Booker T. Jones Takes Us to Soulsville

Legend Booker T wrote a book.EXPAND
Legend Booker T wrote a book.
Piper Ferguson
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I've kept Booker T. Jones, the man who wrote "Time is Tight," the song and now, the memoir, waiting 10 minutes while fumbling with a confounded phone.

If time is indeed a precious commodity, then the 75-year-old is as generous with his time as you'd hope he'd be. His new book is getting rave reviews, and you have two chances to see him read from it and perform classics like "Green Onions" and "Born Under a Bad Sign" (written for Albert King). All parts of his career touch on something historically significant. Since space, even the cybernetic kind, is also tight, here are the highlights of the Phoenix New Times' conversation with the rhythm and blues legend.

New Times: Your book is a can't-put-it-down read, but people who love your music are gonna want to pony up for the audiobook for what may be a first — you wrote exclusive music for it.

Booker T. Jones: It's new music for the book for each chapter. Kind of an overview of the sentiment of each chapter is how I did that. That was my editor's idea, so that the book could have some unique music only unto itself.

Since you managed to get a gig at Stax Records at such an early age, did you realize then what a unique setup that record label was when you there?

The first time I laid eyes on the place, it wasn't a record company at all. It was just a little record store in the foyer of a movie theater. And they were trying to build a recording studio behind this little foyer with gunny sacks on the wall and amplifiers. As a 10-year-old paperboy, I was hearing all this commotion back there and hearing the music, so I kinda grew up with it.

I was stopping there after school to deliver my papers and listening to the music in the record store. And while Stax grew, it never grew into the traditional record company as you would find in New York or Nashville or L.A. It was always a one-room operation where the seats were in the theater, and the stage was the control room. And the projection room upstairs was the office. (laughs)

Your entry at Stax wasn't with the organ because you were doing the paper route to finance organ lessons.

My first instrument was the clarinet and a little ukulele and drums. As I discovered more instruments through the band room at school, I started taking organ lessons. And I couldn't get through the door, or the curtain that led to the recording studio. It was just a secret wish of mine. I was finally able to go through when my friend David Porter, who was a songwriter when he was in high school, knew that I played baritone sax. He overheard them say, "I wish we could have some baritone sax on a song." And he ran over to the school, got me with my baritone sax, and that was my entry into Satellite Records. It wasn't Stax yet.

It's fascinating that since Stax didn't have a boardroom or a lounge to hang out before or during a session, the Lorraine Motel (where Martin Luther King was killed) was like a second home.

The Lorraine allowed us to use their dining room as a conference room for our meetings during the day. Mainly, the two who were always going over there were Steve Cropper and Eddie Floyd. They actually had to rent a room there all the time so they could have the privacy to write their songs. They wrote "Knock on Wood" there. The Lorraine didn't have a nook or place you could go hang out. It was just the rooms and the pool and the restaurant.

You're there at so many pivotal Soulsville moments, the most memorable being the first time Otis Redding showed up at Stax and sang "These Arms of Mine" at the end of a Johnny Jenkins session.

I was outside when they pulled up. Otis was the gofer and driver for Johnny Jenkins and the Pinetoppers, the one taking the suitcases onto the sidewalk and into the studio for the band. The other guys just got out and walked in. He did all the errands: going for coffee and bringing lunch. I don't know when he found his opening to say, "Can I sing?" I was sitting at the organ when he started singing "These Arms of Mine" right there in B flat, and it was beautiful. I had to go. I was a regular at the Flamingo down on Beale Street. I was a bass player there. They stayed a few extra hours. He ended up recording.

The Beatles worshipped Booker T and The MGs. Is it true that they attempted to record at Stax in 1966 for what became the Revolver album?

That was a rumor that I was not privy to. I was driving every weekend, back and forth 400 miles going to Bloomington, Indiana, to get my music degree. So I missed a lot of stuff between 1962 and 1966.

So you didn't do much touring with The MGs in the early days?

We toured after I graduated from college. I was determined to get that degree, but we did a few weekend gigs in the summertime. It was really hard because Stax wanted us to be recording in the studio. We took on the duties of the house band. It was our responsibility to play for everybody. The Bar-Kays took a lot of our touring responsibilities. We had people learning under us, like Isaac Hayes, who started playing keyboards when I wasn't there.

But The MGs did play the Monterey Pop Festival, as a band and backing Otis Redding in 1967. I saw the film recently, and you guys were so tight and the only band who stayed in tune. A lot of the San Francisco and British bands may have timed their acid to hit when they went onstage. Let's just say tuning was advisory at that point.

Really? (laughs). I appreciate that. We put a lot of effort into it. It was a big deal for us..

1968 was a turbulent year for everybody, but Stax was hit doubly hard when Atlantic Records took possession of all Stax's masters up to that point and ceasing distribution. 

The idea of having a record being distributed by a big company like Atlantic was amazing. I was in the 11th grade when Jim and Chips Moman made a deal with Atlantic to distribute Carla and Rufus Thomas' "Cause I Love You." That was the first time getting our song on the radio. Jim might've got hoodwinked by a New York lawyer with language in a contract he didn't understand in terms of ownership. My interest was so focused on what is a D-flat minor and how a French horn play an F, what key was E-flat saxophone transposed. That's where my head was at. But we learned about the record business fast.

That move pretty much killed Sam and Dave. They couldn't work with The MGs, and Isaac Hayes and Dave Porter wrote all their hits. You would have thought Atlantic, even from a business standpoint, would've kept that revenue stream going.

Atlantic were gonna sell a lot more records with Cream or some of those British rock groups than even the R&B acts they owned like Ray Charles and Aretha. So why should they hang onto a little company like us when they could have their own? They created some huge stars. We were just an ancillary operation to them.

You write that the MLK assassination created a lot of racial tension to what, on the outside, seemed a racially integrated company. How did that tension manifest itself?

A good bit of the Stax contingent that was really important came from outside of Memphis. Otis came from Georgia, Sam and Dave came from Miami, Eddie Floyd and Wilson Pickett came from Detroit, and they didn't have the understanding of what the struggles were in Memphis. Garbage workers were losing their lives because the trucks were dangerous and were unable to pay their bills without raises. The city would've been in trouble without the garbage workers, and Dr. King was the only one with enough clout to organize people. So little tiny divisions in the company arose because of that. Some people resented it, some people wanted to let them strike, but the city was heavy-handed about it. It got crazy. The company became divided, although we didn't discuss the division.

Who came up with the titles for all those great instrumentals?

Ninety percent of the titles were suggested by Al Jackson and a few by Lewie Steinberg. Lewie actually suggested "Funky Onions," but Jim Stewart's sister Estelle vetoed that. "This is a conservative record company. We're not putting out a song called "Funky Onions." So it became "Green Onions."

Booker T. Jones is scheduled to perform on Wednesday, January 8, and Thursday, January 9, at MIM Music Theater. Tickets are $48.50 to $53.50 via the venue's website.

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