In spring of 1970, mere months after the Beatles released Abbey Road, the Stax label’s elite house band Booker T. and the MGs released McLemore Avenue, a near-complete tribute to that LP. A lot of you probably guessed as much, but McLemore Avenue was the Memphis street on which Stax’s studios resided, just as Abbey Road was the street on which the EMI studio where the Beatles recorded was located. (The studio wasn’t officially named “Abbey Road Studios” until sometime after that Beatles LP came out. The more you know.) A lot of you probably also guessed that the Booker T. album is freakin’ excellent.
Booker T. talked about the inspiration for paying tribute to a brand-new LP in a 2009 AV Club interview:
AVC: What inspired you and the M.G.’s to record McLemore Avenue, your instrumental cover version of Abbey Road?
BT: I was in California when I heard Abbey Road, and 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 and reinvent themselves when they had no need to that. They were the top band in the world but they still reinvented themselves. The music was just incredible so I felt I needed to pay tribute to it.
Rob Bowman’s informative history of the Stax label Soulsville, U.S.A.: The Story of Stax Records sums the album up thusly:
McLemore Avenue was divided into four tracks. Taking a cue from the extended medley on side two of the Beatles’ Abbey Road album, three of those tracks are medleys clocking in at seven, ten, and fifteen minutes each. Every Abbey Road song except “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” “Octopus’ Garden,” and “Oh Darling” appears in one or another of the medleys, but the order of the songs in each medley does not necessarily follow the order of the Beatles’ album. My favorite is the final track on McLemore Avenue, which adroitly combines “Sun King,” “Mean Mr. Mustard,” “Polythene Pam,” “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window,” and “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).” On the surface, covering a complete album of any group, let alone the Beatles, is quite a risky gambit. The MG’s pull it off with aplomb, in the process creating a parallel masterpiece to the quintessential Beatles album.
“Parallel masterpiece,” sure, why not, but it’s almost a shame it wasn’t a complete cover. I’d give a lot to hear the MGs do the affably goofy Ringo song “Octopus’ Garden.” It’s kind of tantalizing to imagine how Steve Cropper could have transformed that guitar lick. On the subject of Cropper, I was amazed to learn that he wasn’t present for the McLemore Avenue recording sessions, and that he overdubbed his parts later, still having never actually heard Abbey Road yet! Again from Soulsville, U.S.A.:
“Booker told me every note to play,” relates Steve. “I hadn’t even heard the Beatles album. I might have heard a cut on the radio but I had not sat down and listened to the album like they had. He showed me the changes and sat down to teach me the songs. I strictly played to what I heard Booker play. [When I heard] the Beatles versions of those tunes, I went “Holy shit!” I was very surprised. I didn’t know those songs at all.”
Here’s the album, in sequence.
1) Medley: “Golden Slumbers,” “Carry That Weight,” “The End,” “Here Comes the Sun,” “Come Together”
1) Medley: “Because,” “You Never Give Me Your Money”
2) Medley: “Sun King,” “Mean Mr. Mustard,” “Polythene Pam,” “She Came In Through the Bathroom Window,” “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”
Bonus! Because we’re already on the topic and why the hell not, here’s Booker T. & the MGs properly lysergic take on “Eleanor Rigby.”
Previously on Dangerous Minds
Neil Young with Booker T. and the MG’s: Two and a half hours of live dynamite
Acappella ‘Abbey Road’: Sixteen glorious minutes of isolated Beatles
Isaac Hayes’ ‘Black Moses’: The story of one of the greatest album covers ever