Booker T. Jones

Booker T. Jones

If one were to erect a Mt. Rushmore of Memphis music, a great debate would inevitably ensue about whose faces would occupy the line up. Sure, names like Elvis, B.B., and Rev. Green would enter the discussion, but what if it were limited to homegrown talent alone… Those who we’re “representing Memphis” rather than being drawn to its musical light like a moth? In that case, the face of Booker T. Jones would be carved the same way he carved and helped create Memphis soul.

Booker T. Jones is a brilliant musical multi-hyphenate who was molded by his city’s culture as a child before leaving his own indelible imprint as a world renown producer, songwriter, arranger, instrumentalist, and bandleader. “I was born in Memphis, so I was in the garden, and I was around all these figures and influences and musicians, the great traditions of blues and jazz and country,” Jones once said. “That was ingrained in me and my parents and everything else. I was breathing that. It makes a big difference.”

Born in 1944, Booker Taliaferro Jones, Jr. grew up in a modest home on Ethel Avenue in a South Memphis neighborhood now known as Soulsville. The Capitol Movie Theater, which would latern become Stax Records, was located just blocks away, and the area was teeming with an almost mythical amount of musical talent. By the time he enrolled at Booker T. Washington High School, Jones was already proficient on saxophone, trombone, oboe, double bass, and keyboards – a testament to both his innate talents and the support of his parents.

This might make your own alma-mater seem dull… but in high school, Jones befriended a group that included future songwriter David Porter, saxophonist Andrew Love, soul singer-songwriter William Bell, and Earth, Wind & Fire’s Maurice White, all inductees in the Memphis Music Hall of Fame. Despite this unbelievable wealth of talent, Jones was widely seen as the most gifted of the group and was appointed director of the school band for four years, where he organized the school dance orchestra which played for proms throughout the city.

Although Jones had previously performed publicly in church and with R&B combos at local nightclubs, his first foray into professional music came at the age of 16. In 1960, he was recruited to play baritone saxophone on the Stax precursor Satellite Records’ first hit “Cause I Love You” by Carla and Rufus Thomas. “I was in 11th grade, and my friend David Porter knew that Rufus Thomas and his daughter Carla were recording one day. And I guess they had requested a baritone sax part on a song, and David thought of me,” he told NPR. The first seed of a forthcoming artistic revolution was now planted.

Before they became architects of the venerated “Memphis sound” and icons of a rapidly integrating society, the MGs were a haphazardly assembled group of young studio musicians just looking for a path into the industry. In 1962, Jones was paired with guitarist Steve Cropper, drummer Al Jackson, Jr., and bassist Lewie Steinberg to back the former Sun Records star Billy Lee Riley. When Riley failed to appear, the quartet began improvising off of an organ riff that Jones had been working on and accidentally struck gold.

Jim Stewart, the co-owner of Stax and the engineer for the session, liked what he heard and decided to record the impromptu jam session. The song, later titled “Behave Yourself”, marked the true birth of the group, but the real magic was yet to come. “Jim told us that we needed something to record for a B-side because we couldn’t have a one-sided record. And one of the tunes that I’d been playing on piano we tried on Hammond organ so that, you know, the record would have organ on both sides, and that turned out to be ‘Green Onions,’” Jones would later explain.

In a wise decision, “Green Onions” was eventually chosen as the A-side of the record and within weeks the single had risen to number 1 on the US Billboard R&B chart and number 3 on the pop chart, selling over one million copies. While the immense success of “Green Onions” was certainly welcomed, the song’s impact on popular culture extends far beyond chart placements or sales reports, ultimately becoming one of the most iconic instrumental tunes in history and the group’s biggest hit. The song also represented a shot across the bow announcing to the world that something very special was cooking in Memphis.

With the formation of Booker T. and the MGs (widely considered to stand for “Memphis Group”), Stax Records not only had a group of bona fide hit makers, but also a de facto studio band that could support their stable of burgeoning stars. Throughout the early 1960s, the group played a vital role in defining Stax’s signature sound with their tight, infectious grooves that helped to bring career-defining hits to artists such as Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Albert King, and countless others. Jones once said, “I was thinking about music, always. Rhythms. Symphonies.”

The group’s unique diversity, both in terms of race and musical background, allowed them to tap into a wide array of influences and effortlessly shift their approach based on the particular talent they were working with. Jones, reflecting on the group’s sound, “I would say it’s a simple, earthy sound, you know, just born out of our blues and country and jazz roots and also gospel. It was a sound that we consciously tried to keep simple and with a lot of feeling.” Jones, who has remained a dedicated musical philomath throughout his life, began splitting his time between studying music composition and theory at Indiana University and playing with the MGs in Memphis during the weekends and holidays. The furthering of his formal education allowed Jones to access a new and diverse palette of influences, which would help to bolster the group’s already impressive dynamism.

