Interview: Booker T. Jones
Not sure who Booker T. Jones is? If I took away “Jones,” would that help? Yep, he’s that Booker T. In today’sWall Street Journal (go here), I interview Booker T. of Booker T. & the M.G.’s about his new solo album,The Road From Memphis, as well as a range of other topics. [Photo by Jason Thrasher]
Booker T. & the M.G.s was an integrated Memphis quartet that performed double-duty for the Stax andVolt record labels in the ’60s. The band recorded under its own name—its biggest hit being Green Onions, a deep-groove instrumental from 1962. The M.G.s also recorded on hundreds of singles behind Stax artists such as Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett and the Staple Singers.
So why is Booker T. so important? In the early ’60s, he transformed the Hammond B-3 organ from a gospel instrument featured primarily behind jazz and blues saxophonists to a rock-soul keyboard that influenced several generations of rock and soul musicians. The harder organ attack and riff-driven sound that Booker T. created is still heard today on after-hours TV shows likeSaturday Night Live and a slew of comedian-hosted talk shows.
When I spoke to the 66-year-old Booker T. by phone on Friday andSaturday, our conversation ranged from the origin of the M.G.’s (the British sports car played a role), his earliest organ influences (Jack McDuff and Blind Oscar) and the album that inspired him to create a harder sound on the organ (Ray Charles’ Genius + Soul = Jazz).
Here are the outtakesfrom my Wall Street Journal conversation with Booker T.:
MM: What stopped you from becoming a jazz organist?
BTJ: You choose an instrument and you become as good as you can on it. I never spent the time needed to get the proficiency to become a jazz or classical player. This, of course, worked to my advantage with the M.G.s at Stax. We created a new sound.
MM: What’s the difference between the jazz organ and your sound?
BTJ: The feel and attitude of the jazz organ is a little more serious. Like Jimmy Smith, for example. My sound came out of trying to meld my style to Ray Charles on Genius + Soul = Jazz. That’s when I started to make my sound thinner, like you hear onGreen Onions. Ray did things to the stops that made it sound like a synthesizer does now, like special effects.
MM: The organ is really quite a different instrument from all the others, isn’t it?
BTJ: Absolutely. Playing an organ is like cooking. You can mix the sound a thousand different ways by sliding the many stops in and out. In general, my organ will sound the same on each song but with subtle differences depending on the feel.
MM: The M.G.’s were way ahead of the integration curve in Memphis, since two of the band’s members were black and two were white.
BTJ: The secret of our harmony was simple. All of us found ourselves in a neighborhood that was changing. White people were moving away and black people wanted to move to better homes. All of this was going on around the Stax studios. We all shared that urban uncertainty. Even though segregation was ingrained in the culture in Memphis then, we were just playing music.
MM: The album covers must have confused people.
BTJ: For years people thought I was white. They just assumed that the leader, Booker T., must be one of the white guys . It wasn’t until we were on TV later in the ’60s that people realized who was who.
MM: Did you all enjoy the same music?
BTJ: Oh, yes. All of us in the M.G.’s loved the blues and felt privileged we could play music all day. The race thing never existed. It never does for musicians.
MM: What does that tell you?
BJT: That nothing levels the field like music. When the music is right, race disappears, and people who enjoy it realize they have more in common than they thought.
MM: The M.G.s made the music sound easy but there had to have been arrangements. Did you write them?
BTJ: A lot of the arrangements we came up with together.Writing is an illusive concept. Many of the melodies came from me. So did the rhythms. But the M.G.’s also had highly creative players. We had chemistry. So someone would add something, and someone else would add another thing, and it built.
MM: What’s the theme of your new album, The Road From Memphis?
BTJ: It’s about the emotional high points of my life, from Memphis to Los Angeles to London to Detroit to Philadelphia and to New York.
MM: The Roots, the house band on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon back you on your new album.
