Songwriter Interviews

Booker T. Jones

by Roger Catlin

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While still a teenager and a studio musician at Stax Records, Booker T. Jones came up with one of the defining instrumentals of soul in "Green Onions." There followed a career as head of Booker T. & the MG's, with ace guitarist Steve Cropper, drummer Al Jackson Jr. and eventually Donald "Duck" Dunn on bass, recording a series of instrumental hits and backing Stax artists like Otis Redding in the studio and on tour. Since then, he's produced Bill Withers' debut and Willie Nelson's Stardust album, recorded with Stephen Stills (on his first album), and backed Neil Young as part of the Bob Dylan 30th anniversary concert, where he led the house band.

Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992, Jones earned a lifetime achievement Grammy a decade ago. Since then, he's recorded with Drive-By Truckers, played on the Elton John-Leon Russell album, and released a solo album, The Road from Memphis, with contributions from Questlove, Lou Reed and Sharon Jones.

Though he sometimes tours with a big Stax revue show, Jones at 72 was on the road earlier this year with a quartet featuring his son Ted on guitar. He spoke from snowy Lake Tahoe not long after the 2017 Grammys about his early days, playing the Monterey Pop Festival, and the qualities of the B-3.
Roger Catlin (Songfacts): Hey there, how is everything in Lake Tahoe?

Booker T. Jones: I've got snow above my height. Looking at icicles that look like daggers. Lake Tahoe. The road is closed to Reno. We're doing fine. The sun is shining, the icicles are melting, but it's been an unbelievable storm.

Songfacts: Sounds like you were busy at the Grammys.

Booker T: I played the Tom Petty tribute at MusiCares. We played all his songs for the MusiCares benefit show, with all the guests who came - Norah Jones and a lot of people who played Tom Petty songs - and we raised a bunch of money for MusiCares. They raised $8.5 million.

Held two days before the Grammy Awards, the 27th annual gala benefitting the MusiCares Foundation in Los Angeles broke a record for fundraising, with proceeds going to musicians in medical or financial need. The previous record event, the 2016 gala honoring Lionel Richie, raised $7.2 million. Jones helmed the house band that also included David Mansfield, Jay Bellerose, Larkin Poe and a number of Tom Petty's Heartbreakers.

It was also the longest gala, with performances by Jackson Browne, Randy Newman, George Strait, Foo Fighters, Gary Clark Jr., Lucinda Williams, Jakob Dylan, Taj Mahal, Don Henley, Jeff Lynne and Stevie Nicks, as well as Petty. Younger acts on the bill included The Head and the Heart, Regina Spektor, Cage the Elephant, The Lumineers and Elle King.
Songfacts: Are those difficult to do? It seems like you would need to know all the songs, and all of the performers as well.

Booker T: It takes some work. I got there on the previous Saturday, and the show was on Friday. It took some rehearsal, but it was fun. His songs are good, and the performers are good. Jakob Dylan sang a song, and Gary Clark Jr. sang a song and a guy from the Eagles. It was good.

Songfacts: You've done a number of those kinds of events. I'm thinking of the Bob Dylan 30th Anniversary Concert at Madison Square Garden in 1992 and at the White House as well.

Booker T: A couple of shows at the White House, yeah.

Songfacts: What are those like to do?

Booker T: If you're the music director, it's a lot of work, but if you're just playing the organ like I was, it can be a lot of fun. I was the music director for the White House shows, so that was Mick Jagger and B.B. King, and a lot of artists from Memphis. There were two shows: a Memphis show, and a tribute to the blues show.

Songfacts: Is there added pressure because of where you are?

Booker T: It's a lot of pre-preparation, because the music changes keys a lot and the arrangements change. And then everything has to be provided. The production company had to come from California - there were no production companies in DC to do that. They have to know everything from lyrics to times, all that stuff, if it's going to be televised.

Songfacts: Does the President being there add any pressure?

Booker T: Not for the Obamas. He came down to the rehearsals. They made us very comfortable.

There was more security for Obama. The Clinton people were a little more relaxed about it. It wasn't bad though. Playing for the president is hard, though, because presidents have so much security.

Songfacts: You're on tour doing some Stax revues on other dates. What are you doing on your current tour?

