- Piper Ferguson
Even if you've never heard of Booker T. Jones, you have heard him.
The Memphis legend was just 17 when he and his fellow session players at Stax Records formed what soon became R&B's premier instrumental band.
Booker T. and the MGs, who would perform on hundreds of recordings by soul artists ranging from Wilson Pickett to Otis Redding, released their debut single "Green Onions" in the fall of 1962. With its unmistakable Hammond organ melody and soulful mid-tempo groove, it's a song that, once heard, cannot be forgotten.
The deceptively understated instrumental managed to reach No. 1 on the R&B charts four separate times, and has since been covered by a bizarrely eclectic array of musicians: Count Basie, Johnny Thunders, The Ventures, The Blues Brothers, Mongo Santamaria, Vassar Clements, Paul Hardcastle, Tom Petty ... the list goes on.
But none of those artists could capture the magic that occurred during that original Memphis recording session.
And from Booker T's perspective, neither could he.
"There was this little inflection in the way I was using the left hand, the rhythm of it, that I still try to duplicate," says Jones with characteristic humility. "And also the way the song moves, with that infectious kind of attraction and magnetism that draws you in. That's kind of hard to recreate, you know? It's like something that happens just once, and we were like, 'Oh my God, how did we do that?'"
The same could be said for any number of milestones in Booker T's career. As the '60s drew to a close, Jones and his band's classic lineup — guitarist Steve Cropper, bassist Donald "Duck" Dunn, and drummer Al Jackson Jr. — found their way back into the Top 10 with two successive singles, "Time Is Tight" and "Hang 'em High." But despite renewed commercial success, internal tensions within the Stax organization were taking their toll.
After recording one last MGs album in 1970, the band called it a day and Jones moved to Los Angeles. Cropper and Dunn would go on to revive the Stax Sound as members of The Blues Brothers, while Jones became a session player for artists ranging from Ray Charles to Rancid. He also took the production helm on timeless albums like Willie Nelson's Stardust.
- Piper Ferguson
And then there's Jones' solo career, still going strong, which includes a 2009 album backed by Drive-By Truckers, with Neil Young on guitar. Booker T's two most recent albums — the first of which was co-produced by Questlove from The Roots — boast guest performances by retro-soul revivalists Mayer Hawthorne and Raphael Saadiq, My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James, The National's Matt Berninger, British R&B chanteuse Estelle, Dap-Kings frontwoman Sharon Jones, rock 'n' roll icon Lou Reed and reluctant blues savior Gary Clark Jr.
The difficult truth is that, at the age of 71, Jones is cooler than the rest of us combined.
While Booker T and the Hammond B-3 will forever be associated in pop-music history, the son of science teacher Booker T. Jones Sr. was always drawn to a wide range of instruments. He was trying to play his family's upright piano before he could reach the keys. At the age of 5, he was begging his parents for a drum without success; instead, his mom bought him a ukulele from a dime store in downtown Memphis. By the fourth grade, he was taking clarinet lessons and soon was playing oboe and baritone sax as well.
Jones doesn't remember whether he was 11 or 12 when he first heard the sound that would change his life.
"It was Ray Charles playing on a song for Quincy Jones called 'One Mint Julep.' And Ray was playing a Hammond M-3 organ, I later found out. But I heard that song and it so affected me that I thought, 'I would be so happy if I could do that with my life, if I could make a sound like that.'"
By coincidence, Jones' piano teacher had a Hammond in her dining room, and it didn't take him long to figure out that was the same kind of instrument he'd heard on the radio. "And then, when I got hired at Stax, it turned out they had the actual instrument that Ray played, so that's the one I played on 'Green Onions.' And so my dream came true."
With the civil rights movement still in its early stages, Stax Records served as a kind of refuge from the racism that still prevailed throughout the South. Founded in 1957 by Estelle Axton and her brother Jim Stewart, the company's staff was integrated, and so were the musicians. Jones and Jackson were black, Cropper and Dunn were white. The music was what mattered.
The unique "Stax Sound" came, in part, due to the studio itself. Sound technology had yet to transcend the limits of its physical surroundings. But it was also, to a greater degree, because of the local musicians, typically from poor and working-class families, whose instrumental and vocal talents gave the music its soul.
Stax also had its regional equivalents around the country: In Alabama, the "Muscle Shoals Sound" emanated from the studio of the same name. In New Orleans, producer Allen Toussaint and The Meters were creating "The Crescent City Sound." Head up north to Detroit, and you'd find Berry Gordy's basement studio, where musicians were cranking out "The Motown Sound."
"A lot of people ask me if there was a rivalry between Stax and Motown," says Jones, "but the truth is that Mrs. Axton, who was half-owner of Stax, would play Motown records to kind of urge us on. I think it was more creativeness than competitiveness."
- Sean Davey
Of course, not everything that came out of Stax was a hit. Jones remembers several artists whose singles failed to find the commercial success that he and his colleagues knew they deserved.
"We had our favorites," he recalls, "and one in particular was 'Your Good Thing' by Mable John, which for some reason didn't become a big hit."
