Booker T. Jones
Nobody deserves the title “Soul Man” more than Booker T. Jones, the organ player and nominal frontman of Booker T. & the MG’s, perhaps the greatest instrumental group in the history of Soul music. Jones played in the house band at Stax Records and played on hit songs by the likes of Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett and Sam & Dave—including the song “Soul Man.” In recent years he’s had a major return to form. His Grammy-winning 2009 album Potato Hole featured Neil Young and Drive-By Truckers, and his brand new album, The Road from Memphis, was recorded with The Roots and features guest appearances by Lou Reed, Sharon Jones and My Morning Jacket’s Jim James. Booker T. Jones will perform at Concert Under the Stars on July 13 at Adele’s Restaurant and Lounge, 1112 N. Carson Street, Carson City.
Let’s start by talking about your new record, The Road from Memphis.
The Road from Memphis—it’s a great experience for me to have that music out now.
You recorded it with The Roots?
I met them in New York working with Jimmy Fallon, and I’d heard of them. They happen to be a hip-hop band that uses traditional instruments, which was just the right thing for me at the right time.
There’s also a lot of vocals on the record, including a vocal turn from you, which I haven’t heard much of before.
Yeah, I haven’t been doing that much before. In the ’60s, when I was recording with The MG’s, it was pretty much an instrumental band. Though I did sing some, it was primarily instrumental, and that’s the way people wanted to keep it so that was cool, but I did more singing in the ’70s and the ’80s and of course now.
I really like the song that Jim James sings, “Progress.”
How did that come about?
He was somebody that I wanted to work with when I first got my recording deal. I was really loving the sound of My Morning Jacket, and I was working with Neil Young. I wrote all those songs on Potato Hole on guitar in a rock vein. And I thought that they would be a great band for me to work with for doing a rock album, but I couldn’t get My Morning Jacket, but I did connect with Jim, and we always wanted to do something and this was the time we got together.
Can you tell me a little bit about growing up in Memphis?
That’s a big deal, being born in Memphis, for me at least. Because I had the good fortune of living less than three blocks from a recording studio as a kid, and that was my aspiration and my goal and my dream was always to be a musician, and [I] studied music from the time I was in fourth grade. I had a clarinet and a ukulele, and I taught myself a bunch of different instruments and got in the band early. I just always loved music, and always practiced after school, and I got into situations that I never dreamt would have happened, because of the close proximity of Stax Records and all the stars that came through there—Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett and Rufus Thomas, Eddie Floyd and all those people.
I’d love to hear some first-hand stories about Otis Redding, for example.
Well, Otis—my first encounter with him, he wasn’t a star. He was going to get sandwiches and driving and carrying luggage for a band called Johnny and the Pinetoppers, and I guess he’d been singing with the band or trying to sing with the band, and he asked if he could sing a song. And he sat next to me and sang a few phrases from the song, “These Arms of Mine.” And of course we ended up recording a demo of that song late that afternoon. But Otis was a really cool guy, intensely into music, fun-loving, gregarious, happy type person.
It’s such a tragedy he died so young, but it’s amazing the volume of work he recorded with you guys at such a young age. You were really young when you started recording too, right?
I was when I went there, basically as a customer. I was throwing papers, 10 or 11 years old, and I happened to see this place when I was looking for customers on my bicycle. I happened to pass by a record shop, and I would go in there and listen to Ray Charles records and jazz records, and [MG’s guitarist] Steve Cropper was a clerk there at Satellite. So, I was very young. When I actually got to play on my first record at Stax, I was in 11th grade. I played baritone sax on a record by Rufus Thomas.
So you connected with Steve Cropper because he was the clerk at the record store?
Yeah, he was behind the counter, and that was his job. They hadn’t quite started the record label at that time. They were trying to work on it, but he was doing odd jobs there, and that was his job. He was the clerk at Satellite Records.
When was that?
’58, ’59, something like that.
Did you and Steve Cropper just talk about music, and say, “Hey, we should start playing together?”
No, no, no. He didn’t know I was a musician, and I didn’t know he was a musician. He was just letting me listen to records at that point. It was just a nice thing, a nice gesture on his part, because I had no money to buy the records. I was just listening to them. In those days, you’d walk into a record store, and there was a turntable available, and you were pretending like you were going to buy a record, so you would listen to it because you wanted to buy it. But I was just listening. I spent hours in there just listening. We didn’t have any idea we’d ever be playing music together or anything.
So that happened a couple of years later?
Yeah. Once I was in the 11th grade, I had learned to play some instruments, and by that time, he was playing guitar, and he was actually an engineer for Satellite Records, as it was called at that time. And the baritone sax player told him that I could play piano, because he didn’t really want me playing baritone sax. So Cropper gave me a call, and I ended up playing organ on William Bell’s “You Don’t Miss Your Water.” And I actually got the job as a session player after school there playing the keys when I was in high school.
That was your after-school job?
After-school job, that’s right. I threw out papers first, and then I went to Stax.
