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Booker T. Jones

With Friends Like These

May 26, 2011 Booker T. Jones
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Booker T. Jones was a master of musical economy from the start. After settling in as a studio musician for Stax Records in Memphis, Jones formed Booker T. and the M.G.‘s with fellow Stax players in 1962, and the instrumental group enjoyed hit singles of their own while serving as the label’s house band. Their ‘62 hit “Green Onions” was the template for what followed, with Jones’ understated-yet-funky organ leading the way in a madly catchy sound that other bands struggled to emulate.

Following his tenure with Stax, during which he also trekked north to attend college at Indiana University, the group broke up in the early ‘70s, but has since reunited periodically over the years. Respect for the work of Jones and the M.G.‘s never wavered, and the keyboard player began a solo career in the early ‘80s that has brought him in contact with numerous admiring peers. With The Roots as his band, Jones recorded his latest release, The Road From Memphis, with additional help from Lou Reed, The National’s Matt Berninger, Sharon Jones, and My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, as well as his daughter Liv Jones, who provided lyrics. Now in his mid-60s, the Rock & Roll Hall of Famer and recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Grammy is on a roll that has never really stopped.

Hays Davis: You don’t seem to have any problem whatsoever finding people to play with you. Had you had contact with The Roots before this album, or thought about working with them?

I’m lucky. I’m at the right place at the right time. It’s really luck. I was doing walk-ons with The Roots for the Jimmy Fallon show. What you do is, you rehearse songs before the show, and I realized, hey, these guys and me, we really gel. We didn’t know each other that well, and we did that two or three times, and in the meantime I asked them if they would play with me. Jimmy was really liking it. He’s a real big music fan, and that’s how that happened. It was a real opportunity.

By the time the album was done, did you feel there was a strong group vibe between you and the players?

Yeah. I think they would be great players if they weren’t on the Fallon show, but playing every day and playing so many different kinds of music on the spot like that, I think, has made them greater. They did know my past music, they knew me. They were hip-hop fans that could use drum machines but they’re using real instruments. They just knew the history of the music. They had the love, the passion and intensity for it.

How did Matt Berninger and Lou Reed get involved?

I can’t think of anybody that I’ve met in the business who’s more helpful in terms of putting music together than Matt. He was willing to do anything: play guitar, sing different parts. I was in New York and trying to put this album together, just trying to call friends and trying to get people together to help me do it. He was so willing do anything. He came down and sang on this song with me. And so was Jim James. I just had great people around me. I can’t tell you how dedicated these people are.

Lou Reed was a fan of mine from the ‘60s. He did a song called “Booker T” and that kind of perked my eyes up. But we didn’t meet until years later, at Madison Square Garden with Bob Dylan. I came up with the idea of trying to let people know about the Bronx and the contributions that it had made as a town to the arts, to the literary arts, to music, to the actors that had come from there, the writers and directors. And I had an idea which my daughter helped me put into lyrics. These lyrics were made for Lou Reed so that’s who we called. And he came, and he gave everything. He’s a big star and he’s got a big ego, like I do, so we bumped heads some, but we came up with something beautiful.

It does sound like something that Lou would do. It sounds very natural for him.

It’s perfectly natural for him. It’s one of my favorite tracks on the album. I’ve played that thing over and over and over again; I just love the feeling of it. But mainly it captured the feeling of the city of the Bronx. And he’s a true artist. It isn’t about him; it’s about what he is doing.

Has your daughter worked with you much over the years?

I had seen her work just a few months ago last year up in San Rafael with a band, and I realized that she was a fast writer and that she got to the essence of a project quickly, so when I started to do this I called her from the airport just on the chance that she might have an idea. So I talked with her about what I wanted to say with “Representing Memphis,” and she got back to me with lyrics. By the time we landed in New York she had already emailed me something, so I realized I had something great right under my nose that I didn’t know about.

Do you find your music these days seems to be driven partly by who you decide to work with, or is it more a case of the players being ready to provide what you’re looking for?

The music has actually come from a process that I go through. I go and sit by myself in my studio up in northern California and I wait for the inspiration for the music, and it took me about six or seven months to write the originals. The covers…these particular covers came from me. But then, bringing the music to the forefront has a lot to do with a large group of other people. I had so many people working on this album. I had three or four producers and a lot of people giving me advice. After I do the demos and people hear it then it becomes a group project.

I was thinking about you and the M.G.‘s being asked to be the house band at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and invited to tour with Neil Young. There’s no question of how respected you guys are in the music industry. What comes to mind as the most flattering things people have approached you with, whether an invitation to play or maybe some kind of appreciation?

The Lifetime Achievement Award from the Grammy association was the biggest tribute that’s been paid to me and my band, because that comes from people who do what we do. They know how discouraging it can be, how hard it is, or how good. They know both sides of it. That was, I think, my best moment, to receive that.

I grew up in Ripley, right up the highway from Memphis, and was always aware of what was going on there musically, though sometimes it’s not easy to really put things in perspective until you’ve spent time away from it. Thinking back about there being Stax and Sun, and what Al Green was working on with Hi Records, and so many others, it blows me away what a real hotbed of activity Memphis from the ‘50s into the ‘70s.

There’s a song on the album that pays tribute to that called “Representing Memphis.” It doesn’t say it directly but what it means to me…the city gave so much, and it was such a center of musical talent. And it was unassuming: Memphis didn’t think it was a great city. People in Memphis, I remember, were thinking Atlanta was a great city, or Nashville or New Orleans. Memphis actually was always a really great area, a great city, and that’s what that song is saying.

Looking back to when you and the M.G.‘s formed, did it seem to you at the time that the music coming out of Memphis at that time was having a real impact, or were you too busy with your own work to consider that?

When that happened I think I was probably similar to you. I was driving from Memphis right up through Ripley to Paducah, up to Bloomington [while enrolled at Indiana University]. I was just focused on that, trying to get in school, trying to make my grades, trying to learn how to write the music I was hearing in my head. At that time I couldn’t write, I couldn’t arrange. And trying to make enough money to pay my tuition. I had no inkling that these songs would be played past the next few months, so to be here now, 50 years later, is amazing that other people are still listening that music. Amazing.

How long had you all played together?

I was actually playing as a session man, a side man, after school with Steve [Cropper, guitar] and sometimes Al, sometimes Lewie Steinberg [bass] and all those people, in different configurations of session players, for almost two and a half years.

I played baritone saxophone on Rufus Thomas’ “Because I Love You.” That was the first time I walked in the door at the studio, at Stax. I told them, I told Steve and Chips [Moman, Stax’s staff producer] and Jim [Stewart, Stax founder] that I could play piano and after that they started hiring me as a piano player. And that led to playing organ for William Bell. But it had been a while. We had been playing in different configurations as a session band.

I can imagine there not really needing to be any discussion about how the band would sound. You probably knew each other’s playing as well as you knew your own.

We did, but it was a pretty big community. We were all also playing outside of Stax, which was then Satellite, by the way. We were playing in clubs: Duck [Dunn, bass] and Steve were playing at Hernando’s over in West Memphis. There were a lot of people coming through there, [including] the horn players, so it was kind of an extended group of people.


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