By the late 1960s, Booker T. and the MGs were already an internationally renowned group, but their profile was greatly bolstered by iconic live performances such as their European tour with the Stax/Volt Revue and accompanying Otis Redding for his legendary set at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. Jones had also made a name for himself as a gifted songwriter, penning soul music classics such as Otis Redding’s “I Love You More Than Words Can Say”, and, with William Bell, bluesman Albert King’s signature track “Born Under a Bad Sign” among others. Yet despite the group’s critical and commercial success, which included the hit singles “Hip Hug-Her”, “Soul Limbo”, and “Time is Tight,” Jones eventually made the decision to relocate to California in 1970. Although the MGs would release another album following Jones’ departure from Memphis, 1971’s influential Melting Pot, it was clear that the end of an era had arrived . “We had recorded ‘Time Is Tight,’ and it was time. It was time. Time to meet my bigger self,” Jones would recall decades later.

Now living in Los Angeles, Jones continued his work as a highly sought after session musician, lending his talents to works by Bob Dylan, Steven Stills, Rita Coolidge, and Kris Kristofferson. As an arranger and producer with A&M Records, he supervised the recordings of Bill Withers’ classic debut Just As I Am, which featured the hits “Ain’t No Sunshine” and “Grandma’s Hands.”

In 1975, Jones and the MGs began working on a reunion album when drummer Al Jackson, Jr. was tragically murdered. Although the group continued to record with drummer Willie Hall and were involved in recording an album with Levon Helm, they ultimately parted ways again in 1977. In 1978, Jones released his first solo album, Try and Love Again, and enjoyed arguably his biggest successes as a producer with Willie Nelson’s “Stardust,” which helped to establish Nelson as one of country music’s hottest acts. “That was one of the reasons why I think I made the right decision (leaving Memphis), because I was able to work in some different genres that I wouldn’t have been able to do at Stax Records,” he later told NPR.

In the 1980s, Jones continued to work regularly with Nelson, while also releasing more solo releases and lending his keyboard playing to artists ranging from Ray Charles to Neil Young. In 1985, Jones married Nanine Warhurst. The couple have three children together, and an additional five stepchildren from their prior relationships. In 1992, Booker T. & the MG’s were inducted by Jim Stewart into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, where they delivered a rousing performance that featured U2 guitarist The Edge, Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, and Neil Young. “From the one-heartbeat groove they unleashed in the opener, ‘Green Onions,’ it was obvious that whatever bond united Jones, Cropper and Dunn in the Sixties still coursed through their veins,” Rolling Stone’ s Steve Futterman observed.
That same year, the MGs reunited to serve as the house band for an all-star tribute to Bob Dylan’s 30th year as a recording artist and then joined Neil Young on the road as his backing band. These high-profile engagements sparked a renewed interest in the band, convincing them to cut a new album, 1994’s That’s the Way It Should Be. With Steve Jordan and James Gadson on drums, the group proved that the two decades that had passed since their last album had in no way dulled their signature precision and funkiness. As a cherry on top, the single “Cruisin'” won the Grammy Award for Best Pop Instrumental Performance, the group’s first Grammy win.

At the turn of the new millennium, Jones continued to work tirelessly as a session musician and producer, while also touring with his own small combo called the Booker T. Jones Band. Things began to ramp up in 2008 with the release of his album Potato Hole, his first solo album in two decades and one of the most ambitious projects of his storied career. Backed by the Drive-By Truckers with assistance from Neil Young, the album finds Jones covering everyone from Outkast to Tom Waits with a uniform gusto.

Jones rode this momentum into the 2010s, which to many’s surprise became one of the most fruitful and creative periods of his career. His 2011 album The Road from Memphis and its follow-up Sound the Alarm both showcase his talent and affinity for collaboration, featuring guest appearances from the Roots, Gary Clark, Jr., Lou Reed, and more.

Following a brief hiatus, Jones returned to the spotlight in 2019 with a new album called Note by Note and his memoir, Time Is Tight: My Life, Note by Note. It tells far more, and more properly records a life which touches many genres and many artists, far better than we can in three pages. Far from your standard memoir, Jones did not utilize the assistance of a ghost writer and lays out his story in a non-chronological manner. The result is a fascinating look into one of America’s greatest living artists, one who has often been reluctant to place himself in the limelight, but who has a wealth of musical knowledge unmatched by nearly anyone. Although his novel is complete, the story of Booker T. Jones’ enrapturing life is still being written in real time.

Credit: Piper Ferguson

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