Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Lewie Polk Steinberg: Reflections of a music icon

The original Booker T. & the M.G.'s. Bassist Lewie Polk Steinberg is on the right. (Courtesy photo)
Memories fade with time, but “Green Onions,” the raw, gritty and funky instrumental composition that Stax Records churned into a hit in the 1960s, is unforgettable. After more than 50 years, the bass line is still the subject of water-cooler conversations.
The musician that comes to mind is Lewie Polk Steinberg, the original bassist for Booker T. & the M.G.’s, Stax’s R&B/funk house band. Mr. Steinberg’s thumping bass line in “Green Onions” propelled the group and also helped to orchestrate the record label’s worldwide signature sound.
Lewie Pole Steinberg
“Green Onions” also propelled Mr. Steinberg, the quintessential bassist who strummed his bass for some of the industry’s most notable song titles and the artists/musicians that set precedencies in Memphis music history.
Mr. Steinberg, who engineered a stellar career in music, died of cancer July 21. He was 82.
“Even though he played rock and roll, he loved jazz. That was his favorite music,” said Ida Steinberg, one of Mr. Steinberg’s six children. “We would watch ‘The Lawrence Welk Show’ together. That was his favorite. He liked the Big Band era, but he was opened to all genres.”
Mr. Steinberg, the 14th of 15 children, was perhaps the most noted in the family of musicians. His father, Milton Gus Steinberg, was born on Beale Street and played piano with W. C. Handy in Memphis and New Orleans, according to his obituary.
His sister, Nan Steinberg Morton, toured with Fats Waller and her brothers: Morris (sax), Luther (trumpet, piano) and Wilbur (bass, singer). They, Mr. Steinberg included, played with some of the best musicians in the world.
“They laid the foundation called ‘The Memphis Sound,’” said Ida Steinberg, who didn’t realize the breadth of her family’s contribution to music until much later in life. “When you’re growing up with all that great music and the best well known people are coming over to the house, you kind of take it for granted.”
Tony Steinberg, the son of Wilbur Steinberg, said his uncle made sure the family’s contribution to Memphis music would be remembered forever. “He was very pleased,” his nephew said, “when the Steinberg family got a Brass Note on Beale Street in 2010.”
Although Mr. Steinberg had achieved immeasurable success, “He felt it was important for the whole family. It was a relay race. There was not a particular star. He just happened to be the last one in the relay race. He was able to get across the finish line.”
Diane Steinberg-Lewis said they all were enamored with Mr. Steinberg. “When the music was going on, it was always a Steinberg there. We were all so proud of him. But my dad (Luther Steinberg) was upset because he played rock and roll. They were jazz musicians.”
They were big teasers too, particularly Mr. Steinberg, she said. “When I loss my two front teeth as a child, I learned how to whistle. So he named me whistle girl. ‘It’s the whistle gal,’ he’d say, and then he’d laugh.”
But what Steinberg-Lewis remembers most are the conversations, intonation and phrasing, which she attributes to Memphis jazz musicians when they are in creative mode or just sitting around making small-talk.
“There’s no way to hear ‘Green Onions’ and not know that it is so Memphis,” she said.   
Kenny Lewis, a bassist and Steinberg-Lewis’ husband, recalls Mr. Steinberg sharing with him a little tidbit when he started playing bass full time with the Steve Miller Band. He ended up with “big blood blisters” on his fingers, he said, just what Mr. Steinberg had predicted when playing the bass without a pick.
“I used to take pictures of them (fingers) and send them to him,” said Lewis. “He just laughed and said, ‘Yeah, there you go. You got to get those big corns on them.’”
Mr. Steinberg was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Grammy "Lifetime Achievement Award," The Memphis Music Hall of Fame, and many other awards.

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