Booker T. Jones: Stax appeal
A three-time Grammy-winner and Rock & Roll Hall Of Famer, and universally recognised as one of the true architects of America soul music, legendary Memphis-born-and raised organist/songwriter/producer Booker T. Jones this month releases his latest album ‘The Road From Memphis’.
Featuring backing from super-credible Philadelphia hip hop band The Roots - was produced by Jones himself alongside The Roots’ Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson and Rob Schnapf, while boasting a diverse array of guest vocalists - ranging from Matt Berninger (of Ohio indie-rockers The National); Sharon Jones (lead singer of Brooklyn funkers The Dap-Kings); Yim Yames (of Kentucky-based folk outfit My Morning Jacket); plus the iconic Godfather of Punk himself, New Yorker Lou Reed.
Indeed, featuring a rare vocal from Booker himself on the blues-tinged ode to his hometown ‘Down In Memphis’, ‘The Road From Memphis’ was interestingly recorded by Daptone Records’ mastermind Gabriel Roth - with moods ranging from a funky instrumental take on Lauryn Hill’s ‘Everything Is Everything’ and deliberately pounding ‘Walking Papers’; to the soulfully shuffling, anthemic ‘Representing Memphis’ and retro-optimism of the lurching, midtempo ‘Progress’. All of which makes for a worthy follow-up to Jones’ critically-acclaimed last set, 2009’s Grammy-winning ‘Potato Hole’.
Born in November 1944 in Memphis. Tennessee, multi-instrumentalist Jones - having grown up a musical child prodigy at school - made his first entry into professional music at the age of 16, playing baritone saxophone on Satellite (soon to be renamed Stax) Records’ first hit, ‘’Cause I Love You’ by local father/daughter duo Rufus & Carla Thomas. Following which in 1962 - at the legendary Stax Records’ studios - he formed the instrumental soul combo Booker T. & The MGs, whose original line-up comprised Booker himself (organ/piano); Steve Cropper (guitar); Lewie Steinberg (bass) and Al Jackson, Jr. (drums).
Meanwhile, with the quartet enjoying their debut hit for Stax Records in 1962 with the million-selling US chart-topper ‘Green Onions’ (which, written by Jones while still in High School, remains an enduring classic to this day), over the next few years Booker would divide his time between studying classical music composition and transposition at Indiana University and playing with The MGs back home in Memphis on the weekends, where he’d also serve as a session musician for other Stax acts.
Indeed, as members of the house band of Stax Records throughout the Sixties, Booker T. & The MGs would impressively go on to play on literally hundreds of recordings by artists like Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Eddie Floyd, The Staple Singers and Johnnie Taylor - while also continuing to release instrumental records under their own name. The biggest of which included 1966’s ‘Hip Hug-Her’; 1968’s ‘Soul Limbo’ (best known in the UK for its high-profile use by BBC television and radio as their theme for cricket coverage); and 1969’s US Top 10/UK Top Five smash ‘Time Is Tight’. All of which made them one of the most prolific, respected and internationally imitated bands of their era.
Interestingly, meanwhile, in addition to becoming universally acknowledged as originators of the unique Stax sound (and in turn highly influential in shaping the sound of both southern soul and Memphis soul), culturally Booker T. & The MGs - having two black members and two white members (Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn having replaced Lewie Steinberg on bass in 1965) - were also significant as one of the first racially-integrated R&B groups at a time when soul music was generally considered the preserve of black culture.
Nevertheless, with the quartet having already recorded 11 albums for the label (including 1970’s interesting concept album ‘McLemore Avenue’ which - named after the street where Stax was located - found them covering 13 songs from The Beatles’ ‘Abbey Road’ LP), in 1970 Jones moved to California and stopped playing sessions for Stax, after becoming frustrated with the label’s treatment of his group. Which in turn resulted in the 1971 LP ‘Melting Pot’ (their most sampled release by today’s hip hop generation) becoming the last Booker T. & The MGs album issued on Stax.
Following which Booker himself went on to become a solo artist while simultaneously producing singers like Bill Withers and Rita Coolidge and (following Al Jackson Jr.’s tragic murder in 1975) also periodically reuniting with the remaining two MGs. Prestigious career highlights of the last 20 years meanwhile include being inducted into The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame in 1992, and being honoured with a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2007.
… All of which brings us to the legendary Mr. Jones himself hooking up for the first time with ‘Blues & Soul’ Assistant Editor Pete Lewis to discuss his aforementioned already-acclaimed new album, in addition to his historic, groundbreaking days of music-making as frontman of The MGs at Memphis’ iconic Stax Records in the Sixties.
