|Booker T. Jones: Soul
of a Man
by Ron Deutsch
SXSWorld Magazine February 2007
It's hard to imagine another place and time like Memphis in the late 1950's and early 60's. In practically every part of the city, often unbeknownst to each other, but just as often influencing each other, so many musicians - so much music of a type and sound which had never been heard before, was being played and recorded. And right smack in the middle of this, in a neighborhood populated by both whites and blacks, was a small movie theater on McLemore Avenue turned into recording studio, dubbed Stax Records after its co-owners Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton. And in 1960, a 16 year-old high school kid who could play about a dozen instruments, walked in and began his musical career there. His name was Booker T. Jones.
"Willie Mitchell was my first employer and I played baritone sax and then bass for them," recalls Jones. "High school bandleaders who were having bands on the side for a little extra money. I was borrowing instruments from my high school -- the bass, sax -- and playing with these guys.
"The neighborhoods were segregated and that was one of the reasons why 926 Mclemore, its physical location, was convenient for the coming together of the races at Stax. The whites were sort of moving out of that neighborhood and blacks were moving in, and it was right in the middle. So we all met there," recalls Jones.
Two years after joining the Stax family, a B-side churned out during an afternoon break turned into his first hit with the MG's, Green Onions.
Jones says that Green Onions is his favorite song - by anyone. "It's one of those songs that has that thing in it that just kind of excites you, kind of gets under your skin, you know. It's the highlight of my life."
(Music geeks will also know this bit of trivia - the recording was mastered by Elvis Presley guitarist Scotty Moore.)
Jones notes that it was Stax guitarist Steve Cropper who formed the cultural tie between them and the folks at Sun Records on the other side of town. Cropper had sold songs to Sun artists and also worked at the Stax record store.
"Steve was crucial to the Stax connection with Sam Phillips because he was studying from those guys. That link didn't exist for Royal or Hi Record labels - Al Green - they didn't have that link."
Jones has a laid-back, yet assured way of talking that mirrors his playing style. Think of the piano and organ on Otis Redding's Try a Little Tenderness. David Crosby calls Jones "a Buddha."
Jones was not only getting a degree in music production and sound-recording at Stax, he would also commute and eventually received a music degree from Indiana University.
Right about then, Stax was been purchased by Paramount and then swallowed up by Gulf & Western.
"We were getting memos from New York about what time we should be there at the studio. We were working in shifts. It became very corporate," Jones remembers, then adds, "Although Paramount was a really good company, they didn't know about Memphis."
Through Jones' then wife's sister singer/songwriter Rita Coolidge, he was introduced to Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss, and their A&M record label. The two helped Jones get out of his contract and resettle in Los Angeles. Then it was through Clarence Avant and his Sussex label that led Jones to produce Bill Withers classic album, Ain't No Sunshine. When Steve Cropper couldn't make the session, Coolidge suggested her then boyfriend Stephen Stills to play guitar on the recordings, with whom he then began a life long friendship with.
"Once I heard Bill [Withers] do his thing," Jones says, "the first song got me and he sang twelve of them to me in, what... one or two days. He was ready to go. But he had no idea what was going on with the music business. He thought we were going to get someone else to sing the songs."
Shortly thereafter, Stills invited Jones to play on his first solo album. That's his signature Hammond sound on Love the One You're With.
In later years, Jones would tour with Neil Young and continues working as musical director on tour for Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.
"I think they see me as kind of a glue [when we're on tour] to bring all their stuff together," he says jokingly, but then turns wistful. "I've had dreams of someday doing something really great with that band. But, now Stephen has gotten hearing aids - age is coming into play now. I'm sixty-two now and it's amazing to see my peers, people I know, being considered, you know, as 'the old guys.'"
It was, again, through sister-in-law Rita Coolidge who then introduced Jones to yet another musician who would take both men to new places musically.
"Rita had gotten involved with Kris Kristfferson and he and Willie [Nelson] were friends, and Willie had rented out the apartment below us in Malibu," recalls Jones.
The friendship between Jones and Nelson grew out of regular jam sessions they would have at their apartments. They started playing the American standards, and tunes by 1940's Western Swing bandleader Bob Wills. And that eventually grew into a decision to lay down some tracks. And that was how Willie Nelson's album Stardust was born, which Jones producing.
"We set up over there at his house and Willie called his band in and we started recording. Columbia found out about it at some point, but it wasn't like we had to call them and ask them to do this - which they probably would have said no to. It was crazy... the concept didn't fly at all."
But when he played the album to executives they realized it was something that needed to be released no matter if it might not find its audience.
Today, Jones has decided he is ready to take his "sound into the next century" and is currently putting together songs for his first recording since 1994.
"There's still a well of music inside and I'm just now trying to find the right outlet," he states with confidence. "I think there's going to be a place for all of it to come out, but I'll let the music dictate that when I start to make it."
He jokes, "I see my catalog as an advantage to myself because as opposed to having to sample my early stuff, I can just record it and use it. I'm my own sample."
When asked how Jones sees his own legacy, he says: "I see myself a person who helped to create a sound based around a Hammond organ that moved through the sixties and influenced all different kind of groups to use that instrument. And, as a person who has a chance of tying that era with this era."
Jones will be performing and speaking at this year's SXSW Music Festival. In February, Jones and the MG's recently received a Lifetime Achievement Award from NARAS. The MG's were inducted into the Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame in 1992.