Last week brought the Americana Music Festival and Conference to Nashville and Jeni and I got to go to a couple of spectacular events at the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum. On Thursday in the Ford Theater, Robert Gordon interviewed the legendary Booker T Jones – musician, composer, producer from Memphis, Tennessee. Mr. Jones was honored this year with a Lifetime Achievement award for his contribution to American music.
Right out of the gate Mr. Gordon asked about race and how it had affected Mr. Jones and his music. He said, “the only white folks I knew from the neighborhood were the grocer and the insurance man.” When asked about his early days in music he spoke about the Satellite Record Shop near his neighborhood and that guitarist/songwriter Steve Cropper was the clerk. He said, “there was music making going on behind the curtain at the record store” and that he wanted to be a part of it. He said that when he was “too young to go in the clubs on Beale Street” in Memphis he would “loiter outside to hear the music.” He was listening to that “big organ sound of Bill Handy” (W.C. Handy).
When I was too young to go into the clubs in Baltimore I used to do the same thing. There was a blues club on W. 25th Street where Nils Lofgren used to play. He played his guitar through a Leslie tone cabinet and did acrobatics on a trampoline. It was amazing. And he had such a great tone and sound from the guitar coming out of that cabinet. I was transfixed.
Mr. Jones spoke about the first time he saw a Hammond B3 organ with the Leslie tone cabinet. His piano teacher had one in her house and he thought it was “just another piece of furniture.” I can attest to the fact that a Leslie 147 tone cabinet is like a piece of furniture. I used to play a guitar through one powered by a Fender Pro Reverb rather than the Leslie amp. It was so cool to hear the guitar through the Leslie on the slow speed with an MXR phase 90 pedal. I got the idea from Nils Lofgren. But after numerous gigs hauling “the furniture” around my band mates suggested just to play the guitar traditionally through the amp. But I enjoyed many solo concerts in my parents basement with my Fender Telecaster through the Leslie. What a sound!
One day an organ student was getting ready for a lesson at his piano teacher’s home. Booker T asked if he could hear the organ. He heard just three notes and knew at that moment that that’s what he wanted to play. His piano teacher suggested to stick with the piano because the lessons were more costly for the organ. He decided to “expand the perimeter” of his paper route to afford the organ lessons.
He eventually got behind the curtain at the Satellite Record Shop and one of his first sessions was playing saxophone for a Stax recording for Rufus Thomas. He was still in high school and his friend got him a hall pass, they borrowed the band director’s car and went to the session. After that he would do sessions for Stax after school. He said the early Stax artists were, “neighborhood people” like William Bell. Mr. Jones would later write “Born Under A Bad Sign” with Mr. Bell.
He said his family was “given to education.” His father had gone to college and his grandfather was a teacher. But before he left Memphis for Indiana University in Bloomington, he had formed a group with fellow session musicians at Stax. That band was Booker T and the MGs. They were given free recording time on Sundays and the group recorded two sides, “Behave Yourself” and “Green Onions” in 1962. Green Onions was the B-side and a DJ named Rubin Washington played that side more than the A-side. It became a hit for the band that same year. He enrolled at Indiana University after “Green Onions” was a hit. He said he bought a Ford Galaxy convertible with his first royalty check. My own grandfather used to tell me that “food and shelter are priorities” and Booker T said that the key places in the studio were “the heater and the coffee machine.”
The interview also included a Q & A and I got to ask Mr. Jones about his work with reading and non-reading musicians. He said there were no charts in the early days and that he didn’t really use any written charts until his sessions with Bobby Darin out in California. He did say that he usually brought or formed a “head chart” for his studio work. When asked about where his sound and music come from he said, “It’s a mystery.” He said that he hears music in his mind’s ear and that he has been fortunate to “remember enough of it to make a living.”
While at music school he listened to works by Jean Sibelius and was moved by his “emotion on paper” which became Mr. Jones’ “hash mark.” He also spoke about the jazz musicians in Memphis and how “because of those guys I developed a great respect for proficiency and reading skills.”
Booker T said, when speaking about the 1960s, that Memphis was a “seed of dissension” and that “transformation has to happen for healing.” His music and his eloquent way of speaking left me transformed as I left the Hall last week. Thank you Mr. Jones for your music and your generosity. Here is a link to his website http://www.bookert.com/ and a link to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum http://countrymusichalloffame.org/calendar/view/1975?month=09&day=13&year=2012