Booker T Jones - cooking potatoes and Green Onions


Booker T Jones may be best known for his groovy Hammond organ playing with the MGs on 1960s such as Green Onions and the BBC’s cricket theme, Soul Limbo. But this man is a serious multi-instrumentalist. Last year, Jones released his first album in twenty years, Potato Hole, on which he wrote all seven of the original songs on guitar.


Dig a little deeper, though, and you’ll find Jones adding trombone to Joe Tex’s Skinny Legs, baritone saxophone behind Rufus & Carla Thomas on Cause I Love You and tuba to Sam & Dave’s Soul Man.


The common thread linking all of the above, except Potato Hole, is the legendary Stax Records, with which Jones became involved as a schoolboy, driven to the Thomases’ session in a borrowed car by David Porter (who went on to a songwriting partnership with Isaac Hayes) to play an instrument borrowed from the school music department.


Jones had begun his musical explorations on the family piano, aged two, reaching up to pick out melodies with two fingers. His mother was a classical pianist and he had every intention of following her example, studying Bach and Handel and predating his Hammond experiences with formal organ lessons augmented by illicit practice in his local church, where he’d sneak in using his father’s key.


At home and walking around Memphis he’d listen to blues coming off the local radio stations and out of the bars and he loved jazz, rock ‘n’ roll and country music from an early age, taking up the ukulele before he was big enough to play guitar to try and emulate Hank Williams. He was just fourteen when he began sneaking into clubs like the Flamingo Rooms, where he played bass with Al Green’s producer-to-be, Willie Mitchell’s band alongside drummer Al Jackson, who was shortly to join, at Jones’ invitation, the Stax house band and become the MGs’ heartbeat.


Housed in an old cinema, with a record shop in the foyer and a studio in the theatre behind a curtain, Stax was the neighbourhood music centre – the church Jones sneaked into to practise was just round the corner – that became an internationally renowned brand through recording talents such as Otis Redding, Percy Sledge and Memphis’s Queen of Soul, Carla Thomas.


Jones used to hang about the front section, pretending to look at the records on sale but he was really listening to what was happening behind the curtain.


Eventually his facility on various instruments – by now he’d taught himself guitar, clarinet and oboe as well as playing others in school and extracurricular bands – got him invited onto the Thomases’ session and he soon became indispensable, somehow keeping up with his school work while playing sessions at nights and on weekends.


One Sunday, while waiting for a singer who didn’t show up, Jones and the house band - guitarist Steve Cropper, bassist Lewis Steinberg and Al Jackson – started fooling around with a blues. Stax co-founder Jim Stewart liked it and turned the tape on. Named on the spot Behave Yourself, a title that became prophetic when Stewart’s sister and business partner, Estelle Axton, heard Stewart’s plans for its release, it was coupled with a B side, an idea that Jones and Cropper had been working on and had hastily finished. When disc jockeys started playing the B side instead of Behave Yourself, Booker T and the MGs suddenly had a hit: Green Onions.


Equally suddenly, Booker T and the MGs became a touring band, which for a multi-racial group in the early 1960s might have produced problems.


“We didn’t encounter too much trouble,” says Jones. “We’d eat and sleep in separate places – Al and myself in the black hotels and restaurants; Steve and Duck [Dunn, who’d replaced Steinberg] in the white ones. But there were no pictures of us at first and black people assumed we were black, white people assumed we were white and when we played in a town we’d either play in a black club or a white one. The worst thing that could have happened was, we could have been thrown in jail but we managed to avoid that.”


A more eye-opening tour was the Stax Revue’s UK visit in 1967. By this time, Otis Redding had taken the label onto a different level of success and – although nobody could have known at the time - was coming towards the peak of his tragically cut-short career.


“None of us knew that our music had been accepted outside our territory, let alone across the ocean,” says Jones. “So to see people who’d obviously been listening to us on the radio and bought our records, sitting in the front row, singing all the words to every song was such a compliment.”


Within months, just days after recording his best-known hit, Dock of the Bay, Redding died in a plane crash. Stax went into a rapid decline. Jones, who’d earned a Bachelor of Music degree from Indiana University while maintaining a busy diary, moved to California, where his musicianship and nous immediately earned him work. He produced and played on records by Willie Nelson and Bill Withers, among a host of others, and reconcened the MGs (without Jackson, who had been shot dead by an intruder in his home in 1975) to act as house band for the Bob Dylan Tribute Concert at Madison Square Garden in 1991 and accompany Neil Young on tour two years later.


Young was one of the first musicians Jones enlisted, alongside southern rock band Drive-By Truckers, to play on Potato Hole, which features covers of songs by hip hoppers Outkast and Tom Waits alongside Jones’s own work.


The album - its title refers to a slave term for the secret place where they’d stow food - marks a return after a hiatus during which Jones “went back to school”, studying digital recording and production at San Francisco University to keep up with technology’s advances.


Music’s power to excite and make him proud remains just the same as in analogue times, however.


“I remember the first time I heard Green Onions on a Memphis radio station,” he says. “I got such a buzz and it was the same a few years later when I heard Cream playing Born Under a Bad Sign, a song I co-wrote with William Bell, and I got the same feeling all over again when I heard a track from Potato Hole as I was driving over the Golden Gate Bridge. That’s one of the pleasures of being a musician and I hope it never stops.”


From The Herald, July 29, 2009.


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