BOOKER T. : KING OF THE KEYBOARD
By Paul Freeman [Interviewed prior to the release of the latest soulful Booker T. album, 2009's "Potato Hole."]
The validity of some awards on the recent Grammy telecast could be debated. One was indisputable - the life achievement award presented to performer/songwriter/producer Booker T. Jones. Once the backbone of the Memphis Soulsville, USA sound, he now resides in Tiburon, Ca
“It’s bit of a wake-up call,” says Jones of the honor, “But it also gives me a sense of belonging. It makes me feel like I was recognized by my peers. It gives me a place in history and it gives me a place in the music community.” The keyboard legend has earned not only recognition, but reverence, having led instrumental giants Booker T. and the MG’s, recording such hits as “Green Onions,” “Time Is Tight” and “Hang ‘Em High.” Jones produced such classics as Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine” and the multi-platinum Willie Nelson album, “Stardust.” He co-wrote the blues standard “Born Under A Bad Sign” and has worked with a Who’s Who of musical greats.
Jones is working on new album, developing different concepts. The new material will showcase vocals more than in the past.
“I’m getting started again. I’m not going to do the old Booker T. & the MG’s formula the way we used to do it. I’m going to be using some new electronic styles. I’ve learned more about computers and digital music and I’m excited about getting some new types of ideas and sounds. I’m just kind of extending on the old format, making the Booker T. sound more modern.”
His first recording experience came as a teen, in Hollywood, in the early 60s, playing for Bobby Darin. “So I got to experience that world and the jazz world and the blues world and the gospel world. And I’m still able to function in this new world, which is incredible.”
Jones gives back to the world, playing numerous benefits, including some for Youth Music Education.
Education has always been important in the Jones family. His mother was a classical pianist and gospel singer. “Although she didn’t formally teach me, I heard her play and that was a big influence -- the way she voiced the chords, her style, her attitude, her soul, her love for music.”
The instrument’s power and spirituality moved Jones. Its capabilities intrigued him. “It was really the first synthesizer. It’s electronic. I’ve always loved synthesizers, still do. So I was fascinated with the idea of being able to change the tone of a sound.”
Jones became a vital element of the burgeoning Memphis music scene.” I just happened to have a paper route and just happened to be hanging out in the right place at Satellite Records [which evolved into Stax-Volt], at the right time, when they were starting their music studio and record label. Memphis has always had a special vibe for music. A lot of music has grown up there.”
At 16, Jones registered a massive success with “Green Onions.” He used the money to pay for freshman tuition at Indiana University, where he earned a degree, preparing for a career teaching music.
“I come from a family of teachers. Going into the music business was an iffy situation. I had that hit in 1962, but I still wasn’t ready. There were no guarantees that I could support myself in this business. I also had personal goals, musically. I had to go to school to learn how to achieve those. I had to go to college to learn how to orchestrate. I spent many hours learning theory and the history of classical music and how it was all put together.
“Education, on all fronts, benefits us. The best politicians are the ones who know history. They know what’s gone on in the past, so they’re better able to predict the future. It’s the same with music. If you know how people have done it in the past, you know what the structure is, you’re better able to make music.”
In addition to recording their own hits, Booker T. and the MG’s became the house band at Stax/Volt, providing distinctive backing to Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Sam & Dave, Eddie Floyd and Albert King records. Joining Jones in the group were guitarist Steve Cropper, bassist Lewis Steinberg (later Donald “Duck” Dunn) and drummer Al Jackson.
“Stax-Volt became a big musical family and we were part of the nucleus of that family,” Jones relates.
The MG’s were racially mixed, a rarity in that era. “It wasn’t a problem in Memphis. Blacks accepted us, so they accepted our friends. Whites accepted them, so they accepted us. We didn’t really have racial problems, because we were insular, self-contained. Of course, when we left the studio and started to travel, it was a problem, traveling through the South.“
Though Jones continues to tour with the MG’s and recorded an award-winning album with them in the 90s, he says it will never be quite the same without Jackson, who was murdered during a burglary at his Memphis home in ‘75.
Jones moved to Malibu for a time, but fires and mudslides were inhospitable. So he settled in Tiburon. “This is combination of perfect climate and a beautiful music community here in the Bay Area. There’s a rich Latin contingent and a lot of rock musicians here. It’s a nice place to be a musician.”
Jones cherishes collaborations. He recalls some of the most memorable: “I was impressed with Barbra Streisand’s work ethic. She was the first person at work, which was pretty amazing, because I was always early. And she was the last person to leave.
“When I came up here, I started working with Neil Young and he’s pretty intense, too. Otis Redding was probably my best friend in the music business. Albert King thrilled me with his guitar, playing the blues. I toured with Santana in ‘70s and those guys did some incredible, unforgettable shows.”
For Jones, the challenges and rewards remain the same. “Just being in the music business is reward enough. This is the best time in my life. I’m really gratified, because I have so many young listeners. I have people from 60 to 16.
“The challenges are a little greater, because there are now more choices. The big challenge is to try to satisfy myself. Being a musician, it’s always a pleasure to go to work, though. Even when you fail, you’re having fun.”