Booker T Jones
" BluesWax Sittin' In With Booker T Jones
By Bob Putignano
"The man who turned green onions from a vegetable into a groove tells Robert Putignano that on his new CD, "The Road From Memphis," "I wanted to give the city its due, so that people will know how much Memphis contributed to what we hear in music today." Don Wilcock, editor for Blueswax.com
Green Onions and Grits forty-five Years Later
Booker T. Jones was one of the architects of the Memphis soul sound of the late 1960s as the leader of Booker T. & the MG's who nailed a number of hits of their own, as well as serving as the Stax Records house band. But the sixty-six-year-old Jones' credits go on and on. As a producer, songwriter, arranger, and instrumentalist, he's worked with a remarkable variety of artists. Along with the MG's, Booker was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992.
I caught up with Booker just as his excellent new album The Road From Memphis was about to be released.
Robert Putignano for BluesWax: You were so much a part of the Memphis sound. Was Memphis your actual birthplace?
Booker T: I was born there, three blocks from where Stax records eventually was founded.
BW: McLemore Avenue.
BW: I've wanted to talk to you for a long time. Growing up as a teenager I was heavily influenced by your music, and here you are evolving with new music, your second for the Anti- label, The Road From Memphis.
BT: Thank you and, yes, this is my second for Anti-.
BW: The previous disc had Neil Young on it.
BT: Yes, Neil played guitar on just about every song.
BW: An interesting pairing.
BT: I have all these different musical thoughts in my head and fortunate to be able to play in different genres. I love jazz, blues, and, of course, R&B. The prior one was a rock record, and I wanted to make a rock record, because I love rock music, too.
BW: Speaking of rock, have you seen the Stax reissue series, especially the one Booker T. & the MG's did on the Beatles, McLemore Avenue?
BT: I'm a little bit of a rebel, too, and love all these types of music which all came from Memphis. That Beatles cover album was a lot fun to do.
BW: And the sound on these Stax reissues is beautiful.
BT: Yeah it's somewhat of a new found art the way they can re-master those old recordings.
BW: Yeah, joyous ear candy.
BT: I am glad to hear about that. That era was some of my favorite music. It's good to hear that it's well preserved.
BW: I agree, Booker. Back to The Road From Memphis, I did not know what to expect when this disc landed in my mailbox and wondered if it would be an extension of the previous rocking record.
BT: I have to tell you that when I was nine years old I had a paper route, and there was a church in Memphis. One morning, the doors were opened, and the Staple Singers were performing, and they stopped me cold, so they also influenced me a lot. Almost all kinds of good music interests me, and that's why I try to keep changing things up.
BW: Wow, how old was Mavis at the time?
BT: She was very young, probably about fifteen...sixteen.
BW: And you eventually got to work together.
BT: Oh yeah, we never recorded together, but we worked on shows together.
BW: At Stax, especially in the early days, you were so much a part of Stax.
BT: Huge for us musically, and socially, too
BW: That Memphis sound, plus there was that Motown sound, too.
BT: Plus the connections with Martin Luther King.
BW: It must have been a fascinating time to live through. AM radio, too. I always dug the Stax grit more than the Motown slick, not taking anything away from Motown, but the Stax music was a lot edgier for me and had the blues and R&B feel that resonated better for me. Motown was more buttery, for me. On many of the Stax records, you guys really jammed. I rarely heard that on Motown.
BT: That's a good explanation of it.
BW: Thank you, I take that as major coming from you. Back to the future, how did you come to making this new Road From Memphis CD?
BT: A lot of it was biographical, especially on songs like "Down In Memphis," and "Representing Memphis." I wanted to give the city its due, so that people will know how much Memphis contributed to what we hear in music today. And what we have, especially over the last fifty years, is such a huge contribution from that city. So many great artists came from Memphis from all genres: The great jazz trumpeter Booker Little, soul-jazz organist Jack McDuff, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, plus blues artists like B.B. King, Albert King. So, in so many ways Memphis has a lot to say about music, especially in R&B: Al Green, Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, fortunately I was born right there in the middle of it.
BW: I know, I know, it also must have become interesting with Atlantic, especially when Jerry Wexler got into the mix.
BT: Yeah, he came down to Memphis and loved it. Wexler was the perfect person to help us get our music out on the airwaves and out to the world. He was so well connected, loved B.B. and Aretha. He also loved us, gave us additional direction, and we loved him too.