That’s amazing. You were just going to your after-school job and playing on all these songs that became hits that still hold up today.
Yeah. It didn’t start out that way. It was a pretty small operation, pretty barebones as far as the tape machines. As we began to sell some records, we began to get more sophisticated equipment. … I was getting there at 6 o’clock in the afternoon, after school, after my paper route, and staying there ’til about 11 at night, and it was great because they were paying me seven bucks a day, which was a huge amount of money for a kid my age. That’s about how much I made in a month on my paper route.
Did you realize at the time that the music you were recording was going to be as important as it was?
No. I had felt it was important to me. It was a big deal to me to be in a recording studio. Every time I walked into a recording studio I got a thrill. It was big to me, but I had no idea—I couldn’t have guessed that, for instance, you and I would be talking about it now or that it would survive all this time and that people would be buying it.
So there was never an experience when you recorded a song and you were like, “Oh wow, that’s one for the ages?”
Well, actually, that happened later as things progressed, there were times when we would do very, very special takes and I though very special experiences and I was like, “Wow.” But that’s what I would hope, that it would be one for the ages, but it was Just Memphis, Tennessee. We were smalltime. This music seeped out to the world unbeknownst to us, actually. It was like the age of the internet now. Records had to be shipped to places. It was not that easy to get exposure.
What was one of those times when you recorded something that felt special right away?
Special for me … “Green Onions” was special. That was the first one we recorded as Booker T. & the MG’s. I was hoping it would be a local hit, and when I heard it on the radio, I got a little thrill. And I still, still that cut of that song. I get the same feeling now, that I did back then. That one I thought was special. Later on, when we recorded “Try a Little Tenderness” with Otis Redding, and “Born Under a Bad Sign” with Albert King, “Soul Man” with Sam and Dave—those moments I felt were special.
And you were right! Recording “Green Onion,” the story I’ve heard as that you guys were just jamming in the studio waiting for a vocalist who never showed. Is that true?
Yeah, I can’t get the story right in my own head. I know that the guy did eventually show up, but he ended up not in the studio—leaving or something—so we had time to jam, and we were jamming on this song “Behave Yourself,” which was a slow blues, and we ended up recording it. And we needed a B-side for it, and that’s what turned out to be “Green Onions.”
You were a racially integrated band in the South in the very early ’60s. That was almost unheard of at the time. Did you feel like you were pioneers in that regard?
No, it was very natural the way it started, because we happened to fall in together in a neighborhood that was in transition from whites to blacks. Stax—Satellite—was just right where the blacks were moving in, and the whites were moving out. We thought maybe we were the only ones doing that, but it was OK. Not a lot of people knew that we were playing together. We weren’t trying to start a trend or anything. We were just having fun together. So there was no inkling that we were trailblazing. Getting to play was the deal, getting to play at all with whites or blacks.
You’re closely identified with the Hammond B-3 organ, and it’s closely identified with you. Could you comment on what makes it such a unique instrument, and what about that sound draws you back to it?
Well, my experience with it was—like I said, I was throwing papers, and I knew I loved music. The paper route was for money so I could get piano lessons. My piano teacher was just a great teacher, and I noticed that in her dining room, which you could see from the living room, that she had a number of cabinets in there. They were china cabinets. They had the dishes and glasses and so forth in there. But one particular cabinet was always closed—right in the middle of the room, a beautiful wooden cabinet.
And I asked her what it was, and it turned out that was a Hammond B-3 there in that neighborhood in a piano teacher’s dining room. So I asked her to let me see it. She opened it up and played a few notes on it, and I feel in love with it right then and there in that moment. Just the way it sounded, and the way it looked, it just drew me in. I don’t know if you understand how sometimes instruments can just pull a person in. That happened with me and that organ.
But I couldn’t really afford to really touch it myself, because those lessons were three times as much as piano lessons, because she had monthly payments on the thing, and her husband was helping her with it. It was a very expensive instrument to be in a home there in an African-American neighborhood in Memphis. … But I was able to get the money to take lessons on Hammond. My father helped. And I got some lessons on pipe organ at the church.
Then, once I was old enough to go down to Beale Street and hear some of the music down there, I recognized one of these sounds coming from the Club Handy as being a Hammond organ being played big and loud and incredibly by a guy named Blind Oscar. I’m on the street; I’m too young to get into the club. I heard that organ from the street. Later, I actually got into a club and I heard Jack McDuff playing Hammond organ, and then I heard Ray Charles playing his small spinet Hammond M-3 on “One Mint Julep,” which is a song he recorded with Quincy Jones. That’s when it kicked in—that’s what I want to do. That’s the sound I want to make with my life. I want to get a hold of one of those and play like that!
Did they have one in the Stax studio?
It was meant to be. It was not only good fortune—I don’t know how those things happen—but yes, I walked in to Stax, and there it was sitting there, just waiting for me. I don’t know how those things happen, but that was my good fortune and my life.