Booker T. Jones on a life dedicated to music

Stax, Stills and organ skills

Booker T. Jones is a master of melody. In the likes of Green Onions, Soul Limbo and Time Is Tight, the Memphis organist has written some of the most instantly memorable melody lines of all time.

As a rotating member of the Stax records house band he played on some irrefutable soul classics and wrote songs with Eddie Floyd, Otis Redding and Albert King (on Cream favourite Born Under A Bad Sign).

It's an output probably only rivalled by Motown's Funk Brothers, so it's no wonder that, along with the rest of the MGs, he was inducted into the Rock 'N' Roll Hall Of Fame in 1992.

Returning with his 10th solo album Sound The Alarm earlier this summer, Booker T. spoke to MusicRadar about the new record, missing Hendrix at Monterey Pop and those classic Stax sessions...

You were a musical prodigy in school, playing oboe, sax, trombone, ukulele, guitar piano and organ. When did you realise the organ was the right path?

"That was imposed on me. The Hammond organ is my most comfortable instrument, but the fact that I had a big hit record [Green Onions] at age 17 on the Hammond organ, that was a big dictator of what I was going to be playing for the rest of my life. And I'm OK with that. I think I express myself well with the instrument.

"I took lessons on a Hammond B-3 with my piano teacher at an early age, but I didn't really consider it my instrument until I got to Stax records and started to get work on it. I played on William Bell's You Don't Miss Your Water. People started to recognise my voice on it, so I think as that came about in the early 60s, that's when it became 'my' instrument."

In the early/mid 60s you had plenty of work at Stax, but simultaneously studied classical music and composition at Indiana University. What made you study classical music?

"I was playing jazz music and blues music and I liked it, but I also made money out of it. [Whereas] the classic element was what I started with. The first song I learned was Bach's Well Tempered Clavier, so that set the stage for me.

"Then some of the jobs that I was asked to do required me to write music [notation] and I really needed classical training to do that. To write strings parts at Stax, to know where all the notes were on the staff, to know what all the rhythms were, the time signatures - the only place to really get that was at the university."

What were your first impressions of Steve Cropper and the other MGs when you first met them?

"I first met Steve Cropper as a young boy. He was a clerk at Satellite Records [the Stax associated record store]. I didn't know at the time that he was somebody I was going to be making music with, or that he would be one of the principals back in the back room there at the Capitol Theatre [Stax's studio].

The other principal was Al Jackson Jr. and I met him - once again, in a situation unbeknownst to me - he was playing drums in his father's band. I was at a kite contest, maybe 10 years old, and he was a young kid playing in his father's big band in Lincoln Park in Memphis, Tennessee."

You were all working in Stax sessions in a loose format, but when you made the decision to make it a group - why those guys?

"It wasn't a conscious decision. It was just a haphazard opportunity to make a record at a studio that was vacant on a Sunday afternoon. We recorded a song [Green Onions] that the engineer, the owner, Jim Stewart, liked and he wanted to put it out as a record. It all fell together because of that. It was not predetermined."

How did the MGs work as a writing force?

"Usually, I was the one who was asked for the germinating seed of the music. I would walk in and they'd say, 'What ya got Jones?' It was my responsibility to come up with the initial idea of what the song would be and usually we'd build on that."

The organ is such a wide sounding instrument. What's the secret to integrating that into a full band?

"I think I was able to figure out how to use simplicity. There was always a possibility of playing a plethora of notes, but it was not always necessary, so I think it was a matter of searching for clarity with the melodies and the rhythms.

"It wouldn't always be simple, but I think the times that I did introduce complexity, it wasn't very 'complex' complexity… Of course, if the music is too predictable it becomes boring, so there has to be some unpredictability."

You played countless sessions for Stax. As a musician, which ones stand out for you and why?

"The first is when I was asked to play organ for William Bell on You Don't Miss Your Water. It was the first time I had really been in a recording studio as a session musician. I really didn't know what I was doing, but they did have a Hammond M-3 organ, which I was familiar with from my lessons on the B-3, so I just kind of followed my instinct and played behind the melody, behind the vocal.

"Then I think the stand-out session of my career was probably with Bobby Darin in Hollywood in the mid-60s, because that was a real professional recording session. There were all of these musicians in the room. The Atlantic Records president was in the control room. There was Bobby Darin, The Blossoms, two drummers and a full arrangement by Gene Page and there was music in front [of me] for my part, so that was intimidating to me."

Was that a different atmosphere to Stax?

"It was completely different. I was 2,500 miles from home and it was like, '1, 2, a-1,2,3,4…' and then there was the music and the tape was rolling. They were used to that. That was the way music was made in the professional world in Hollywood - but not in Memphis.

"Memphis was much more laid back. You'd fall in and you'd have the count-off but it was not nearly as formal. It was the Southern atmosphere at Stax. It was more lazy, but we still got the music accomplished."

You played Monterey Pop festival with Otis Redding in 1967. How aware were you of the hippie movement at the time?

"At the time of Monterey Pop, I was completely uneducated about it, so I found out a lot about the bands backstage talking to the musicians - and I think they were interested to talk to me, too. But I missed some great performances - I missed Hendrix - because I got caught up in that.

"My real exposure to that [hippie culture] was the day before in the city. It was unique to see the lack of policeman in the city and the freedom at the restaurants and the hotels. People were giving food away and letting people sleep in their rooms and it was just a very open atmosphere, which I'd never seen before."

At the beginning of the 70s you moved to California and played on Stephen Stills' first solo album. How did working with those West Coast players differ to your previous work?

"Meeting Stephen and Bob Dylan and the people with the California feeling, the music was a lot more experimental than what we were doing at Stax. The songs were longer and the mentality was a lot more experimental.

"At Stax, we kept our songs to two minutes and 30 seconds, we kept the genre to straight R&B, but in California I started to get into country music, I started to work with rock musicians and people that turned up their guitars loud. Stephen was just such an excellent influence on me. I think he's probably one of the greatest rock guitarists ever."

Booker T and Gary Clark Jr. collaborate on Austin City Blues

You've continued to have a great eye for collaborators. What, for example, made you want to work with Gary Clark Jr. on Sound The Alarm?

"He's got a unique musical personality and he has embraced music that came from my path. I was a big Jimmy Reed fans and he plays the guitar like he's from Mississippi, but at the same time he's almost like a hip hop guy. I had a concert with him and I was drawn to leave my soundcheck and go downstairs and listen to him play. Those are the people that I like to work with - people I like to listen to."

Finally, what song do you regard as the pinnacle of your achievements as a musician?

"That would be Time Is Tight, because that was free expression for me. With that song I took liberty to just be open and to express that sentiment in exactly the way it felt inside me. I didn't have any restrictions of 'it needs to be 12 bars', or 'it needs to be 16', or any of that. That was natural. I was secure enough to think, 'This is the way the melody should go.'"

Sound The Alarm is out now. For more information, visit the official Booker T website, or connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.

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