Booker T. Jones, on pi­o­neer­ing the Stax sound and ‘Green Onions’

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY ROGER CATLIN style@wash­ Booker T. Jones Sun­day at 7:30 p.m. at the Hamil­ton, 600 14th St. NW. Tick­ets: $35-$60. Doors open at 6:30. Eric Scott opens. 202-7871000. the­hamil­

Booker T. Jones was at the heart of the Stax Records soul sound out of Mem­phis even be­fore he came up with his in­stru­men­tal groove, “Green Onions,” in 1962. He then led the in­domitable M.G.’s on a se­ries of or­gan­led hits, backed such per­form­ers as Ray Charles and Neil Young, and pro­duced stand­out al­bums in­clud­ing Bill Withers’s de­but and Wil­lie Nel­son’s “Star­dust.”

In more re­cent years, Jones has won Gram­mys for al­bums recorded with the Roots and the Drive­By Truck­ers. Last month, he helmed the band back­ing the al­ls­tar MusiCares salute to Tom Petty be­fore the Gram­mys, where his old song­writ­ing part­ner Wil­liam Bell sang “Born Un­der a Bad Sign,” the clas­sic they wrote for Al­bert King.

Jones, 72, re­turns to Wash­ing­ton on Sun­day for a show with his quar­tet at the Hamil­ton, blocks from the White House, where he helped or­ga­nize tele­vised salutes to the blues and the Mem­phis sound. He spoke to us from snowy Lake Ta­hoe about his hits, his youth­ful op­por­tu­ni­ties and the sig­na­ture in­stru­ment that he can’t take on tour. Q: What is it about such songs as “Green Onions,” “Time s Tight” and “Hip Hug-Her” that makes them stand the test of time? The groove? The sim­plic­ity? A: You hit the nail on the head there: the sim­plic­ity. Well, the ap­par­ent sim­plic­ity, I’ ll put it like that, from the po­si­tion of the player. The ap­par­ent sim­plic­ity. “Green Onions” ap­pears to be a sim­ple song, but ev­ery time I play it I have to pay at­ten­tion. I have to re­mem­ber and school my­self on how the notes go, be­cause it’s just not as sim­ple as it sounds. Q: You recorded that song at 17; did you have any idea it would be a hit? A: I wasn’t think­ing about a hit. I was just hav­ing fun, play­ing chord changes I learned in my the­ory les­son. And that hap­pened by mis­take. We got to the stu­dio, and some­thing didn’t work with the band be­fore us and we were sup­posed to be the backup band. I’m not sure whether they fin­ished early or whether [la­bel founder and pro­ducer] Jim [Ste­wart] was un­happy with what they were do­ing, but we ended up with a free stu­dio on a Sun­day af­ter­noon. Q: And you had that melody in your head? A: Yes. I had been play­ing it on piano . . . . But I played the or­gan the pre­vi­ous ses­sion, so I was sit­ting at the or­gan and played it at the or­gan, and they liked it on the or­gan bet­ter than on piano. Q: Seven­teen is pretty young to be in a stu­dio at all, let alone on all those Stax records. A: It was, but I was for­tu­nate. I had been in the stu­dio two years at that point. Stax needed a bari­tone sax player, be­cause their bari­tone sax player, Floyd New­man, was a school­teacher. And he would be in school week­days, so they came and got me out of al­ge­bra class. I got my bari­tone sax and went down there, and I got the job and told them I could play piano. Q: It must be grat­i­fy­ing to have helped cre­ate the Stax sound that is so strong and in­flu­en­tial to­day. A: It was un­be­liev­ably good for­tune to be born there, even if noth­ing had hap­pened like it did. Be­cause it was such a rich field to grow in — to learn the chords, to play with the mu­si­cians, to get the op­por­tu­ni­ties to play, just the at­mos­phere there, the schools, the horns that were avail­able to me. When I was 9 years old, I had my hands on an oboe; I was play­ing oboe in the school orches­tra. It was such good for­tune. Q: Hav­ing a hit with “Green Onions” de­fined your role as an or­gan­ist, though it wasn’t your main in­stru­ment at the time, was it? A: It did. I had al­ways played ukulele, clar­inet and gui­tar — that was my main rock-and-roll in­stru­ment. That’s what I played at school and at home. I had a Sears Sil­ver­tone and I fan­cied my­self as a gui­tar player. I got the job at Stax on piano be­cause [Steve] Crop­per was the gui­tar player. Q: Once you had that hit, you stayed at the or­gan. A: Well, I was happy at the or­gan. The first time I saw a Ham­mond or­gan, I just got a feel­ing in­side about it and I was com­fort­able. I still am com­fort­able. Maybe I’m more com­fort­able at that than any other in­stru­ment. Q: What is it about the Ham­mond B-3 that no other in­stru­ment can do? A: Well, be­cause it’s a sus­tained sound as op­posed to a piano, and be­cause it has those Les­lie cab­i­nets and the horns turn, you can make it sing like a hu­man voice. You can make it sus­tain louder or softer. You can play more than one note at a time, or you can move the notes. I think an or­gan player can make it sing.

You know, they came up with this thing in 1934 out of au­to­mo­bile parts. Lau­rens Ham­mond de­signed it. He was a clock­maker and an in­ven­tor. He was just a spe­cial per­son. And some­times the first time they do some­thing is the best way. But none of the or­gans are prac­ti­cal. So when I play on the road, I have to play what the rental com­pa­nies have. Q: You can’t take one on the road? A: That all ended in 1992 when the air­lines changed their freight fares, and now I don’t carry mine any more. They started do­ing it by weight and it be­came pro­hib­i­tive . . . . It’s also a very dif­fi­cult in­stru­ment to main­tain. It’s not meant to be moved around. Q: Has any­one tried to make a dig­i­tal key­board that em­u­lates that sound? A: Yes, the process is go­ing on right now. I’ve been go­ing back and forth with Ham­mond for I don’t know how long in Chicago. They made an­other pro­to­type; they want me to okay it. And to be hon­est with you, I’m still not sure about it. I’ve played them, but I’m still not com­fort­able with them. I want to be, but I’m not.

“I think an or­gan player can make it sing.” Booker T. Jones, on the Ham­mond B-3 or­gan


Mul­ti­in­stru­men­tal­ist, pro­ducer and song­writer Booker T. Jones was at the heart of the Stax Records soul sound. He vis­its Wash­ing­ton on Sun­day to per­form a show with his quar­tet at the Hamil­ton. In re­cent years, Jones has won Gram­mys for al­bums recorded with the Roots and the Drive-By Truck­ers.

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