Interview: Booker T. Jones

bookertIT can be argued that it was Booker T. Jones who set the cast for modern soul music and is largely responsible for its rise and enduring popularity.

On classic Stax hits like ‘Green Onions’, ‘Hang ‘Em High’, ‘Time Is Tight’, and ‘Melting Pot’, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee pushed the music’s boundaries, refined it to its essence and then injected it into the nation’s bloodstream.

‘Sound the Alarm’, the new album from Booker T, finds the Hammond B3 organ master looking ahead yet again, laying down his distinctive bedrock grooves amid a succession of sparkling collaborations with some of contemporary R&B’s most gifted young voices.

It also marks Booker T’s historic return to Stax Records, the Memphis soul label the instrumentalist, bandleader, producer, and songwriter helped put on the map during the 1960s, along with his brilliant band, the MGs.

Creatively, it’s another bold new step in a career that has witnessed a striking resurgence in recent years. Booker T took home Best Pop Instrumental Album GRAMMY Awards for both 2010’s ‘Potato Hole’, his head-turning collaboration with The Drive-By Truckers and 2012’s ‘The Road From Memphis’, his critically acclaimed album with The Roots.

Gemma Brosnan catches up with Booker T. Jones to find out more.

Gemma: You started out on drums in fourth grade, piano aged nine, guitar and ukulele aged 10 before picking up the flute, oboe, clarinet, saxophone and trombone. Is there any instrument you’ve ever struggled with?

Booker T: I’ve studied all of them and did better on some than others. I don’t actually play the full drum set, I started with a little snare drum and I’m still working on the harp, but I don’t master them all and I dropped some a few years ago. I sent my saxophone, clarinet and trombone down to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina as there just isn’t time enough to play all of them so now I focus on piano, guitar and alto sax.

Gemma: How many organs do you have now?

Booker T: One, two, three….actually I only have three. One of them is a Hammond B-3 with a Leslie speaker, the other is a Hammond M-1, it’s a smaller organ, like the one I played on ‘Green Onions’ which is a smaller version of the B-3 and the other is a digital Hammond B-3.

Gemma: How do you find the digital B-3?

Booker T: I like it, I actually played it the first time at The Stax reunion in London, about eight or nine years ago, but they’ve made a lot of improvements since so it’s probably time to get a new one. There’s a place for the regular Leslie speaker and it’s sturdy but not as heavy as my original B-3 which was 420 pounds and the other one is 275 which makes a difference. The newer one is also more durable, they stopped making the original in 1974 which had tonewheels and was very sensitive to being moved around.

Gemma: You seem to embrace new technology – drum machines, the MPC – and the whole idea of changing the beats and sound of soul and R&B. Do you feel the same about digital developments with instruments?

Booker T: I do. I have a healthy regard for the originals, but for practicalities I sometimes play the new ones and I don’t use score paper anymore for writing, I use a computer programme called Sibelius made by two British guys for classical music.

Gemma: Is it true you prefer to write on the guitar and fill in the gaps on the organ?

Booker T: It varies according to what I’m writing. For my ‘Potato Hole’ album and ‘The Road from Memphis’, I started the ideas on guitar as I tend to gravitate towards guitar in the beginning of the song, probably because I started as a ukele and guitar player as a young kid.

Gemma: Do you consider yourself a guitarist or organist?

Booker T: I was a guitarist when I started at Stax, I only went to the keyboards as they already had a guitarist, Steve Cropper. Then we had a hit with me at the keyboards in ’62 and I played behind William Bell on keyboards so I just became known as a keyboard player rather than a guitar player.

Gemma: You grew up listening to jazz and R&B organists like Jack McDuff and Blind Oscar on Beale Street. How much of an influence did they have on your sound?

Booker T: A huge influence, I remember listening to Blind Oscar on the street as a boy as I couldn’t get in the club and also hearing Jimmy Smith. Jack used the Leslie speaker a little bit, Jimmy Smith used it not at all, Blind Oscar used it not at all so if you listen you’ll hear a lot of my tones are straight for a long time, maybe four or five beats and then I turn the Leslie effect on and it gives the tone more colour,

Gemma: What stopped you from becoming a jazz organist?

Booker T: A lot of the jazz organists were very dedicated to jazz as a lifestyle, I was in love with other genres such as classical and blues. I loved a lot of brass instrumental music, Miles Davis, Porgy and Bess type brass sounds and I played trombone in high school and college, at my graduation I played my recital on trombone so it was just that I didn’t have the dedication that a person like Jimmy Smith had to jazz.

Gemma: How much influence did Ray Charles have when you were trying to create a distinctive sound?

