Booker T. re­flects on life in mu­sic

The Commercial Appeal - Go Memphis - - MUSIC - BOB MEHR

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.”

Photo By Piper Fer­gu­son

stax and Mem­phis mu­sic leg­end Booker t. Jones will be play­ing the hal­lo­ran Cen­tre on satur­day.

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