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Booker T. Jones Reflects On His Life in Music

Oct 25, 2019
Originally published on October 28, 2019 2:03 pm

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross. Our next guest is Booker T. Jones. In the 1960s and '70s, he led the band Booker T. and the M.G.'s, which had several hits, including the popular instrumental known as "Green Onions." He and his M.G.'s also were the house band for the Memphis-based soul label Stax Records, and they eventually received a Grammy Award for lifetime achievement.

But at age 74, Booker T. Jones isn't through achieving yet. He's still performing and recording, and he's just come out with another release, but this time, it's not a single or an album. It's a book, a memoir named after one of his memorable recordings called "Time Is Tight." It talks of his less-than-privileged childhood in Memphis, his passion for music and songwriting and his career backing up such legendary artists as Sam & Dave, Albert King and Otis Redding.

Terry Gross spoke with Booker T. Jones in 2007, the year he was awarded his Lifetime Achievement Grammy. Let's start with "Green Onions."

(SOUNDBITE OF BOOKER T. AND THE M.G.'S' "GREEN ONIONS")

TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Booker T., welcome to FRESH AIR. It's an honor to have you on our show.

BOOKER T JONES: Thank you, Terry. I'm glad to be here.

GROSS: Would you tell us the story behind the track that we just heard?

JONES: Well, that happened as something of an accident. We were at the studio as session musicians to play a session for an artist who didn't show up. So we used the time to record a blues which we called "Behave Yourself," and I played it on a Hammond M3 organ. And Jim Stewart, the owner, was the engineer, and he really liked it - thought it was great, actually - and wanted to put it out as a record. And so we all agreed on that, and Jim told us that we needed something to record for a B-side because we couldn't have a one-sided record. And one of the tunes that I'd been playing on piano we tried on Hammond organ so that, you know, the record would have organ on both sides, and that turned out to be "Green Onions."

GROSS: Now, you know, Booker T. and the M.G.'s basically became the house band for Stax Records, and you played on a lot of their recordings. How did you become a member of the Stax house band?

JONES: Well, I was in 11th grade, and my friend David Porter knew that Rufus Thomas and his daughter Carla were recording one day. And I guess they had requested a baritone sax part on a song, and David thought of me. David drove over to the high school, came up with some type of hall pass and got me out of class and somehow came up with the band director's car keys and keys to the instrument room. So down we went to get the baritone sax out of the instrument room and into the borrowed car and over to Stax Records and through the door, and there I was.

GROSS: Why don't we hear the recording that you played baritone sax on, which is your first recording for Stax? You want to introduce it for us?

JONES: It's called "'Cause I Love You" by Rufus and Carla Thomas.

GROSS: OK. Let's hear it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "'CAUSE I LOVE YOU")

RUFUS THOMAS: (Singing) I done take very best girl of mine, yeah. I done take very best girl of mine, yeah. Going to straighten up, baby, stop that cheating and lying.

CARLA THOMAS: (Singing) The way you lied about me, you lied about Louise, too.

THOMAS: (Singing) Oh, no. Oh, no.

THOMAS: (Singing) Yeah. You lied about me. You lied about Louise, too.

THOMAS: (Singing) Oh, no. Oh, no.

THOMAS: (Singing) You got me feeling so bad, I don't know what to do.

THOMAS: (Singing) Let me tell you, woman. Lay down deep inside, baby.

THOMAS: (Singing) Baby.

THOMAS: (Singing) Hold you by my side 'cause I love you.

THOMAS: (Singing) I love you.

THOMAS: (Singing) 'Cause I love you.

THOMAS: (Singing) I love you.

THOMAS: (Singing) 'Cause I love you.

THOMAS: (Singing) 'Cause I love you.

THOMAS: (Singing) 'Cause I love you.

THOMAS: (Singing) Yes, I love you.

THOMAS: (Singing) 'Cause I love you and I never let you go. Come on.

THOMAS: (Singing) Come on.

GROSS: That's Rufus and Carla Thomas, the first recording that was of - that featured Booker T., but he wasn't on keyboards. He was on baritone saxophone. And Booker T. is my guest. So you stayed, obviously. I mean, you were in 11th grade. You made this recording, and you ended up becoming part of the house band. How did they - was it hard to convince you to stay? Did you have to convince them that they needed you?