Booker T: I play with a quartet, but there may be some Stax songs with the quartet. We've been changing up the setlist quite a bit for the past few years. My son has been playing with me for the past two years. We're doing some new things, some Bill Withers songs and songs we didn't do previously. People like to hear some of the old MG's instrumentals, so we're doing some of those. We're doing some new compositions, changing it up some. I like to do the MG's staple songs: "Green Onions," "Time is Tight," "Hip-Hug-Her." People really love to hear those.

Songfacts: Those have stood the test of time. Why do you think that is? The groove? The simplicity?

Booker T: Yeah, you hit the nail on the head there: the simplicity. Well, the apparent simplicity, I'll put it like that, from the position of the player. "Green Onions" appears to be a simple song, but every time I play it I have to pay attention. I have to remember, and school myself on how the notes go, because it's just not as simple as it sounds.

Songfacts: When you recorded that song, it was not something you thought would be the hit it became, right?

Booker T: Exactly, no. I wasn't thinking about a hit. I was just having fun, playing chord changes I learned in my theory lesson.

Songfacts: And you were quite young at the time.

Booker T: Yeah man, I was 17.

Songfacts: That's pretty young to be in a studio at all, let alone all those Stax records you were on.

Booker T: It was, but I was fortunate. I had been in the studio two years at that point. Stax needed a baritone sax player, because their player, Floyd Newman, was a school teacher. He would be in school weekdays, so they came and got me out of algebra class. I got my baritone sax, went down there and got the job. And I told them I could play piano. So I had been playing in a studio since I was in the 10th grade.

Songfacts: Did you pick up a lot of things being in the studio?

Booker T: Most of the stuff during that time I picked up from the clubs, because I was trying to learn music theory: how to play the notes in my head. And a lot of the studio musicians were the club musicians also. Most of what I learned I took from the clubs to the studio.

Songfacts: What made for the Stax sound?

Booker T: A lot of it came from the lack of sophisticated equipment, and the lack of sophistication in general, to be honest with you. Then there was a concerted effort to be simple, to be accessible. We used to say, "Keep it funky and don't play too many notes" - don't have too many frills in the music. I think that created the Stax sound. The chords were simple and accessible.

Songfacts: When did you start writing songs?

Jones is partly responsible for the famous "I know, I know, I know" bridge in "Ain't No Sunshine." Bill Withers planned to fill that in with lyrics, but Jones told him to leave it as is. Withers, who was a factory worker at the time with no recording experience, took the advice.
Booker T: That's a good question. I can remember being a young kid, and pretending to write songs, but I was really, really young. Maybe 6 years old. I pretended I was a songwriter. I would put lyrics and words together around the house, singing to myself. I'm sure none of it was any good, but I had always seen myself as a songwriter all my life.

Songfacts: What was the first opportunity you had to record one of your songs?

Booker T: You won't believe this. "Green Onions." That was the first time. And that happened by mistake. We got to the studio, and something didn't work with the band before us, and we were supposed to be the backup band. I'm not sure whether they finished early, or whether [label founder and producer] Jim [Stewart] was unhappy with what they were doing, but we ended up with a free studio on a Sunday afternoon.

Songfacts: And you had that melody in your head?

Booker T: Yeah. I had been playing it on piano. I hadn't thought to play it on organ at that time, though. I had been playing it on piano, but I played organ on the previous session, so I was sitting on the organ and played it at the organ, and they liked it on the organ better than on piano.

Songfacts: It defined your role as an organist. It wasn't your main instrument at the time, was it?

Booker T: It did. I got the job at Stax on piano because [Steve] Cropper was the guitar player. I had always played ukulele, clarinet and guitar - that was my main rock 'n' roll instrument. That's what I played at school and at home. I had a Sears Silvertone and I fancied myself as a guitar player, but I never did get that job. Later at Stax I played guitar, but not at first.

Songfacts: Once you had that hit, you stayed at the organ.

Booker T: Well, I was happy at the organ. The first time I saw a Hammond organ I just got a feeling inside about it and I was comfortable. I still am comfortable. Maybe I'm more comfortable at that than any other instrument.

Songfacts: It wasn't a Hammond B-3 on "Green Onions," was it?

Booker T: No, it was an M-3 - half of a B-3. A cut down, spinet model of a B-3.

Songfacts: Are you B-3 entirely now?

Booker T: No, I have an M-3 in my studio again. I favor the sound of the M-3, but none of the organs are practical, so when I play on the road, I have to play what the rental companies have. Sometimes they have an M-3 but very, very rarely.

