Booker T. Jones

Born Under A Good Sign:
Sound the Alarm, Booker T. is Back

It’s been a long road from Memphis for legendary musician Booker T. Jones.

Jones grew up there, attending Booker T. Washington High School alongside fellow future music giants songwriter David Porter, Earth, Wind & Fire frontman Maurice White, saxophonist Andrew Love of the Memphis Horns and soul singer/songwriter William Bell. A musical prodigy from a young age, Jones started out in the elementary school band.

“That was my education, that’s how I educated myself, one instrument to the next,” says Jones, speaking by phone from the West Coast on a break from his current tour. “I got in the band playing the oboe in the fourth grade. That led to the reeds, clarinet and saxophone. I got into Stax playing the baritone saxophone.”

Jones played baritone sax on Stax’s first hit, “‘Cause I Love You,” by Rufus and Carla Thomas, beginning a career that has yielded a number one R&B hit (“Green Onions” with the MGs) and four Grammy awards, including one for Lifetime Achievement, as well as induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

“Green Onions,” a tune Jones co-wrote when he was still in high school, launched the career of Booker T. and the MGs, an instrumental combo Jones formed with guitarist Steve Cropper, drummer Al Jackson, Jr. and bassist Lewie Steinberg. (Steinberg was replaced by Donald “Duck” Dunn in 1965.) It also signaled Jones becoming known principally as an organist (although he continued to play other instruments throughout his career.)

“I had the key to the church, my dad was a treasurer,” Jones said. “I could go in there and play that organ, an old-fashioned pipe organ. That was the first one, then I heard Ray Charles playing ‘One Mint Julep’ on the organ. I figured out that was a [Hammond] M3. My piano teacher had a B3 in her dining room, so I had Hammond B3 lessons from about age 11 or 12. That paid off when I recorded ‘Green Onions’ on the M3.”

After the success of “Green Onions,” Jones took a left turn and took off for Indiana University to study music composition seriously. He would spend the next four years making the 400-mile drive between Memphis and Indiana with the goal of returning to Stax full time.

“I got a lot out of that school, actually, that I gave to Stax, in terms of what I learned in writing and composition and the history of music,” Jones said. “A lot of that, I think, contributed to some of the stuff I did at Stax.”

The university returned his respect when it invited him to speak at commencement in 2012. Jones spoke movingly of the importance of education and recalled being invited to Paris in 1968 by French director Jules Dassin to compose the soundtrack to his film, Uptight. Jones recounted to the students how being thrown into unfamiliar surroundings led to his composing the “long, encouraging melody” of the MGs hit “Time is Tight” during walks along the Seine.

After 11 albums with the MGs and countless sessions in the house band at Stax backing up such artists as Sam and Dave, Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett, Jones decamped for L.A. and ended his relationship with Stax Records in the early ’70s. A planned reunion with the MGs in 1975 was sadly ended when drummer Al Jackson, Jr. was murdered by an intruder in his home.

Jones cut a series of records with his then-wife, Priscilla Coolidge and produced many notable efforts for other artists, including Bill Withers debut album, Just As I Am and Willie Nelson’s Stardust. The opportunity to collaborate with Willie came about because they were neighbors in Malibu and Nelson asked Jones to produce his version of the standard “Moonlight in Vermont.” Nelson was so pleased with the results, he asked him to help him with a full album of pop standards. “I’ve met a lot of good people that way, and played on a lot of good music,” Jones said.

According to Booker T., Bill Withers’ singing career almost didn’t happen.

“It was a kind of an accident; a serendipitous moment,” Jones recalled. “He never had the aspirations of being anything more than a songwriter in the music business. When we got to the studio getting ready to record the songs, I had assumed that Bill would sing the songs, but he had not assumed that. It was a Hollywood moment: he thought he was getting, as a songwriter, someone who was going to come in and sing these songs. He said, ‘Who’s going to sing these songs, Booker?’ I said, ‘You are.’ So I think, at that moment, a star was born, tell you the truth. He said, ‘Okay,’ and he just walked out there, got out his guitar and started singing.”

After releasing the solo album, I Want You in 1981, Jones focused on being a sideman and production, in addition to occasional reunions with the remaining MGs. He landed several high-profile gigs, including the MGs being the house band for Bob Dylan’s 30th Anniversary Tribute show in 1992, where he met Neil Young. This led to the band backing Young on his world tour in 1993 and later backing Young up on his 2002 release, Are You Passionate? In 1992, Booker T. and the MGs were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

So what led to his reemergence in 2009 as a frontman?

“Well, it wasn’t as easy as deciding to get started,” Jones replied. “The record business had changed since I started in the early ’60s and by the time we got to the time I recorded Potato Hole I didn’t have a strong connection with a record company and it wasn’t until we got hooked up with Anti- that I was able to record on my own terms again.”