JONES: Oh, I convinced them. I actually had a paper route. That was my job in the afternoon, and - no, I convinced them to try me out on piano and eventually organ. And I eventually played on a organ on a William Bell song, which - they liked that part of "You Don't Miss Your Water" on one of the sessions. So after I played that part, I had the job.

GROSS: So what was it like going to high school and making records at the same time?

JONES: Oh, it was unreal. I was in a rush to get out of school and get my papers thrown and get over to Stax. That was my thrill every day - to get to go there and play music until, you know, 10 or 11 o'clock every night.

GROSS: Booker T. and the M.G.'s is so associated with the Stax sound, such an essential part of what is described as the Stax sound. But how would you describe the Stax sound?

JONES: I would say it's a simple, earthy sound, you know, just born out of our blues and country and jazz roots and also gospel. It was a sound that, you know, we consciously tried to keep simple and with a lot of feeling.

GROSS: Do you remember the first time you met Otis Redding?

JONES: Otis was a valet for a band from Georgia. He was carrying the clothes and doing the driving and going for the food and coffee and shining shoes or whatever he had to do to keep the band going. And I remember the day he pulled up with - Johnny Jenkins and the Pinetoppers was the name of the group he was working for. They just basically came in, and he sat around and waited, and they did their demo for Stax. And after they did their demo, Otis asked if he could sing a song, which was a little inappropriate, but they - we allowed him. Jim and Steve Cropper and the rest of us allowed him to sing a song with us, and that song was "These Arms Of Mine." And so everyone was moved by that, so at that moment, he became Otis Redding.

GROSS: So let's hear one of the records you made with Otis Redding. How about "Dock Of The Bay?"

JONES: OK. Yeah.

GROSS: Do you have memories of making this record?

JONES: Yes, I do have memories of that. That was a particularly special and hectic time. Otis was getting ready to go out on tour without us. And we had just returned to Memphis from the Monterey Pop Festival in Europe. Otis was disjointed and hurried and anxious and out of sorts, so he wanted to record all the time. He was insisting that we stay, you know, uncommon hours. And we were working late at night. And people were probably sleeping at the studio. And it seemed like we were working around the clock.

GROSS: Well, that's not how it sounds (laughter) on the record. It's not a record that sounds like it was made by people who were tired and overworked. Did the mood change...

JONES: Well, I'm not sure that we were tired.

GROSS: ...Once you started recording?

JONES: I'm not sure that we were tired and overworked when we did this particular one. But the week was one that we recorded, I think, a whole album in just a few days. You know, the music always created its own energy once we started playing. So even if you were tired, you know, playing with Otis and playing with each other - the music just - you know, it just got a life of its own. And so the tiredness didn't matter.

GROSS: Well, let's hear "Dock Of The Bay" (ph) - Otis Redding and my guest Booker T. on keyboards on this recording.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "(SITTIN' ON) THE DOCK OF THE BAY")

OTIS REDDING: (Singing) Sitting in the morning sun - I'll be sitting when the evening comes watching the ships roll in. Then I'll watch them. roll away again. Yeah. Sitting on the dock of the bay, watching the tide roll away. Just sitting on the dock of the bay wasting time. I left my home in Georgia headed for the Frisco Bay 'cause I've got nothing to live for, looks like nothing's going to come my way. So I'm just going to sit on the dock of the bay, watching the tide roll away. Sitting on the dock of the bay wasting time. Looks like nothing's going to change, everything still remains the same. I can't do what 10 people tell me to do, so I guess I'll remain the same. Just sitting here resting my bones...

GROSS: That's Otis Redding. And my guest Booker T. played piano and organ on many of the recordings on Stax Records, like the one we just heard.

Were you close with Otis Redding?

JONES: Yes, unfortunately. Yes.

GROSS: Unfortunately because he died in a plane crash.

JONES: Yes, he was a very close friend of mine. Yes.

BIANCULLI: Booker T. Jones speaking to Terry Gross in 2007 - more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's return to Terry's 2007 interview with Booker T. Jones, leader of the landmark soul band Booker T & The M.G.'s. He's just published a new memoir titled "Time Is Tight."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: You wrote a song called "Born Under A Bad Sign" that I always thought was a much older song. I mean, it's such a kind of classic blues song. (Laughter) I figured it was around a whole lot longer. You want to tell us the story behind writing this song?

