Booker T. Jones, Soul’s Ultimate Sideman, Takes the Lead at Last - The New York Times
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Booker T. Jones, Soul’s Ultimate Sideman, Takes the Lead at Last

By John Lingan

Oct. 17, 2019

In a new memoir, “Time Is Tight: My Life, Note by Note,” the Stax studio wizard and acclaimed producer tells his own story and finds his voice.

Booker T. Jones was an architect of the Stax Records sound. But his time in Memphis is only part of his story.
Booker T. Jones was an architect of the Stax Records sound. But his time in Memphis is only part of his story.Erik Carter for The New York Times

LOS ANGELES — Blocks from the ocean-misted mountain views of Venice Beach, Booker T. Jones was hard at work on a late-summer afternoon. The 74-year-old musician, dressed in a black baseball hat and a bright-blue athletic pullover, sat behind his customary Hammond B-3 organ with his chin angled up slightly, like an emperor, as his current road group, which includes his son Ted on lead guitar and the longtime Tom Petty drummer Steve Ferrone, helped rerecord the various classics that provide the names for each chapter in his new memoir. 

“Time Is Tight: My Life, Note by Note,” out Oct. 29, is named for one of Jones’s hits as the leader and musical mastermind of Booker T. & the M.G.s, but despite the soul group’s fame in the ’60s and ’70s, this is the first time the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee has truly spoken in his own voice. His creative statements have more typically come as an accompanist: first as an arranger and house musician for Stax during the label’s golden age, then as a producer, musical director and keyboardist for generations of American musicians. His body of work spreads across whole branches in the family tree of 20th-century and 21st-century pop — you can hear him underneath Sam & Dave, the Blind Boys of Alabama, Bob Dylan, Big Daddy Kane and Valerie June.

But about a decade ago, with eight children and stepchildren from his three marriages, Jones became reflective. His friends and collaborators, from Neil Young to Robbie Robertson, had found willing readerships for their life stories, but Jones, ever the sideman, didn’t think in terms of a hero’s journey.

 

Jones wrote his memoir himself, without a ghostwriter. Jones wrote his memoir himself, without a ghostwriter.

“I just started writing these little scenes,” he explained in his slow, deliberate manner. “Little memories of how I grew up, all the things I’ve seen.” The book’s structure isn’t chronological — Jones connects old stories to new ones, famous friends to unknown childhood ones. He wrote it himself, no ghostwriter, with the same unhurried process that he approaches all communication, from an interview to a horn chart.

The result emphasizes not only his Memphis roots and role in Stax’s reinvention of R&B but his second act here in Los Angeles — as a wide-ranging session man and producer who remains, in his eighth decade, a sought-after sonic guru.

“It’s really weird hearing my voice say those words,” he said. “But the words I use, the way I use English — I finally found my voice on the page.”

In the Venice studio, Jones showed off his more well-known facility with the language of music, working through “B-A-B-Y,” a perfect bit of Stax bubble gum by Carla Thomas from 1966. It’s filled with the sound of the B-3, a churchy keyboard that plays through a rotating speaker called a Leslie, granting it an emotive vibrato that, largely thanks to him, is synonymous with soul music. 

But even the master can’t just summon one of these songs. Jones listened to the old recording on YouTube, identifying all the underlying parts of the arrangement that make it click. It’s not a complicated song, but it’s airtight. The band had to find the tempo and the swing that would allow it to slink just right.

It was the same way 50-odd years ago, Jones later explained. The song as delivered by Isaac Hayes and David Porter was well-written, but the band couldn’t bring it to life.

“It was the same lyrics, the same melody, but the feel of it was wrong,” Jones said. On break from college, he pulled an all-nighter to whip up a finger-snapping beat and circular bass melody straight from Motown. He played the chiming piano part himself. A few months later: No. 3 R&B, No. 14 Pop. This was his side job. He was 20.

In Venice, Jones’s left hand played in unison with his bassist as always. With his right hand, he hit a series of quick stabbing chords that, on the recording, add a sense of dramatic rise-and-fall behind the repeating bass motif. Ferrone, a big, gentle Englishman known for his stability and power in the Heartbreakers, was having a little trouble finding the groove. Jones didn’t acknowledge it, he just kept nodding and pushing the two-chord verse vamp until finally, there, it snapped into place, and the song sounded like itself. 

No living musician is more closely associated than Booker T. Jones with Memphis, the Mississippi River city that fostered a world-changing generation of blues, gospel and soul music five decades ago. He spent 10 years as a house arranger, multi-instrumentalist and charting band leader for Stax Records during this period, and told me with little hesitation that this era’s music will be his legacy. 

Jones grew up in the Tennessee city, the only child of two teachers who both loved to play music. In “Time Is Tight,” his musical memories connect back to childhood, to the church, to funerals and kitchen hymns sung by elderly neighbors. 

“Memphis defined my life,” he said, “but I was always so busy.” He began “throwing the Memphis World” — working a paper route — when he was only 8. He left the city for the first time to attend Indiana University’s renowned conservatory program, already an active session player at Stax. One day he fell into a groove while playing with his beloved friend Al Jackson Jr. on the drums. The result, “Green Onions,” is one of the best-known and most-covered songs of its era.

