Thursday, October 04, 2012

Booker T & The MGs - McLemore Avenue (1970)

In 1970, Booker T. & The MGs, the famous quartet and house band for Stax Records re-recorded The Beatles' Abbey Road almost in its entirety. They also copied the original's iconic album cover and even named the platter, McLemore Avenue, after the street that was home to their recording studio, just like the Beatles did for their classic.

This wasn't just a group trying to cash in on a good thing. The MGs were virtuosos paying tribute to the world's most famous rock band and one of their acknowledged masterworks. Booker T. Jones is on record as saying he was so enamored of the Fabs’ 1969 album that this was his way of saying thanks.

Just like The Beatles did on Abbey Road, The MGs assembled the songs on McLemore Avenue into medleys. Track one is more than a fifteen minute cruise through the three songs that made up Paul McCartney's "Golden Slumbers" medley with George Harrison's "Here Comes The Sun" and John Lennon's "Come Together" tacked on for good measure. At times the band was faithful to the original melodies but Jones (keyboards), Steve Cropper (guitar), the late Donald "Duck" Dunn (bass), and the long-departed Al Jackson Jr. (drums) used their imaginative interpretive skills to elaborate on the originals without wandering so far afield that they lost sight of The Beatles' artistic intentions.

In the hands of the MGs, "Something," the song Stax released as a single, became a low key R & B treat that proved Harrsion's much-loved ballad possessed more soul than anyone (maybe even its composer) ever knew it had. The track is more jazz than R & B with both Cropper and Jones playing stupendous stuff.

Side two opens with "Because"/"You Never Give Me Your Money." Lennon's soft ballad was given a much heavier treatment that completely changed the mood of the piece. McCartney's meandering melody on the latter tune already sounded like a mini-suite even before The MGs' version saw the light of day. Here, they use it as a way to show off their formidable improvisational skills.

Most of the rest of side two of Abbey Road is featured on the final 10:40 track with "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" included as the finale. Stripped of all The Beatles multi-layered production these unencumbered arrangements prove how good The Beatles were at composing melodies.

Overall, Jones and company instinctively knew when to be restrained, when to rock, when to follow the melody, and when to be expansive. It's not just the MGs best album, it just might be the best salute to The Beatles ever released. It's definitely one of the must hear discs from the entire Stax catalog.

The remastered and expanded version of McLemore Avenue, currently available at Amazon on CD or mp3, includes several other Beatles' songs the great Memphis band covered on earlier albums.

1 comment:

  1. CBC Radio would use the MG's version of Carry That Weight to fill space before the hourly news in the late 70s. I knew from reading about the Beatles that this LP existed but it took me forever to actually find a copy. It is every bit as brilliant as you have described. A few years ago, I also snagged a CD version at a Borders in Rochester, so as to have easy access to this in digital format. My wife asked me why I was listening to elevator music (oh well..)