JONES: Yes. The company had acquired Albert King as an artist. And I was assigned his - to be his producer. And so we needed music for him. At that time, my partner was William Bell, my writing partner. William wrote the words. And I wrote the music in my den that night. That was one of the - one of my greatest moments in the studio as far as being thrilled with a piece of music. I was very, very happy with the way that turned out.

GROSS: What made you so happy about it? What did you particularly like about it?

JONES: The feeling of it - you know, it's the real blues, you know, done by the real people (laughter). It was Albert King from East St. Louis, you know, the lefthanded guitar player, who was just such - one of a kind and so electric and so intense and so serious about his music and involved with the lyrics and with the song. You know, he just lost himself in the music. And he was such a one-of-a-kind character. We had written a song for him. And we were doing it. And it was coming off. And, you know, I was there personally in the middle of it. So it was just exhilarating, you know? It's kind of hard to describe.

GROSS: Well, why don't we hear it? This is Albert King recorded in 1967. And my guest is Booker T., who's featured on this track.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BORN UNDER A BAD SIGN")

ALBERT KING: (Singing) Born under a bad sign, been down since I began to crawl. If it wasn't for bad luck, you know I wouldn't have no luck at all. Hard luck and trouble been my only friend. I've been on my own ever since I was 10. Born under a bad sign, been down since I began to crawl. If it wasn't for bad luck, you know I wouldn't have no luck at all. I can't read...

GROSS: That's Albert King from 1967. The song was co-written by my guest, pianist and organ player Booker T., who co-wrote that song. Now, when you were playing in - at Stax Records, when you were in Booker T. & the MGs and you were the house band and making your own records, the South was still pretty segregated. But your band was comprised of African American and white musicians. Did tensions from - did racial tensions from the outside world ever affect the band or did you feel pretty well protected by that - from that?

JONES: Well, we were insulated, you know, as most Southern social institutions are. We were insulated because we had our little door there that we locked behind us at Stax. And nobody knew what was going on in there or who we were, so we weren't affected until we became pretty famous. Around '67 or '68, after Dr. King came to the city and Dr. King was murdered in a place that was very close to us - he was murdered at the Lorraine Hotel. And that was our meeting place. And that was a place where we ate very often, so that affected us. But in general, we didn't have big racial issues there.

GROSS: When you say the assassination affected you, did it - I mean, I imagine everybody in the band was pretty upset about it. Did it...

JONES: Mmm hmm.

GROSS: Did it cause any tensions in the band?

JONES: What I mean is...

GROSS: Yeah.

JONES: What I mean is it brought outside attention to us and what we were doing there.

GROSS: Right.

JONES: The fact that we were interracial - I like to call it a not too well-kept secret that we were interracial. I think, you know, when we were playing music, that nobody really cared that we were interracial. I think they cared more about the music. I think whites and blacks both didn't pay too much attention to the racial aspect of it.

GROSS: Did you feel there were times you needed to keep it kind of a secret?

JONES: Absolutely. The logistics of it demanded it. You know, we couldn't travel when we started without having two of us go get food. And sometimes, those two were myself and Al, or sometimes those two were Steve and Duck. But the other two would have to check into hotels and…

GROSS: Right, because two of you were white, two of you were black.

JONES: Exactly. Exactly. So we always had to have - we were always in somebody else's territory no matter where we were. But Steve and Duck and all the white members of Stax began to love soul food. And I think they preferred to hang out at our restaurants. So we just really didn't have a problem as long as the rest of the world didn't have a problem with us.

BIANCULLI: Booker T. Jones speaking to Terry Gross in 2007 - more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's return to Terry's 2007 interview with Booker T. Jones, leader of the landmark soul band Booker T. & the M.G.'s. His new memoir titled, "Time Is Tight," has just been published.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: You left Stax Records in 1969.

JONES: Mmm hmm.

GROSS: Which, I think, was the same year Stax was sold to Gulf and Western.

JONES: Mmm hmm.

GROSS: Did that have any reason - was that part of the reason why you left?

JONES: I left after Stax was sold to Gulf and Western.

GROSS: Because it was sold or...

JONES: Well, not because it was sold but because it changed; because the owners had control, and the owners were able to dictate how this company was run. And so they did that. They had every right to do that. They had big companies, and they knew what they were doing. They had Paramount Pictures. And they were a very successful company. And they decided that they wanted to change things in Memphis, and so they did. And the things they changed made it lose its appeal for me.

GROSS: Well, what were the changes?