“Green Onions” feels like a snarling 12-bar blues, but its structure is more complex, a result of Jones’s theory lessons at the time. “What if the bottom bass note went up while the top note of the triad went down, like in the Bach fugues and cantatas?” he remembers wondering in “Time Is Tight.” It was a fine demonstration of what he brought to Stax’s urban country-soul: compositional sophistication. 

“For years and years I have said that Booker T. & the M.G.s were the greatest rock ’n’ roll band of all time,” John Fogerty wrote in his own recent memoir. “I’m talking about soulfulness, deep feeling, the space in between the beats. How to say a lot with a little.”

Every garage band in the United States, including Fogerty’s, knew “Green Onions” in the mid-1960s. Booker T. & the M.G.s were equally revered by the Summer of Love crowd that watched them back Otis Redding for his star-making set at the Monterey Pop Festival.

But the respect of their peers and left-leaning Californians didn’t protect the M.G.s from racism, especially at home. The Stax offices in Memphis were a regular target of threats; they were located around the corner from the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in April 1968. As the first charting interracial pop group of the era, the M.G.s were also expected to act out a vision of racial harmony.

“The M.G.s did love each other,” he writes in the book. But “As we were held up more and more as an example to the world of how integration could work, it became more and more a veneer.”

In the late 1960s, the stresses of working for Stax were beginning to wear on Jones, who had begun to see a different kind of community — more welcoming and supportive — among musicians in Los Angeles.

In California, Jones said he was struck by “the immediate diversity” of the population: “It’s just amazing, the kind of people you can find here.” His first friend in the city’s creative world was Leon Russell, the prolific psychedelic ringleader behind a rising wave of roots music at the time, including Delaney & Bonnie and Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen.

“I had a little phone book when I came out here and started adding to it, and that phone book was just unbelievable,” he recalled, naming Roger McGuinn, Elton John and the Beach Boys.

Given the opportunity to work with artists across genres and styles, Jones thrived. He found the perfect quiet, unmannered funk for Bill Withers’s debut, “Just As I Am,” and reinvented both the Great American Songbook and Willie Nelson’s career as the producer and arranger of “Stardust,” a shock hit record of big band-era standards released in 1978. By simplifying the arrangements and recording in an ultra-laid-back home studio in Laurel Canyon over 10 days, Jones made a Texan singing Tin Pan Alley sound like the quintessence of contemporary L.A. sophistication.

“When I was growing up, my dad only had about five records,” said the National’s Matt Berninger, who hired Jones to produce his upcoming solo record. “I remember Judy Collins, Roberta Flack, Waylon Jennings, and I remember ‘Stardust.’” Berninger wanted someone who could corral nearly 20 guest musicians, and someone who could provide the late-night, timeless atmosphere that “Stardust” conjures. He immediately thought of Jones, whom he had met during a collaboration with Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings in 2013, even though he didn’t realize that Jones was the co-visionary on Nelson’s album at first. It seemed impossible that the same person who created a new genre of Memphis soul in 1962 could also reinvigorate the standard 15 years later, then stay relevant into the 21st century as an elder statesman.

Jones has stayed active producing, recording and playing with younger musicians for decades now, many of whom aren’t obvious fits for his sound. In the early 1980s, Melissa Etheridge was “just a singer in a lesbian bar,” she said, before a Capitol Records executive set her up with a studio session to make a demo. She showed up and found Jones behind the board.

“This was back when you still had guitar solos in songs,” Etheridge said in a phone interview, “but our guitar player didn’t show up. So the engineer grabs a B-3, and Booker adds the most burning, scorching Booker T. organ solo over this rinky-dink demo.”

Patterson Hood, the co-leader of the Drive-By Truckers, heard M.G.s songs in hip-hop as a teenager — they’ve been sampled by Cypress Hill and Heavy D & the Boyz, among many others. About 10 years ago, Jones invited the Truckers to join him for a rare solo album, all instrumental, with Neil Young on third guitar just for good measure. Hood’s heavy-twang rock isn’t a natural fit for the kind of subtle groove-building that Jones specializes in, and after a few unsatisfying takes, Hood and his band mates gathered at the B-3, expecting to be fired. Instead, Jones told them a story about Thanksgiving.

“He described the food, what his auntie was wearing, even the tablecloth and how the food smelled,” Hood said. “It was beautiful, then when he was finished, he said, ‘Play that.’”

Jones believed the band played best based off lyrical content, and that the instrumentals were throwing them off, “So if he could give us something to visualize, we’d play better,” Hood said. He called the moment “literally life-changing.”

Jones has a simpler explanation for his approach. “I’m on cruise control,” he said. “I started on cruise control, being curious about drums and piano, and it’s the same exact force that moved me then, when I was 4 or 5, that’s moving me now.”

It’s an ethos he captures well in “Time Is Tight,” a book that reaches for that ineffable quality of music making. “It’s just a force that requires no effort at all,” Jones added. “I don’t put any effort into trying to make music my thing, it just happens.”

 

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