Booker T: Even more so than the other three I just mentioned. Ray played the Hammond M-1 on ‘One Mint Julep’ and when I heard that, that was my inspiration to go to the Hammond. That was when I decided ‘wouldn’t it be great if I could make sounds like that’. He also played alto sax and I loved both of them, but it was the Hammond I was trying to imitate.

Gemma: What did you do to the settings of your Hammond B-3 to create your harder riff-driven sound?

Booker T: It’s a combination of the use of the drawbars and the fact you have two manuals so you can play complement with one and melody with the other and the fact that the instrument itself is so versatile. You can sustain a note on a Hammond organ forever whereas you can’t do that on a piano. It’s characteristic of the Leslie speaker that goes with it and the fact that you can initiate this sort of whirly whoosh type sound that keeps it from being a straight tone to make it more interesting and that’s what I do. I use the Leslie speaker on and off, off and on and sometimes not at all to the point that it becomes distinctive.

Gemma: You used to hang around Satellite Records in Memphis after your paper round before Satellite became Stax in 1961. Who else was hanging around there in those days?

Booker T: Steve Cropper was working there as a clerk, but there wasn’t much socialising for me, I was just listening to the turntables for free. When I realised there were bands playing behind the curtain in the theatre section, then I was hanging around to try and get through the curtain and be where they were playing live music.

Gemma: You made it through the curtain to form the M.G.’s and were still in high school in ’62 when you co-wrote ‘Green Onions’. How much did life change for you in the initial aftermath of its success?

Booker T: It provided me with enough money to stay at school, but it also gave me somebody to be, it gave me something to do which was invaluable, it gave me a name – Booker T and the M.G.’s – so it was a special moment for me.

Gemma: How instrumental was ‘Green Onions’ in the birth of the Memphis sound?

Booker T: I would say it was as important as some of the stuff that Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis were doing and probably one of the most important tracks to come out of Memphis.

Gemma: It’s been over 50 years since it reached the top three. How often do you find yourself in a bar and they ask you to play the riff on the piano?

Booker T: All the time.

Gemma: How often do you oblige?

Booker T: Almost always, it’s a fascinating little riff and I haven’t got tired of it yet.

Gemma: I’ve heard two different stories regarding the origin of the M.G.’s name, one that it stands for Memphis Group and the other a reference to the MG sports car. Which one is true?

Booker T: Both. It was named after the sports car as we thought we could get some mileage out of the name and form a partnership with British Leyland on the MGs, but they wouldn’t return our phone calls. We got the impression they didn’t want to be associated with us so I changed it to Memphis Group and stopped calling them.

Gemma: When did you first hear Otis sing?

Booker T: Otis was a gopher for Johnny Jenkins and The Pinetoppers and they come up and did an auction with Otis driving them. After that audition, he sang a few bars of ‘These Arms of Mine’ and it was like ‘What is this thing, this animal two inches away from me?’ and it was great, I just gravitated towards him and we started playing music. Stax auditioned people all the time and I couldn’t see into the future, but I knew it was a beautiful thing he was doing right then and there. It was compelling, this beautiful simple melody and he was doing it so well. Our method of operation back then was to just jump on it right away and start recording.

Gemma: What was it like recording ‘Otis Blue’ in 36 hours?

Booker T: Well, he inspired music to come out of me and others in a very unique, compelling way. There was so much desire inside of him, you could just pick up on the magnetism and follow it. He wasn’t possessed at that same level all of the time, but he was very much possessed by music. It was a gift to us and a gift to the world.

Gemma: Your first visit to the UK was for the Stax-Volt with Otis, Sam and Dave, Eddie Floyd and Carla Thomas. What was it like?

Booker T: It was great, we were treated so well and for most of us, it was a big surprise to have the reception that we did. It fuelled enthusiasm in us, I was really shocked and amazed at how great the shows were – the stuff that was happening on stage was just unbelievable to me.

Gemma: In what way?

Booker T: The Sam & Dave shows, the energy that was being put out and how it translated to the music, when you’re part of something like that, it’s amazing.

Gemma: Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn described the tour as ‘the most impressive thing I’ve ever done in my life’.

Booker T: And you know what, it’s probably the most amazing tour I’ve ever participated in. There were times that we played so well and I don’t know how a lot of that stuff originated, the telepathy between Sam and Dave and the band and Al Jackson – the unspoken communication was just unreal.

Gemma: The M.G.’s are often considered to be the first racially integrated band. How much impact did this have on how you were perceived?

Booker T: It was a secret at first, black fans thought we were black and white fans thought we were white. It increased the level of intrigue because it was socially unacceptable, but it was entirely awkward on the road, even riding in cars or staying in hotels together, but we would get around it by sending the white guys in to buy sandwiches for us and by using the back doors of hotel rooms.