PETE: Let’s start by discussing the concept behind your new album ‘The Road From Memphis’ - which has been described as “charting a historic life in music”
BOOKER: “Well, all my origins were in Memphis - my musical origins, plus of course I was physically BORN there… And so this album is basically tracing the journey from my hometown, and reflecting the highlights that have happened in my life while going from Memphis all the way to Los Angeles, London, Detroit, Philadelphia, New York - and then taking it back 360 degrees to where it all STARTED! You know, it’s been an incredible journey for me - I guess one of the advantages of living a long time is actually being able to go the whole 360.”
PETE: The album has been acclaimed as “an eclectic mix of melodies, rhythm and moods”. Can you expand on that?
BOOKER: “The person that I am musically, is someone that actually goes a lotta different places. In that I’m unable to stay in one genre, and I guess there’s no REASON for me to. You know, everything from jazz to country to R&B and classical is just ingrained in my spirit. And so hopefully the album REFLECTS that, while still retaining a funky base.”
PETE: The album interestingly features super-credible Philadelphia hip hoppers The Roots as your backing band, while the production comes from yourself, Rob Schnapf, plus The Roots’ drummer/producer Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson. How did you hook up with The Roots and ‘Questlove’, and what was the experience of working with them like?
BOOKER: “The hook-up was fortuitous. In that I was playing on The Jimmy Fallon Show a few years ago with ‘Questlove’ and The Roots (who act as said talk-show’s full-time backing-band), and I immediately recognised them as a band that was INTUITIVE to me. Because they knew my background, plus they were a hip hop band that uses real instruments, as opposed to drum machines. So, with them knowing the history of myself and (The MG’s drummer) Al Jackson, Jr. so well, it was just a match made in HEAVEN! So I asked them if they’d play on my album, they agreed to - and the result was just PERFECT for me, a very pleasurable experience! I mean, ‘Questlove’ as a drummer has everything at his disposal without effort - you know, syncopation, the whole deal. And, with the roots of Memphis music being something that he knows off-by-heart, making the music with him was very, very easy.”
PETE: ‘The Road From Memphis’ was initially recorded by Daptone Records’ mastermind Gabriel Roth - the man behind Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings and who also was heavily involved in Amy Winehouse’s world-conquering 2006 album ‘Back To Black’…
BOOKER: “Yeah, that was ANOTHER fortuitous combination. In that Gabriel and the artists you’ve just mentioned are people who’ve been very much dedicated to reviving the music of the Sixties, and are therefore familiar with the recording techniques of that era. So, as a recording engineer, Gabriel was definitely able to design the sound in a way that helped us come out with a fat bass and natural-sounding drums. Plus everything was recorded at one time in the same room, just like back in the day. So yeah, I was very lucky to have him working on my project.”
PETE: Vocal guests on the album include Yim Yames (of Kentucky folk outfit My Morning Jacket); Matt Berninger (of Ohio indie-rockers The National); plus soul songstress Sharon Jones (lead singer of aforementioned Brooklyn funkers The Dap-Kings)…
BOOKER: “Well, the whole thing was done in New York City, and while I was there I was calling in favours. I was basically calling the people who were in town at the time to work with me… And they CAME!”
PETE: The most surprising guest vocalist is surely the Godfather of Punk, New York singer/songwriter Lou Reed - who features on the hypnotically atmospheric closing track ‘The Bronx’…
BOOKER: “Well, Lou Reed has been a fan of Booker T. & The MGs since the Sixties. I mean, at one time he actually did a SONG called ‘Booker T’! So, because he knew our music, he was very happy to come down to the STUDIO! And though we had some creative differences - he’s a big star and he’s got a big ego, like I do! -ultimately we were able to come up with something that I think is one of the most beautiful tracks on the album. You know, there he is - a rock star singing on a SOUL song! And lyrically I was able to express, with my daughter’s help, what I wanted do say about the Bronx - in the sense it of it being such a springboard for creative originality in so many areas. You know, there are just so many writers, so many actors, so many musicians that have come from the streets of The Bronx. So our aim was to express that in a lyrical style that was similar to Lou’s. And, while I don’t know if he’d ever recited or done anyone else’s lyrics before, he still came along and gave his everything while staying very much within his own style.”
PETE: As you just mentioned, your daughter - singer/songwriter Liv Jones - also contributes lyrics on your album - to the aforementioned ‘The Bronx’ plus the soulful ode to your hometown, ‘Representing Memphis’…
BOOKER: “Well, I’d seen her work last year up in San Rafael with a band, and from that I realised that she was a fast writer and that she got the essence of a project quickly. So when I started to do this album, I called her from the airport just on the chance that she might have an idea. You know, I talked with her about what I wanted to say on ‘Representing Memphis’ - and by the time we’d landed in New York she’d already e-mailed me some lyrics! So right there and then I realised that I had something great under my nose that I didn’t even KNOW about!”
