Booker T. and the M.G.'s McLemore Avenue album cover
Albums You’ve Forgotten: Booker T. and the M.G.’s McLemore Avenue

The album didn’t break new ground, but it's fascinating to experience four geniuses re-imagining the work of four other geniuses.

Most people know Booker T. & the M.G.’s for one of two things: their hit 1962 instrumental single “Green Onions” or their longtime residency as the house band for Memphis-based Stax Records in the 1960s, playing on classic records by the likes of Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Sam & Dave, and many others.

In addition to being the Southern equivalent of Detroit’s Funk Brothers and L.A.’s Wrecking Crew, Booker T. & the M.G.’s recorded and released music on their own and toured with other Stax/Volt recording artists, most famously backing Otis Redding for his seminal 1967 Monterey Pop Festival appearance. Their funky, loose boogie-woogie defined Memphis soul, and several singles became radio hits throughout the 1960s. By the decade’s end, the band had branched out from releasing primarily original compositions to including instrumental versions of pop songs and standards, reworking and reimagining them through their own distinctive sound. By the end of 1969, they’d decided on their most ambitious cover project: The Beatles’ Abbey Road.

Bandleader and organist Booker T. Jones heard Abbey Road when it was released in the fall of 1969 and immediately felt inspired by the exploratory and expansive nature of the album, especially the ambitious medley that comprises much of the record’s second side. The band went into the studio and emerged a few months later with their homage, McLemore Avenue. Three of the album’s four tracks are medleys of most of Abbey Road’s tracks, repositioned and reworked in their own style. The remaining track is a standalone arrangement of “Something,” presented in a more straightforward fashion than most of their covers or, more accurately, their explorations. The Beatles tunes in the medleys are all immediately recognizable, save maybe for “Here Comes the Sun,” which is interpreted as a jazzy blues shuffle. The album as a whole doesn’t break new ground, but it is fascinating and quite enjoyable to experience four genius musicians re-imagining the work of four other genius musicians.

The endeavor is reminiscent of Jimi Hendrix’s cover of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower.” Hendrix heard the song at a party and was immediately taken with it, so he went into the studio to record his version the next day. Booker T.’s turnaround wasn’t as fast, but the creative impulse was similarly quick. As with Hendrix, this wasn’t one-upmanship but a respectful homage. 

McLemore Avenue’s cover is also a winking nod to Abbey Road, featuring the M.G.s crossing the street (the actual McLemore Avenue in Memphis) outside their studio, ala Fab Four. The album won’t make anyone forget Abbey Road, but that was never the point. It’s an expression of joy born out of admiration and excitement. It’s not an essential listen, but if you’re a fan of either Abbey Road or the Stax sound, it’s well worth checking out.

Adam is just a dude based in Brooklyn who enjoys thinking about music in all forms. He enjoys cooking, board games, baseball, and arranging songs for ukulele that shouldn't be played on ukulele in an extremely amateurish way. Adam is shown here at age 13 on his way to a bar mitzvah.

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