JONES: They changed the outlook. They made us feel as though - well, they made us meet a quota as far as how much music we produced. That was the first thing that really affected me, because we were always able to have our down, you know, dry periods when we just couldn't come up with anything and when it just wasn't happening. And so everybody would get tense and, you know, we would argue and we just absolutely had no music. But then, to come out of that, we would come up with something great.

But Gulf and Western sent memos that caused us to change our production techniques to the fact that we had three bands going around the clock. And they wanted a certain number of albums in a certain time period. And so the president and the vice president, you know, the people who were running the company, had to bring other producers in from the other cities. They brought in producers from Los Angeles and Detroit, you know, because they had to meet these quotas. And it became a different company.

GROSS: So when you left, did you leave on your own?

JONES: Yes, I did. I left all by myself. Nobody came with me.

GROSS: What was your life like when you moved to Los Angeles?

JONES: Well, I - my life was uncertain for a while. But then I found friends in California that rescued me, so I was able to survive out there - out here, rather.

GROSS: And how did your musical life change?

JONES: Well, as I said, I found friends who were also somewhat nonconformists who rescued me. I met Clarence Avant, who, at the time, was one of the leading entrepreneurs - African American entrepreneurs in the music industry. And he had a startup label that he was working with in California. And he'd had this guy that was building airplane toilets in Inglewood who had songs that he really loved. His name was Bill Withers. And...

GROSS: (Laughter) Bill Withers was building airplane toilets (laughter)?

JONES: Absolutely. Absolutely. And Clarence called up and sent Bill out to my ranch in Malibu. And Bill came up with - out there with a little tablet full of papers and an old, beat-up guitar and started to sing songs. And he had some great songs in there, so I was able to work with him. And then...

GROSS: So you actually helped discover him.

JONES: My friends - yeah.

GROSS: I didn't realize that. OK.

JONES: I had friends that introduced me to Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss. And they were starting a record label. And...

GROSS: That was A&M Records.

JONES: Uh huh. Yeah. So we had a relationship. So I worked with them for a few years and ended up producing and arranging albums on - Rita Coolidge and various people on their label. And I actually ended up doing solo albums on A&M Records during that time. And I was able to survive.

GROSS: And you produced Willie Nelson's, you know, now classic "Stardust" album.

JONES: Yes. That was one of the reasons why I think I made the right decision was because I was able to work in some different genres that I wouldn't have been able to do at Stax Records. Stax wanted to keep it pretty much Memphis soul, which was fine. But Stax was not ever going to be, I don't think, a pop label or a country label. So I don't think I would've been able to take Willie Nelson there or Earl Klugh. I don't think we would've been able to do jazz there.

GROSS: And your tastes are so wide-ranging. You want...

JONES: Yes, yes.

GROSS: You wanted to work in a wide-ranging way.

JONES: Yes. It's one of my greatest disadvantages liking so much - so many different kinds of music.

GROSS: Can I ask you about your name?

JONES: I'm named after my father, who's Booker T. Jones Sr. And he was named after Booker T. Washington. And the name is Booker Taliaferro.

GROSS: And how did you end up, like, dropping the Jones from the professional part of your name? - because it was like Booker T. & The M.G.'s.

JONES: Well, yeah. The band needed a name when we recorded "Green Onions." Al Jackson, the drummer, you know, was, you know - but what will we call it? He said, well, with Booker T. and the - and they just came up with M.G.'s.

There was a little - this guy - this engineer on the song, Chips Moman, was driving a little British Leyland sports car. It's called an M.G. I don't know if you've ever seen those. And he had to park outside. He used to do tricks with it and everything in the snow, you know? And so he looked out the window - Booker T. & the M.G.'s (laughter).

GROSS: It's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much for talking with us.

JONES: Thank you for having me, Terry.

BIANCULLI: Booker T. Jones speaking to Terry Gross in 2007 - he's just published a memoir called "Time Is Tight." On Monday's show...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET'S GO CRAZY")

PRINCE: Dearly, beloved. We are gathered here today to get through this thing called life.

BIANCULLI: Our guest will be Dan Piepenbring whom the singer Prince had selected to help him write his autobiography. But shortly after they began working together, Prince died. Piepenbring's new book "The Beautiful Ones" includes the pages Prince had written about his childhood, adolescence and sexual awakening as well as Piepenbring's personal essay about working with Prince and a collection of Prince's letters, photos and lyric sheets - hope you can join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our producer today with Sam Briger. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.