Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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Booker T: By The Book

Booker T
Booker T Booker T Booker T Booker T

When I was a kid in the 60’s, I used to lay in bed listening to my two older brothers playing their LP's on the portable HMV player sat on the landing outside my bedroom door, while they got suited and booted to go out on the pull. They played all the Stax and Atlantic soul 45s, and tracks from Booker T & The MGs’ albums too.

My brother Chris eventually buying a combination lock for his wardrobe door, to stop me borrowing his records. One day I looked over his shoulder and remembered the combination and “illegally” soaked up all that soul! The risk of a slap from big bruv was worth it!

When I was old enough to earn money from paper rounds and gardening in the village, I bought my own records and among them were Booker T & The MGs and Booker’s solo work too. I was a huge fan of the man and his music - and still am. Imagine my delight to get a call from him for a chat from his hotel room in Ohio, before appearing at an R&B festival there.

I admit may have gushed a tad at first! A humble and quiet guy, and still very much musically on form. Back with a fabulous new album out on 12th August, “Sound The Alarm,” and on the Stax label too. It has a galaxy of star guests on it including Mayer Hawthorne, Anthony Hamilton, Luke James, Ty Taylor and Vintage Trouble, Gary Clark Jr and Sheila E. Collectively a great fit.

Raphael Saadiq contributes guitar on two tracks and, Booker’s son Ted plays guitar on one of the three instrumental tunes “Father Son Blues” which closes the album. Booker T wrote or co-wrote all twelve songs on "Sound The Alarm." He co-produced the album with brothers Bobby Ross and Issiah “IZ” Avila, who have worked with Usher and Mary J. Blige. There are two Brits who pop up too; Estelle and Jay James.

So why the title Mr Jones? “Simon, you are talking to a man who is on fire. I don’t know what has happened to me these last few years, but I am on fire. Sound the alarm! I have more force and power than I ever dreamed I could have, and it is just a matter of controlling it at this point.”

That title track is Booker’s favourite of the dozen, with Mayer Hawthorne providing killer vocals on it. “I was at Daryl Hall’s house and singing with him was Mayer. No idea who he was but he has the same love for R&B and that Philly influence. When we got into the studio we were on fire and excited about each other. Maya is the shit! He’s the guy and has that Gamble & Huff thing going on.” Booker is keen to collaborate with Mayer again.

Mr Jones is 68-years-old and began his career 51 years ago, but shows no signs of losing his ability to impress. His last two albums won a Grammy each to add to the two already on his mantelpiece.

“Sound The Alarm” is by no means a retro wander down memory lane, a blatant top up of the pension pot. It is a modern RnB feast from a guy who was doing it when R&B meant something else. It really does push the envelope and make him relevant to today, as well as part of the history of black music.

“I still have a lot of energy in me and a lot of aspiration when it comes to music. Sound the Alarm is an indication I still want to expand sound wise, rhythm wise and even lyric wise musically. I am always hungry to do that. I always go back to my first blueprint and plan of action I had when I graduated from high school; and that was to do something new and different to do. That’s how I came up with Green Onions.”

Booker’s stature and the respect artists have for him and his achievements, attracts an array of exciting guys to guest on the new CD. We speak about the two UK artists; Jay James (who I know as Jay James Picton from his shows opening for Rebecca Ferguson) and Estelle.

“I met Jay a while ago to write songs for his album through a producer living around the corner from me in West Hollywood, about a year ago. Jay and I became good friends, and he sat in with me last year at Ronnie Scott’s club and sang a couple of songs.”

“Estelle is someone I have admired since I first heard her sing. A beautiful soul and a beautiful woman. I just love the way she blazes and will always love her voice. I am so happy to have her on this album.”

Booker sings just once on the album. On his earlier solo work he has a great voice and I tell him he really should pick up the mike these days. On “Sound The Alarm,” Booker duets with Bill Withers’ daughter Kori on “Watch You Sleeping.”

Booker produced Bill’s smash hit debut album,”Just As I Am” and is a huge part of Bill’s success. Could he ever hear Bill back in a recording studio? “We had lunch a couple of times and Bill has not changed very much in 45 years. When I first met Bill he came up to my ranch and he was pretty much telling me he was writing these songs, but his true calling was a carpenter. That was what he was and how he sees himself.”

“He was not anxious to go in the studio and record. He wrote these songs that became popular worldwide, but he said; ‘Booker, who is gonna sing these songs?’ I said; ‘well you are.’ He sang ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ and ‘Grandma’s Hands’ and all those huge songs. They are treasures; national treasures.”

“He is still like that; he is a carpenter and he writes songs. He is very talented but I haven’t been able to get him to do it again to so far.” I urge Booker not to give up and to try again to convince Bill to make a come-back. “It sometimes takes encouragement like yours to go and try one more time. I will.” So start praying soul fans.

Booker talks to me about his memories of the famed 1967 Stax Volt UK tour, when Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Eddie Floyd, Arthur Conley, The Mar-Keys and Booker T & The MGs stormed the country and blew the roof off of every venue they played with their incendiary soul show. The first time they had played to a black and a white audience instead of the segregation in the US. The footage of their April 7th ’67 Norway show is electrifying. Booker reveals how shocked he was at what he experienced on that tour.

“The biggest revelation of the tour for me was; I had been working with these people: Otis Redding, Sam & Dave and Eddie Floyd and I had played with them in the studio. But when we got to the rehearsal studio in England and then on stage, I saw everything pick up to another level. It was shocking to me. I didn’t know the energy that I saw from Sam and Dave could come out of a performance.”

“I was three feet away from these guys bringing people to a frenzy with their music. It was a most moving thing. For Otis too. He became a different performer on that tour. He just stepped it up, and became the person he stayed. Something about the UK and European audience brought a need to excel and entertain to the enth degree.” [sic]

“The dancing was unbelievable. The communication between Sam and Dave…the way they would turn and twist, and throw and catch the microphones. Something I had never experienced before and never have since then. Oh my God…………”

Booker is back here in August (14th – 17th) for shows “with my phenomenal band” at Ronnie Scott’s jazz club in London. He tells me he is hitting his contacts book to call up old friends to come on down and sit in, including Sir Tom Jones.

"Sound The Alarm" is out August 12 on Concord


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