BW: I was fortunate to have had the honor to interview Wexler, just about six months prior to his passing. I'll never forget some of the stories he told me. And you sir, you saw quite a bit, too.
BT: I did, I've had a great time in the music business and met so many great people, so many times.
BW: I saw you as Booker T & MG's last year in Rochester. Are you still doing that?
BT: We do still play some. Part of the problem has been with Duck Dunn's health, but he's much, much better now.
BW: Good to hear, None of us aren't getting any younger, and we all have to take care of ourselves better than we used to.
BT: Oh, yes.
BW: You put together a lot of interesting names on this new recording, Questlove. This guy's the deal, huh?
BT: Yeah, he's one of the producers on the album; he's one of the people that made this project possible. He invited me to play on TV with the Roots. That's how we met, and jamming on with them made me feel that something could come about with working together. They are fun to jam with! He's one of the main elements of this new album. He's a mix of Philly and New Orleans and has a great respect for my drummer Al Jackson, Jr. He's just rock solid. Yeah, Questlove.
BW: And he can sing well, too.
BT: Oh, yes.
BW: I just saw this new Soulive DVD where he duets with Ivan Neville and was very impressed.
BT: He's a multitalented guy.
BW: And from the old school you brought in Dennis Coffey.
BT: Dennis is a great guy. He's the one with the buttery dripping soul. Of course, he ended up in Detroit at Motown, but he could have easily been one of our guys at Stax because he such a funky player.
BW: And how'd you get Lou Reed?
BT: With a lot of persuasion.[laughs] I had to be very good on the phone with him when I asked him to sing on "The Bronx," but seriously, he really wanted to come, just needed a little convincing. He told me he was an early days Stax fan, so I gave him the lyrics, and he was happy to come down and do it.
BW: I thought it was a nice and tender way to end the album, with Lou.
BT: Yes, it does, that's another great description, Bob.
BW: Kudos to you, Booker, thanks. Over the decades it's been fun to watch you consistently evolve your craft.
BT: Well thank you, that's what I try to do is create. That's what keeps me going and gets me excited to make new stuff, even if it's sometimes the old template.
BW: Yeah, you are who you are, part of these things are your signature, and that's not going to leave you any time soon. Yet bringing in a younger band like the Roots must keep you going, too.
BT: I had such a great time recording with them, and the guys enjoyed it, too.
BW: I'm sure. They got to play with one of their heroes!
BT: Thanks. What's unique about the Roots is that they're one of the few hip-hop bands that stuck with traditional instruments, no drum machines and computer. They could utilize those things, but they really play their instruments. For God sakes, they even have a tuba in the band! These are real musicians.
BW: No doubt. Prepping for this interview, I had forgotten that you wrote "Born Under a Bad Sign" with William Bell.
BT: That was part of my job at Stax Records. We would split up the artist between six different producers. Fortunately, Albert King came to me. We needed a song for him. William Bell was my partner, and we wrote that tune for Albert the night before the session.
BW: Wow, and he did well with that song, and I suspect you did, too.
BT: Yes! With writing that tune the day before we recorded it was cutting kind of close, but sometimes I think that's what makes things happen, meaning working spontaneously and on the fly, with a deadline.
BW: Speaking of Albert King, were you involved with Albert on the Jammed Together album with Steve Cropper and Pop Staples?
BT: Some of my songs were on that album. Most of that time I was still in school in Indiana, so I didn't get to play on everything they did.
BW: That record always fascinated me.
BT: Yeah, especially Pops. He's the most unique. I think, come to think of it, I really don't want to compare those three, I really don't. They're special and unique in their own ways.
BW: Whoever came up with the concept of recording those three, I have to give a lot of credit to.
BT: Remember, Bob, there was a lot of creative thinking going on down there at Stax.
BW: That's for sure. Before I let you go, back to The Road From Memphis. What are some of your favorite tunes?
BT: I like "Representing Memphis." Plus, when we finished "The Bronx," I had to tinker with it fourteen-fifteen times before I let it go on the album. I also love "Everything Is Everything."
BW: Not to be confused with Donny Hathaway's "Voices Inside: "Everything is Everything."
BT: That's correct; that's just me putting my take on Lauryn Hill's lyric.
BW: I won't take up more of your time, Booker. It's been great to finally catch up with you.
BT: Thank you so much for calling me this morning.
BW: Needless to say, you are most welcome to talk with me anytime!
BT: Next time I'm in New York City, please come backstage to see me and say hello.
BW: You've got it.
Bob Putignano: www.SoundsofBlue.com