I think the B-3 became my signature sound because of "Hip Hug-Her" and "Hang 'Em High" and "Time is Tight." Those are all B-3 songs, and they have the Leslie speaker spinning with the choral sound.

Songfacts: So every time you go to a city, somebody has to rent one of those for you?

Booker T: That's the way it is. That all ended in 1992 when the airlines changed their freight fares, and now I don't carry mine any more. They started doing it by weight and it became prohibitive. They used to come out to the house and pick it up and ship it for me. Now they don't do that any more.

Songfacts: Has that caused any problems on the road, where you've had trouble finding one?

Booker T: Yes. There was a Hammond school in Chicago. I think the last guys who attended that school passed away maybe 10 years ago. It's a very difficult instrument to maintain. It's not meant to be moved around. They don't travel well, and there are problems, yes.

Songfacts: What is it about the sound of it that no other instrument can do?

Booker T: Well, because it's a sustained sound as opposed to a piano, and because it has those Leslie cabinets and the horns turn, you can make it sing like a human voice. You can make it sustain louder or softer. You can play more than one note at a time or you can move the notes. I think an organ player can make it sing.

Songfacts: Did anyone try to make an electronic keyboard to emulate that sound?

Booker T: Yes, the process is going on right now. I've been going back and forth with Hammond for I don't know how long in Chicago. They made another prototype and they want me to OK it. I have the manual, which is a digital organ. And to be honest with you, I'm still not sure about it.

Songfacts: There's something about the presence of the B-3 that makes it an imposing instrument to see in concert.

Booker T: Yes. You know, they came up with this thing in 1934 out of automobile parts. Laurens Hammond designed it. He was a clockmaker and an inventor. He was just a special person. And sometimes the first time they do something is the best way. That's the way this is, I think.

Songfacts: Can you see yourself going to a digital version at some point?

Booker T: I'm trying. They've made two or three that I've gone there and played, but I'm still not comfortable with them. I want to be, but I'm not.

Songfacts: You're playing some guitar in live shows now?

Booker T: Yeah. I've been going back to guitar for maybe 30 percent of the show, because a lot of the songs I started with a guitar.

I joke with the audience. I tell them my doctor told me at my age, don't sit on the job for too long, so I get up and play some blues on the guitar. I love playing blues on the guitar. Some of the songs I wrote or was involved with in California, those were guitar songs. "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" or songs when I played a stringed instrument, or William Bell songs, Bill Withers songs.

Songfacts: I see that William Bell was singing one of your songs on the Grammys too.

Booker T: "Bad Sign?" Yeah, we wrote it together. We were partners. He did a good job. He's doing well.

Although Jones co-wrote a number of hits for others, including "I've Never Found a Girl (To Love Me Like You Do)" for Eddie Floyd and "I Love You More Than Words Can Say" for Otis Redding, one of his most enduring compositions is "Born Under a Bad Sign," co-written with William Bell. A hit for Albert King in 1967, Cream recorded it for their third album, Wheels of Fire, the following year. It was listed by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as one of the 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll. Others to record it include Paul Butterfield, Blue Cheer, Etta James, Jimi Hendrix, Rita Coolidge and even Homer Simpson.

Jones and Bell, whose big hit in 1961 was "You Don't Miss your Water," recorded it as well, Jones with The MG's on their 1968 Soul Limbo album, Bell on his 2016 Grammy-nominated comeback album, This is Where I Live.
Songfacts: That song has become a blues standard. Do you recall how it came about?

Booker T: Stax was trying to grow as a company and was beginning to record a blues artist, Albert King, who was driving down from East St. Louis and didn't have any music. He needed a song, so they gave me and William the assignment the day before the session to write a song for Albert King. That's what we came up with. He killed it.

Songfacts: You played the Monterey Pop Festival 50 years ago, backing Otis Redding. Did your band play a set there as well?

Booker T: We might have played a couple of songs, but our main job was to back Otis. We may have opened the set with a couple of songs. I played organ and we were backup for Otis.

Songfacts: What do you recall from that event?

Booker T: That was a landmark show. It was the first time we played for that kind of audience. They were so warm and receptive.