BTJ: Yes, I’ve wanted to get together with The Roots for some time. I was on Jimmy Fallon’s show and felt there was a chemistry between us. Jimmy is a great guy. He let The Roots do the album with me. [Pictured: Jimmy Fallon, center, and The Roots]
MM: On the album, what is the story behind Walking Papers?
BTJ: It’s about my leaving Stax in 1971. My lawyer had to work out all kinds of details with the label so I could do my thing. Finally, he had papers for me to sign, freeing me to move on. It felt great.
MM: I hear a touch of Johnnie Taylor’s Who’s Making Love in there.
BTJ: Interesting you say that. I love Johnnie Taylor. I loved his feel.
MM: Crazy opens with a sound similar to Chuck Jackson’s Any Day Now. Was he an influence?
BTJ: You heard that? Wow. I listened a great deal to ChuckJackson when I was younger. I was so influenced by his sound. The lyrics to Crazy [by Thomas Callaway and Gian Piero Reverberi] says something similar to what I believe. I meditate every day and I’m grounded in the fact that we all have so much actual power here on earth and come from a spiritual being. So-called sanity on earth can be very crazy and insane. So Crazy relates to the music and to me. I’m a crazy guy. But I think I’m very sane, too.
MM: A touch of Talking Heads on The Hive?
BTJ: I like the Talking Heads, but no, I wasn’t thinking of them here. But I know what you mean. This song is about the never-ending process of work.
MM: Down in Memphis reminded me a little of Disco Lady.
BTJ: [Laughs] Johnnie Taylor again. I know. He had a certain feel and knew how to work it throughout a song. Memphis gave me so much, and my life is so rich as a result. In fact, Memphis has given the world a wealth of music. Its contribution needs to be recognized.
MM: Music is more important to us than most people realize, don’t you think?
BTJ: So much so. It’s the musician’s job to reflect society. People continue to listen to music because they need reassurance that there’s sanity in our world. On Progress, Jim James, who wrote the words and sings, is saying everything today is so messed up, but we have to move forward. Enough people get what has to be done today and know that we’re going to be OK. Ultimately, musicians and all creative people hold our society together.
MM: What about Rent Party?
BTJ: I came up with the concept for the song in the middle of the recent recession. So many good people don’t have money. It’s terrible. Rent parties were big in the ‘40s and ‘50s in Philadelphia and New York, when people charged admission to a party so they could pay the rent. I wanted to write a song that would sound like something someone would put on at a modern-day rent party. [Pictured: Harlem Rent Party,1929, by Mabel Dwight]
MM: What do you think about all the late-night shows that have adapted your hip, party-time organ sound?
BTJ: I think it’s great. I think a great deal of [keyboardist and bandleader] Paul Shaffer. He has been a great friend to me. He started playing my music while leading the Saturday Night Live house band in the ’70s and ’80s, and others picked up on it.
MM: If you have an idea for a song right now, how would you capture it?
BTJ: In every room of my house and in my car I have a notebook of blank music paper. If I have an idea, I jot it down and then scan it into my computer. Then I return to the idea and build off of it. I keep these core ideas and develop them when needed. I call my system one of flexible efficiency.
MM: What happened to them?
BTJ: I donated them after Hurricane Katrina to the Dirty Dozen Brass Band in New Orleans. Now I’m forced to practice only the guitar and organ [laughs].
JazzWax tracks: Booker T. Jones’ The Road From Memphis (Anti Records) can be found at iTunes andhere.
JazzWax note: For a recent video interview with Booker T. at the organ, conducted by Bob Boilen of NPR (complete with a demonstration of Green Onions!), go here.
JazzWax clips: Here’s Booker T. with the M.G.’s, circa 1967, performing Green Onions, their 1962 hit…
Here’s Harry James performing Booker T.’s Green Onions…
Here’s Representing Memphis from Booker T.’s new album, The Road From Memphis, featuring Matt Berninger and Sharon Jones with lyrics by Liv Jones, Booker T.’s daughter. Only one person plays organ like that…
And here’s Booker T. on Lauryn Hill’s Everything Is Everything.