PETE: Can you break down the stories behind some of the tracks on ‘The Road From Memphis’?
BOOKER: “My favourite track is actually ‘Crazy’ (an instrumental cover of the 2006 Gnarls Barkley smash), mainly because the lyrics of the song say something quite similar to what I BELIEVE! You know, I meditate every day, and I’m grounded in the fact that we all have so much actual power here on earth and come from a spiritual being. So in that way ‘Crazy’ relates to the both the music AND to me! Because I’m a crazy guy, but then I also think I’m very sane TOO!... Then ‘Walking Papers’ relates to the fact that back in the day, any time someone felt the need to move on to a different era in their life, they’d say they’d gotten their walking papers! And for me personally the song relates to my leaving Stax Records in 1971. You know, my lawyer had to work out all kinds of details with the label so I could move on and do my thing. And then, when he did finally get the papers for me to sign that freed me to move on, it felt GREAT!... And then with ‘Rent Party’, I came up with the concept for that song in the middle of the recent recession. You know, with so many people not having money today, it actually made me think about the rent parties that were big in Philadelphia and New York during the Forties and Fifties - when people actually charged admission to a party so they could pay the RENT! So I basically wanted to write a song that would sound like something people would put on in a MODERN-DAY rent party!”
PETE: How do you now recall the early days of The MGs and Stax Records back in the early-Sixties?
BOOKER: “Well, I actually started out playing as a session-man after school, with Steve Cropper, Al Jackson, Jr. and sometimes Lewie Steinberg. And we were actually doing that for around two-and-a-half years. Then from that I played baritone saxophone on Rufus Thomas’ ‘Because I Love You’, which was the first time I’d walked in the door of the studios at Stax. And then, when I told Chips Moman (Stax’s staff producer) and Jim Stuart (Stax’s co-founder) that I could also play piano, that was when they started hiring me as a piano-player - and that in turn led to me playing organ for William Bell. And the sound I created on the organ back then for tracks like our debut single ‘Green Onions’ actually came out of me trying to meld my style to that of Ray Charles on his ‘Genius + Soul = Jazz’ album… While, in terms of the actual arrangements, as a group we basically came up with a lot of that stuff TOGETHER. Because, though many of the melodies and rhythms first came from me, you have to realise that The MGs were ALL highly creative players. So as I say, a lotta the writing and arrangements came outta the chemistry we had TOGETHER. You know, someone would add something to what I’D done, then someone else would add ANOTHER thing... And it would just gradually BUILD.”
PETE: So, with Memphis at the time being such a hotbed of musical creativity, what was the vibe like in the city back when you and Stax Records started out in the early-Sixties?
BOOKER: “Well, there’s a song on the new album that pays tribute to that, which is ‘Representing Memphis’ - even though it doesn’t talk about it directly. Because, though the city gave so much and it was such a centre of musical talent, at the same time it was always very UNASSUMING! You know, Memphis never thought of itself as being a great city! Instead I remember people in Memphis talking about places like Atlanta, Nashville and New ORLEANS as great cities! Yet the fact is, Memphis WAS a really great area and a really great city - which is what I’m basically saying on that particular song.”
PETE: In addition to musically shaping the sound of Southern soul and Memphis soul, Booker T. & The MGs were also significant CULTURALLY - in that they you were one of the first openly-multi-racial combos to exist at a time of racial segregation in America’s south…
BOOKER: “Yeah, at first our album covers confused people! In that, on seeing our picture, they assumed the lead - Booker T. - must be one of the WHITE guys! And it wasn’t until we were on TV a lot, later in the Sixties, that people realised who was WHO!... And the secret of our harmony was simple. It was down to the fact that all of us at the time found ourselves in a neighbourhood that was CHANGING! You know, white people were moving away, black people wanted to move to better homes... And this was all going on around where the Stax studios were SITUATED. So we all shared that same kinda urban uncertainty... Plus you have to remember that, even though segregation was ingrained in the culture of Memphis back then, we were just simply playing MUSIC together! You know, all of us in The MGs loved the blues, and we all felt privileged that we could play music all day! So with us, the race thing never EXISTED! It never DOES with musicians - you know, nothing levels the field like MUSIC! When the music is right, race DISAPPEARS - and the people who enjoy it realise they have more in common than they THOUGHT!”
Booker performs at Under The Bridge, BluesFest London 2011 (June 30); The Mostly Jazz Festival, Birmingham (July 3); Arc, Stockton-On-Tees (July 29); Vintage Festival, Royal Festival Hall, London (July 30); and WOMAD, Malmesbury (July 31)
The album ‘The Road From Memphis’ is out now through Anti-
Words PETE LEWIS