His then-manager, David Bartlett, suggested Booker hook up with the Drive-By Truckers. “I knew Patterson’s dad, David Hood,” said Jones. “They were Neil Young fans, and so was I and we have a lot in common. They just kind of opened up to the idea of recording with me, so I came down to Athens, actually, and recorded with them.”

Potato Hole was a departure for Jones in that it is a VERY guitar-oriented album. “I was playing a lot of guitar, I have always played guitar, and I was starting to play a little wild rock guitar,” Jones said. “They had three guitars in the band and that really appealed to me.” The record featured instrumental versions of Outkast’s “Hey Ya!” and the Truckers’ own “Space City” as well as labelmate Tom Waits’ “Get Behind The Mule.” The icing on the cake is lead guitar throughout provided by Neil Young in his signature style. The Truckers backed up Jones for several tour dates, including Bonnaroo and here in Atlanta at the Variety Playhouse. In 2010, the album won the Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental album.

At the mention of David Hood, I ask Jones if the Stax players felt like they were in competition with Motown and Muscle Shoals, the other great R&B capitols of the ’60s and ’70s.

“Well, you know, we weren’t competing with Motown; we felt like we couldn’t compete with Motown,” he averred. “There were comparisons, of course. Our distributor, Atlantic Records, Jerry Wexler and Tom Dowd, they had made a great discovery down in Muscle Shoals. The sound that they came out with was perfect for the Staple Singers and Aretha. We just took a lot of credit for what they did because they weren’t famous. For instance, the bass solo that David Hood played on ‘I’ll Take You There,’ everybody thought that was Duck (Dunn), but that’s how that goes. Those were our executive producers and when they couldn’t make a good deal with Jim Stewart, they went to Muscle Shoals. We weren’t in competition with them, we were cheering them on, too.”

In 2011, Jones released The Road From Memphis, an autobiographical record that returned him to his soul roots. Produced with Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson of The Roots and Rob Schnapf, the record featured backing from members of The Roots as well as legendary Motown guitarist Dennis Coffey and was engineered by Gabriel Roth of Daptone Records. Featuring guest vocalists as diverse as Sharon Jones, Jim James of My Morning Jacket (as Yim Yames) and Matt Berninger from The National, the most interesting vocal turn is a rare appearance by Booker himself on “Down in Memphis,” a song that recounts his early days “playing that funky music.” Jones daughter, Olivia, contributed lyrics to two tunes, “Representing Memphis” and “The Bronx” which features one of the last recorded vocal performances of Lou Reed. The record made Jones two-for-two by winning for Best Pop Instrumental record again at the 2012 Grammy Awards.

In 2012, Jones appeared on Atlanta native Kelly Hogan’s Anti- debut, I Like To Keep Myself In Pain as part of a backing band composed of Jones, Dap-Kings bassist Gabriel Roth, soul drumming veteran James Gadson and longtime Hogan compatriot (and NRBQ guitarist) Scott Ligon. “Who gets a rhythm section like that?” Jones asked. “It was a genius idea,” he said, crediting Anti- label head, Andy Kaulkin. “She is such a great artist. Friends of hers had written great songs for her.”

Hogan calls Booker T. a “beautiful, gentle and wickedly talented musician.” The record came together over a week of recording in Los Angeles after Hogan had sent her collaborators demos with vocals and acoustic guitar.

“One of my favorite things about making that record (there are SO MANY!),” said Hogan by email, “was our lunches all around the same table at the studio – listening to Booker talk about music, and knowing that every time he mentioned the name Otis in a story, he was TALKING ABOUT OTIS REDDING. Just soaking in all the history of his vast experience.”

In 2013, Booker’s road led metaphorically back to Memphis, as he reunited with MGs guitarist Steve Cropper and many of his Stax labelmates for a White House tribute to Memphis Soul. He also rejoined his old label, Stax, that had been revived in 2007 by new owners Concord Music Group, and released Sound The Alarm, the first of his latest recordings to feature all songs written or co-written by Booker T. The album, produced by Jones with the Avila Brothers, is his most straight-ahead contemporary R&B offering yet, but also nods to the blues with an appearance from Texas bluesman Gary Clark, Jr. on “Austin City Blues.” Jones is joined by his son, Ted, on the aptly named track, “Father Son Blues.” “That’s another surprise in my life,” Jones said of his son’s guitar prowess. “I knew he was a music lover, but I didn’t know he had the aptitude to learn quickly.” His son, who just turned 25 on tour, has joined Jones’ road band that he has been playing with now for many years.

“The show is sometimes just favorites of mine, and that’s fortunate because a lot of my favorites come from my own career. I’ve started doing a couple of Beatles songs. I love the MGs stuff, I love to play that stuff onstage and the Stax songs. A lot of the music is stuff that I helped to create or was active as a songwriter on. I was fortunate to have been involved with a lot of music and I still like it. I am lucky there,” he concluded.

Born under a good sign, indeed.