‘A DEEP, DEEP PLACE’
Booker T. reflects on life in music
Booker T. Jones has been looking back lately a lot more than usual. The Stax Records legend, famed cog of label house band Booker T. & the MGS, and Hammond organ icon has been reflecting for a book about his life.
“My memoir is not like anyone else’s, because Memphis is not like any place else,” says the Bluff City-born and -bred Jones, 71. “When you come from Memphis, you’re coming from the epicenter of so much music, from the home of the blues. I was 6 years old when all this stuff started for me. W.C. Handy was my influence. I was playing “The Memphis Blues,” playing the “St. Louis Blues” on clarinet.
“My grandmother was a piano teacher, so my mom was playing Liszt and Chopin on the piano at home, so I had that influence. My church, the Mt. Olive Cathedral, was around the corner from my house, so there was a whole gospel influence. I’m like 12, 13 years old and hearing Blind Oscar playing (a club) on the corner of Beale and Hernando. I can’t get in, but I’m still listening. That’s the basis of where I’m writing from and where I’m coming from — the music of Memphis. It’s a deep, deep place.”
Jones returns to Memphis this week to play the Orpheum’s Halloran Centre, inaugurating the venue’s “On Stage” series with a concert Saturday.
After decades living in California — both the Bay Area and Hollywood — Jones relocated a few years ago to Nevada, near Lake Tahoe.
“I did some looking around and settled on this place,” he says, calling from his home in Incline Village. “It’s been a busy period for me. My daughter got married. We’ve had some changes in the band — my son Ted is playing with me now. I’m in the process of setting up a new studio. There’s been lots of changes in my life.”
Following a 20-year break, Jones returned to his solo career in 2009. He released a pair of LPS for hip Los Angeles-based indie label Anti-, including 2009’s Grammy-winning “Potato Hole” and 2011’s Grammy-nominated “The Road from Memphis.”
In 2013, Jones returned to the Stax label and released “Sound the Alarm.”
Although he’s currently working on some new music, Jones doesn’t have firm plans for his next album.
“I’m up against the old Booker T. thing of loving a lot of genres and working on a lot of projects at the same time,” he says.
“And I’m working on my memoirs, and that’s turned out to be a big, elephantine, gigantic project for me.”
Jones plans to begin shopping the book to publishers soon. It will be a different take on the music memoir — one that will emphasize the music, specifically Jones’ formative rooting in Memphis, more than the celebrity.
Discussing his early years, Jones — typically mild-mannered — becomes animated. “It’s emotional looking back,” he admits.
“The first thing that comes to mind is my good fortune, of being born there and having the teachers that I had — everybody from Al Jackson Sr. to Tuff Green, all the people that taught me. I grew up with free instruments in the schools. … I went to Booker T. Washington High School, for God’s sake, following all the great musicians that went there. It’s a rich legacy, and I’m very proud of it.”
For Jones, of course, the breakthrough came in 1959 at Satellite Records (soon to become Stax).
As a 16-year-old, he got his start playing saxophone on the Rufus and Carla Thomas hit “‘Cause I Love You,” before ultimately finding his place behind the Hammond B3 organ.
“When I first tried to get through that curtain on Mclemore Avenue, I had my Sears Silvertone guitar in hand. I didn’t make it with that. I finally got through the curtain with a baritone sax,” says Jones. “Then I told (guitarist) Steve Cropper and (producer) Chips Moman I could play piano, and they thought, ‘Well, maybe we can find a place for you. But it was only because I could play the keys that they kept me around.”
Jones’ 15-year run with the original MGS would help define the history of Stax and soul music.
Earlier this summer, original MGS bassist Lewis Steinberg died — following the deaths of drummer Al Jackson Jr. in 1975 and bassist Duck Dunn in 2012 — leaving Jones and Steve Cropper as the only surviving MGS.
Although a reunited version of the group (with Steve Potts sitting in for Al Jackson Jr.) toured and performed periodically starting in the ’90s until Dunn’s death, Jones says there’s no thoughts of any
future work under the MGS banner.
“To be honest, I’ve always resisted (a reunion),” he says. “It’d be great if the magic was just me and Steve. But the magic was the four of us, all the way back to Al Jackson, and even Steinberg. It wasn’t just us — it was that place. It was Memphis; it was Stax. It was that room; it was (Stax co-owner) Jim Stewart and Chips Moman. The magic is hard to recreate somewhere else, except in that moment in time.”
Still, Jones isn’t running away from the MGS’ legacy. He says the upcoming Halloran Centre show will be a survey of his entire life and career — the hits he’s made and the songs that helped define him. “It’s pretty much a list of music that influenced me and music that I still love,” he says. “I try and be honest with it. I still play ‘Green Onions,’ ‘Soul Limbo,’ ‘Time is Tight,’ all the MGS things. I try and give people an overview of the history of Stax and Satellite in the show. But I also play a lot of the songs that influenced me to become a musician. Blues songs, R&B songs, from Muddy Waters to Bo Diddley. There’s so much good stuff, and it’s all a part of who I am, so I’ll play it.”
stax and Memphis music legend Booker t. Jones will be playing the halloran Centre on saturday.