By James Calemine
Recorded in January 1970, McLemore Avenue was the great Memphis group Booker T & The MGs tribute to the Beatles’ landmark album Abbey Road. Booker T. Jones revealed where the source of inspiration for McLemore Avenue originated:
“My pure fascination and admiration of the works that the Beatles had done. I didn’t know the inner workings. I found out later. I had a picture of those guys as a perfect unit. I didn’t know that they fought, had arguments, or that they needed referees. When you listen to that music, you think it comes from a perfect union, you know?“
By 1969 Booker T & The MGs (Booker T., Steve Cropper, Duck Dunn and Al Jackson Jr.) existed as one of the most respected bands in the world. They recorded hits with Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Carla Thomas, Albert King and Sam & Dave on STAX Records. The Beatles released Abbey Road in the fall of 1969, and McLemore Avenue followed several months later. These songs were recorded at STAX studios in Memphis, but Cropper recorded his guitar parts at Wally Heider Studios in Hollywood, California. This album marked the first time Booker T & The MGs would record their parts separately at different times–in different studios. They even mixed the album with John Fry at Ardent Studios.
McLemore Avenue is the street where STAX Records stood, just as EMI was located on Abbey Road. In the liner notes, author of the book John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, Ashley Kahn outlines the rare circumstances surrounding this reissue. Recently, Jones elaborated on the band learning these Beatles tunes:
“It challenged us to learn the music. They really crafted the music on Abbey Road, it wasn’t just like you can play an A and then a C and then a D. It was involved music. Things like ‘Mean Mr. Mustard’ and others had alternate rhythms, like 5/4 time that were new for us. It was a daunting task but it was fun actually. We changed a little bit here and there, but I tried to stay true to their ideas. I went for their transitions. I appreciated the irreverence. I tried to give an instrumental picture of what they did without words. It was basically a tribute to their melody and structure.”
The first track comprises a medley of “Golden Slumbers”, “Carry That Weight”, “The End”, “Here Comes The Sun” and “Come Together”, which all served as the last songs on Abbey Road. It’s amazing to hear instrumental versions of these Beatles songs because you end up singing the lyrics after decades of having these songs etched in your memory. Steve Cropper’s sharp, economical and emotive guitar playing reminds that he was covering both George and John’s parts.
Song two counts as George Harrison’s masterpiece “Something”, and the MGs nail it. They even implement a funky jam in the middle of the tune. There’s a dream-like quality to this album. The following medley features “You Never Give Me Your Money”. The final cut includes “Sun King”, “Mean Mr. Mustard”, “Polythene Pam”, “She Came In Through The Bathroom Window” and “I Want You”. Bonus tracks on this new release includes previously unreleased takes of “You Can’t Do That”, “Day Tripper”, “Michelle”, “Eleanor Rigby”, “Lady Madonna” and an alternate version of “You Can’t Do That”. McLemore Avenue is a musical street paved with gold…
Read my definitive interview with Steve Cropper in Insured Beyond The Grave.