There was an indication that the country was changing. We had been in Europe for three weeks, and when we landed in Detroit, we saw hippies for the first time. Otis was nervous and apprehensive about the reception, but it was just extremely warm and successful. It was nice.

Songfacts: Did you see some of the other acts that weekend?

Booker T: We did. We saw some of the acts that night and had a couple of days in town to hang out.

The Monterey International Pop Music Festival, held June 16-18, 1967 in California, was one of the first big rock festivals, with seminal performances by The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Otis Redding - all captured in D.A. Pennebaker's 1968 film, Monterey Pop. The Grateful Dead, Buffalo Springfield, Ravi Shankar, Jefferson Airplane, Laura Nyro, The Byrds, Moby Grape, Steve Miller Band, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Country Joe and the Fish, Canned Heat, Eric Burdon and the Animals, Simon & Garfunkel and The Association all performed, as did Lou Rawls, Hugh Masekela, The Electric Flag and the Butterfield Blues Band. Redding's performance, closing the show on Saturday, proved he could enthrall a wider audience, but six months later, he died in a plane crash at the age of 26 along with four members of the Bar-Kays.
Songfacts: Are there other other shows you played back then that stand out for you?

Booker T: The Stax revue in Europe was probably the most prominent that I participated in. Of course, the original performance for me in my life was being a young kid at a kite contest and seeing Al Jackson Jr. playing in his dad's big band in Memphis. That was something that I'll never forget. It's seared in my memory. It was the first time I saw horns on stage. It was the first time I heard live music. And the guy who ended up being my drummer was a young kid playing drums in his dad's band. It's just something about live music seeing it for the first time that just hits you.

Songfacts: Was that in Memphis?

Booker T: That was in Lincoln Park in Memphis. Al Jackson Sr. was the band leader.

There was a Count Basie concert in Chicago that affected me like that a few years later when I was a teenager. I took a train up to Chicago to see his concert and sneaked into a hotel there and heard him play in the ballroom. He had Sonny Payne on drums and I was sitting there in front of Count Basie, hearing that music, hearing him live, playing his arrangements, the horns. There were five brass, five reeds, guitar and upright bass. That was a special concert for me. He was such a special musician and bandleader.

Songfacts: Did you think you'd go into jazz when you were young?

Booker T: That's what you were supposed to do in Memphis if you were studying music and went to music theory. That was what we all thought our calling and legacy would be. I say us, I mean myself and my buddy Maurice White - he was my young musician friend. He ended up trying to do that. He went to play with Ramsey Lewis and the jazz people in Chicago. [White later formed Earth, Wind & Fire.]

But that was what you were supposed to do. You were supposed to follow the footsteps of Frank Strozier, Booker Little, Jack McDuff. Those guys that played a little blues, maybe with B.B. King, but ultimately, they studied classical and they played jazz. And that's what you were supposed to do.

Songfacts: The soul music you played on is stuff you were inventing as you went along.

Booker T: That's the strange position I was in. You're absolutely right. It didn't really exist like that until we started playing, until they started playing over at Hi [Records]. Al Green and those people, it sort of grew up with us. It sort of originated with us, and that's kind of funny. The music before that was really nightclub blues. Then we started mixing it with some rockabilly and some country and some funk at Stax with Cropper and Dunn and those musicians - white musicians from east Memphis.

Yeah, it was strange. And of course, there was Sam Cooke and some of the gospel groups that evolved into soul groups when they left the church. The Soul Stirrers. But they were offsprings of gospel groups.

Songfacts: It must be gratifying for you to have helped create the Stax sound, and have it be so strong today.

Booker T: You know, Roger, it was unbelievable good fortune to be born there, even if nothing had happened like it did, because it was such a rich field to grow in - to learn the chords, to play with the musicians, to get the opportunities to play. Just the atmosphere there, the schools, the horns that were available to me. When I was nine years old I had my hands on an oboe - I was playing oboe in the school orchestra. It was such good fortune.

Songfacts: Do you think kids have less of an opportunity to do that today?

Booker T: So much so that I'm working with the recording academy to just give money right to a school in LA, right to a school in Kansas City. Kids don't have the instruments, and they don't have the teachers like we did. I don't know what's happened with the legislators around the country, but they just have not made that a priority like it was back then.

Songfacts: You've played with a lot of younger musicians, getting Grammys for albums you've recorded with The Roots and Drive-By Truckers. How did those come about?