Jones places Frederick Knight's signature song "I've Been Lonely for So Long" in a similar category.
But while several Stax artists lingered in obscurity, Booker T. and the MGs found themselves increasingly in demand, at home in Memphis, going out on tours, even appearing on national television.
"My drummer and bassist [Jackson and Dunn] were good friends with Creedence Clearwater Revival," recalls Jones, "and so we spent a week jamming with them in this woodshed they used as a rehearsal space in Oakland. And then we did a TV show and concert together afterward."
The MGs also struck up a friendship with Billy Preston, who was well-known for his keyboard contributions to recordings by The Beatles, Little Richard and The Rolling Stones.
"Next to Ray Charles, he was the most soulful Hammond player," says Jones. "We were still wet behind the ears when we got to Hollywood, and we met him while playing a TV show — I think it was 'Shindig!' — and he was just the nicest guy. And, of course, he had the same upbringing that I did. You know, the church and classical music and all that."
Jones also keeps in contact with Dr. Lonnie Smith, a master of the Hammond B-3 known for his trademark turban and an unmatched ability to create a full-band sound from an analog instrument's keyboards and foot pedals.
"I'm known as a Hammond player, but it's dedicated people like Lonnie who are the real Hammond players," says Jones, who still prefers bass players to bass pedals. "Those are unique individuals that can do that, and Dr. Lonnie Smith is probably the most unique."
These days, Jones rents his Hammond B-3s on the road. The manufacturer, he says, stopped making them in 1974, and airlines stopped carrying them in 1994. In addition to being massive, pre-digital Hammonds were on a par with 1970s Mellotron synthesizers when it came to breaking down.
"You would have to bolt down the tone generators just to move them at all," says Jones, with the weariness of someone who spent too much time doing that.
Even so, he resists his Hammond technician's urgings to take a lightweight digital version on the road.
"I had one that I played in London years ago that fooled my bass player for a while," Jones says, "but I think it's similar to the debate about analog recordings versus digital recordings. To the sophisticated ear, a person can tell. Well, they say they can, anyway."
But for Jones, who admits to being something of a perfectionist, there's really no option: "I don't use the small ones. I can't. I need the double keyboards, I need to have the original tones and the original drawbars, just to do my thing. Otherwise, it doesn't sound like me."
By the time Stax Records closed its doors in the mid-1970s, Jones had already moved to Los Angeles. Compared to most transplants, his period of culture shock was brief, having already become familiar with the Hollywood studio system during his earliest trips to LA.
Jones' first "super-professonal session," as he calls it, was at the direct invitation of Atlantic Records' co-founder Ahmet Ertegun. "He called my sister's house and said, 'Can Booker come over to Hollywood? We have a Bobby Darin session.' And so I borrowed her car, she gave me directions and I raced over there through LA traffic. I'd barely made it through the door when the red [recording] light came on.
"That's how they did it in Hollywood in those days, so they were used to that. But I was a small-town boy from Memphis, Tennessee. We'd be like, 'Let's get a cup of coffee first.'"
Jones has learned a lot more in the years since, including how to work with singers who might never have made their way to Memphis. "Every session changes according to how well you know the person," he says. "You have to really think on your feet, especially with someone like Lou Reed or Estelle. Whereas the people I worked with every day back in Memphis — Albert King, Otis Redding, William Bell or even Eddie Floyd — you already know what the format is. But when you go into a session with somebody you haven't worked with before, like Barbra Streisand or Bobby Darin, that's when your professionalism has to kick in. And sometimes it doesn't!"
Then there are those times when musicians from completely different backgrounds turn out to be kindred souls.
"I had that with Sinead O'Connor over in Ireland," says Jones. "We were working on some music, and she just started naming all these blues tunes that came from all these people who came out of my area. She knew them all, she knew the lyrics, she knew everything."
Jones' collaboration with Lou Reed was more complicated. Reed turned down Jones' request to sing "The Bronx" on his 2011 album, The Road From Memphis.
"We wanted him to do it, but he said no," Jones says. "So I finally got him on the phone and read the lyrics to him."
A consummate New Yorker, Reed acquiesced, but it took a considerable amount of time for him to let down his guard in the studio. "He was cantankerous for a good while," Jones says. "But it came together, and by the end, we became harmonious."
As different as their personalities may have been, Lou Reed and Booker T. shared at least one thing in common: Both had achieved fame early on with hit singles they'd be asked about for the rest of their lives. Once, in a moment of exasperation, Reed told a particularly petulant interviewer that, yes, he'd spent every day of his life trying to write a song as successful as "Walk on the Wild Side."
Was there ever that kind of pressure in the aftermath of "Green Onions"?
"That's an interesting question," says Jones. "I didn't have the criteria 'as good as.' And I think that 'pressure' isn't exactly the correct word. It's always been a pleasure to do it. The ideas are always there, there's music in my mind every day, and I think a lot of musicians feel that.
"It's more like there's this creative urge all the time. And it doesn't go away."