it’s almost identical to “Big Iron,” just in a different key. The best track of the album has to be “El Paso.” With great lyrics, excellent guitar playing, and the catchiest melody of the record, it was his biggest hit for good reason. It’s a truly classic song, and one every country fan should hear.

If you don’t like country, that’s fine. Different strokes for different folks. Heck, I wrote possibly my most scathing review yet on Tragic Songs of Life by The Louvin Brothers, the first country album on this list. But that isn’t to say you should dismiss the entire genre. As I said before, there’s great music everywhere. If you dislike a certain genre, you just have to dig a little more for it. I’m almost certain you’ll find it somewhere. And if you dislike country, Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs just might be the one to change your mind.

Favorite Tracks: “El Paso,” “In the Valley,” “Big Iron,” “Cool Water”

Least Favorite: “The Master’s Call”

Next Up: Time Out by The Dave Brubeck Quartet (1959)

Album Review #20: The Genius of Ray Charles by Ray Charles (1959)

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The Genius of Ray Charles is an interesting record. Split in half stylistically, with Side 1 containing six Big Band Jazz/R&B tunes and Side 2 six soulful string ballads, it tries (and succeeds) to accomplish a lot of different things. It takes a lot of musical skill to pull off something like this,  but luckily for us Ray Charles possesses such a talent, tenfold.

In my opinion, the highlight of the album has to be its opening track, “Let the Good Times Roll.” It’s almost stupidly catchy, and Ray’s vocals are excellent. In all honesty, it’s one of the best songs I’ve heard on the list so far. Also from Side 1, we have “Two Years of Torture” and “When Your Lover Has Gone.” While he saves all the outright ballads for Side 2, these two songs are still pumped full of the blues. His singing throughout the album is filled with emotion and passion, giving weight and meaning to each lyric he sings.

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Image Source: IMDb.com

Side 2 displays a much different style of music from the first. Eschewing the sometimes-harsh, always-loud brass band in favor of a softer string section (plus oboe and backing vocals), for the album’s second half Ray offers the listener an excellent selection of heart-felt ballads. “Am I Blue?” is the best out of all of these, with “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying” being a very close second. As with Side 1, his vocals are excellent, with great amounts of expression in each line.

It may seem a bit egotistical for him to name his album The Genius of Ray Charles. Not so. This album more than justifies its grandiose title. With a perfect 50/50 balance of genres, with each half good enough to be an excellent EP on its own, this record is a true classic that any music lover should hear.

Favorite Tracks: “Let the Good Times Roll,” “Two Years of Torture,” “When Your Lover Has Gone,” “Am I Blue?,” “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying”

Next Up: Kind of Blue by Miles Davis (1959)