Booker T: A lot of my early recordings in Memphis were listened to by a lot of bands and practically every band I've worked with in the recent past has been someone who grew up with that music or their parents did, so they know me.

In the case of the Drive-By Truckers, Patterson Hood, he just felt like he knew me because his dad listened to the music and his dad had played music that was very similar. [His dad is David Hood, one of the famous Swampers responsible for the Muscle Shoals sound.] So when we went into the studio, they felt like they knew me.

And the same with The Roots in New York City. Questlove and his guys, they listened to The Meters and they listened to Booker T. & the M.G.'s when they were young, so they felt like they knew me when we went into the studio.

Songfacts: Is it fun to get in the studio with those guys?

Booker T: It is, yes. It's great. The new ideas and the fresh energy is amazing. I'm really experiencing that with my son Ted now. he just left here yesterday. We've been working on some new stuff up here. The fresh energy - it's amazing to compare their energy and my energy when I was their age. And they're so much more inventive and quick, because they have a richer legacy to grow on than I did.

Songfacts: Are you working on a new album now?

Booker T: Yes, with my son, and for myself. And working on the road with the four-piece. One thing I'm doing with the four-piece is I'm teaching them the old MG's songs and I'm also working on the Stax revue. That's just some wonderful music that we're beginning to present again to the public - Otis Redding songs, Sam & Dave, Wilson Pickett, Eddie Floyd - so much good music there. Jean Knight from Stax. But yeah, there's a lot to do. Writing a book.

Songfacts: You're not slowing down at all?

Booker T: Not at this point. I don't really understand it yet.

June 13, 2017.
Further reading:
Stax Today
Interview with Bill Withers

Booker's official site
More Songwriter Interviews

Comments: 12

  • Steve Lewis from Los AngelesAwesome interview Roger.
    This really hit the spot. Thanks
  • Steve Lewis from Los AngelesI want to see you at Leon Russell. I really want to see you not him, although he is great. Very disappointed he didn't let you do any of your songs. Love you guy!
  • Carol from Venice CaGreat interesting interview. Green onions and Born Under a Bad Sign WOW. Thanks for helping us enjoy music. Yes about our legislators I think that money is more important than art. The conductor of the LA PHIL Gustavo Dudamel inspired by his teacher I think is bringing music to low-income children. Thanks for your work in that area. ❤️
  • Jimmy Harris from Burbank. Originally Memphis great interview
  • Kenneth White from Thomasville, Al United StatesI have green onions on 45 and a lot of Memphis labels the best music there is!!!!!!
  • Marilyn Thurman from Hayward CaLove your music cousin, Winston Thurman daughter
  • Al Washington from San Diego, Ca.Roger, Thanks for providing a body of information that allows me to appreciate BOOKER even more than before. I have been inspired by his warmth, talents, experiences and above all, his muisical journey. As an artist, We are truly bless to be able to bring joy not only to others, but to ourselves. I wish him continued success.
  • Fritz S. from MarylandLoved "Booker T. and the MG's" growing up in the 60's. Good to hear Booker is doing fine and still making music. My saddest day as far as music is concerned though was when Otis Redding died, I wonder where music would have gone if he had lived a full life. The MG's and others playing there at Stax really made him shine. I wish Booker and his family good luck and good health.
  • Mark Wilmer from Philadelphia PaFantastic article and interview.......... what a guy, what a history!! I now feel like "I" know the guy. : ))
  • James P Burke Iii from Accokeek, MdWhen I began learning how to play electric guitar in Mobile, Alabama and Buffalo, NY, Booker T and the MGs provided the "road map" to what a band was supposed to sound like. I listened to each player's part and heard how it all fitted. As a guitarist I learned how to play strong rhythm guitar and meaningful guitar solos by trying to copy Steve Cropper's tasteful guitar work. Booker T and the MGs were the STAX SOUND. Their music added so much joy to my life both as a music fan and as a musician. They created and performed REAL SOUL music! Thanks Booker T, Steve, Al, and Donald! The True Memphis Group.
  • Jim from Mobile, AlGreat interview!! Music would not be the same without Booker T. A pioneer, visionary and a real gentleman.
  • Frank from Pleasanton, CaThanks for a fantastic interview! I'm grateful for all of the music he had a hand in. My life is much richer for it. Your interview gave me a glimpse at the man behind the artist. Well done!
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