Godfather of Memphis soul
Booker T. Jones takes history of Stax on the road
Despite having just returned to the States after a sold-out week-long gig at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in London, Booker T. Jones’ voice didn’t carry even a hint of jet lag during a recent telephone interview. The 72-year-old musician started playing professionally when he was 16 years old, and his stamina is perhaps derived from the fact that he hasn’t stopped—from his time anchoring the legendary Stax/Volt Records house band, Booker T. & The M.G.’s, in the 1960s, through his multiple Grammy-winning endeavors of the past decade.
“I’m pretty much touring all the time,” Jones said, “but my favorite place to be is on stage.”
On this current tour, Jones is behind his familiar Hammond B3 organ and alternating between two formats, a quartet (which he played with in London) and a big band, featuring a dozen or more musicians.
“The quartet’s my outlet—more reflective of jazz and a melting pot of music that influenced me to be a musician: The Beatles, Muddy Waters, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan,” he said.
When he stops in Chico on Saturday (Jan. 21), Jones will be with the big band to perform A Stax Revue & Journey Through Soul, Blues and R&B.
During the 1960s and early 1970s, the Stax studio churned out some of the greatest records in American music history, featuring such artists as Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, and The Staple Singers. And Booker T. & The M.G.’s served as the house band that provided the foundation for what would become the Southern/Memphis soul sound. And it’s those Stax classics—from Redding’s “Tenderness” to The M.G.’s instrumental standard (featuring Jones’ unmistakable organ groove) “Green Onions”—that Jones and his big band are navigating for the revue.
“I love working with a full ensemble: four horns, four singers and four guitars,” Jones said. “It enables me to do Otis Redding, Carla Thomas, Eddie Floyd, [etc.].”
Born and raised in Memphis, Jones was a musical wunderkind, playing oboe, sax, trombone, bass and piano at school, and organ at church. And his musicianship and environment conspired to form a very fertile creative period.
“When I was a young boy throwing papers, I had a route in Memphis. At Mason and Temple, I walked by a church and inside, there stood The Staple Singers. I just stopped and listened from the streets,” he said.
In high school, Jones hooked up with Earth, Wind & Fire frontman/songwriter Maurice White. “He was my first musical friend,” Jones recalled.
His career for Stax started in 1960 (when it was still Satellite Records), recording the baritone sax part for “‘Cause I Love You” by Rufus and Carla. After 10 years at the label, Jones left for California. “Stax only did soul and R&B, not jazz, not rock ‘n’ roll. They were pretty strict,” he said.
Over the following decades, Jones played with a variety of artists—Stephen Stills, Ray Charles, Willie Nelson, Rancid, Elton John—as well as on and off again with The M.G.’s. The band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992 and honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammys in 2007. Jones also picked up a couple of Grammys for his more recent solo work—2010 Best Instrumental Album for Potato Hole and 2012 Best Pop Instrumental Album for The Road from Memphis.
“I’ve been out of the scene, not on Top 40 radio, but folks have stuck with me as I changed through rock, neo soul and jazz, evolving musically, trying to come up with new styles,” Jones said, adding that no matter what the generation of fan, they all share an affinity—just as he does—for the early stuff. “They still love the ’60s music—Marvin Gaye; Earth, Wind & Fire; and the large range of music that I feed myself—gospel to classical, blues and rock ’n’ roll.”