Gemma: Why did you stop playing sessions for Stax in 1970?

Booker T: For multiple reasons. There was my own need to grow and expand and by the time I left Stax, it wasn’t even owned by Stewart and Al Bell anymore, it was owned by Paramount and they were making the decisions with so much control, I don’t think they even noticed I had left until at least three months after I had gone. They had been a conflict really since 1962 when ‘Green Onions’ became a hit because I had predetermined that I was going to school and had paid tuition as I felt I needed to develop myself as a musician. They thought I was playing well and I could play ok, but I couldn’t write down the music I was hearing in my head. I needed help.

Gemma: If Otis and Al hadn’t died, do you think the M.G.’s and Stax would have prospered throughout the 70s?

Booker T: I think the very thing that caused Stax to be able to sell records in large numbers is the very thing that killed it. Stax would have had to remain small or somewhat a nuclear family like when it started in order to survive throughout those years.

Gemma: How important was Quincy Jones to you as a mentor?

Booker T: He was a great inspiration, he always had a big smile and a big hug which was pretty rare in Hollywood. When I got my first movie score, I didn’t really know what to do so he brought me an instruction book which taught me how to synch the beats-per-minute to the frames-per-second. So if your music is 90 beats per minute, it tells you exactly how many frames that’s going to be and back then, that’s how we scored the picture so that was a great gift he gave me among many great gifts.

Gemma: In the ’80s it seemed as though every American movie featured a Stax or Motown track. Which did you enjoy scoring the most?

Booker T: ‘Uptight’ was the one victory for me. That’s one of the first examples of when I jumped ship with all of the conventions of music, the 13 bar phrase for ‘Time is Tight’, the unexpected chord change to the F. That was a case of me following instead of leading, following the creative urge rather than saying this has to be a 12 bar song because it’s blues. That was the beginning of when I realised that a melody can fly on its own and it’s not necessary to sit in a box.

Gemma: Would you consider it your greatest artistic achievement to date?

Booker T: ‘Time is Tight’ is my greatest artistic achievement to date because so many people have told me that they got the music, they understood the music, the music got them through, they listened to it when they had trouble in life and it helped. So it was my most successful song in terms of what music is supposed to do for people.

Gemma: You’ve played on every record that Otis recorded, with the likes of Wilson Pickett, Albert King, Ray Charles, George Harrison, Sam and Dave, Neil Young, Barbra Streisand, Lou Reed, Bob Dylan and recently with everyone from the Drive By Truckers to Vintage Trouble, The Roots and Valerie June. Who did you enjoy working with the most?

Booker T: It’s very difficult to choose, but for Albert King to sing my song, ‘Born Under A Bad Sign’ that I had written just a few hours before with William Bell, that was thrilling for me. In Memphis at that time, people like BB and Albert were heroes and the excitement for him to playing my song and playing it so well – that was really a dream come true.

Gemma: Creatively, you’ve had a striking resurgence in recent years, taking home Grammys for both 2010’s ‘Potato Hole’ and 2012’s ‘The Road From Memphis’. Does it feel like you’re into the second chapter of your career?

Booker T: Yeah, it feels like I’ve been let loose again and it was a great way to start with the Drive By Truckers. We had a really great time.

Gemma: How do you feel about artists like Kayne West and Jay Z sampling your music?

Booker T: I was surprised that Jay Z and Kayne sampled the break for ‘Try a Little Tenderness’as I would never think of doing that with that piece of music. It’s so unique which is the beautiful thing about sampling, it gives music another colour.

Gemma: How do you find playing to new audiences who are unfamiliar with your sound?

Booker T: I enjoy it, the music carries me through and holds up, even though it’s from 40 years ago, people still listen to it and it holds their attention. Sometimes they’ll be an older guy with his son and even his grandchild so it’s great for me to witness my music being passed down generations.

Gemma: What would you like to be remembered for?

Booker T: I would like to be remembered as the guy who wrote ‘Time is Tight’ because it’s a song that broke tradition in terms of melody writing. It’s simple, it’s pretty and it inspired people.

Gemma: Is there any part of your career you’d rather forget?

Booker T: I try and stay as close to the present as possible. I have some regrets, but I think they were necessary and I’m doing pretty good right now, Gemma.

Gemma: What’s next for Booker T?

Booker T: I’ve got 13 guitars in my bedroom right now and when I get up on stage I’m doing Jimmy Reed, I’m doing Muddy Waters, William Bell, Booker T on guitar and organ and in my studio I’ve got nine Beethoven scores. I’m also studying Brahms as I need to understand the workings of some of the older masters in both blues and classical. That’s enough to keep me going for now.

Booker T Jones plays Latitude Festival Saturday, July 19