Now, Booker T. reaches for new creative heights on Sound the Alarm, a
musical time machine trip through what real soul music should sound
like. Booker co-produced the album with Bobby and Iz Avila of the Avila
Brothers, and collaborations include Mayer Hawthorne, Estelle, Anthony
Hamilton, Sheila E. and Poncho Sanchez, Gary Clark Jr., and Bill
Withers’ daughter Kori. Just before he played two shows at San
Francisco’s Yoshi’s music club—where he not only delivered his
crowd-pleasing B-3 hits but also played guitar and sang in a baritone
that held the audience rapt—I had the privilege of catching up with
Booker about the new record, where he’s been, and where he’s going.
We spoke in 2009 as Potato Hole was being
released. Since, you’ve won two more Grammys and gained a whole a new
generation of listeners. Back in 2009, did you imagine your resurgence
being this huge?
No, I didn’t care about commercial success. I just wanted
to play. But I’ve been fortunate because after the shows—when very often
I meet people—every other person will say, “This is my son” or “This is
my daughter.” They’re bringing their kids, both overseas and here. Some
of them are actually very young; some are teenagers, 20-year-olds, so
that’s great. It’s kept me going that they’re playing my records for
their kids, who are asking me questions about them.
Sound the Alarm is on the Stax label, which you were a big part of in its early days in Memphis. What can you tell us about its rebirth?
That was Norman Lear and John Burk at Concord rejuvenating
the whole thing. They were looking to bring me in the whole while, and I
didn’t know that, but now they have. When I walked into the office it
was like, “Where’ve you been?” They really made an effort to make me
feel good. Not that [previous label] Anti- wasn’t good for me, but this
How did music-directing the PBS White House special come about?
The producers had seen a show I did and they wanted me to
do my thing there. It turned out to be a formidable task. I’d played at
the White House before, for President Clinton, but the security now is
unbelievable. Ken Ehrlich’s production company brought all their people
and gear from the West Coast, so it was pretty huge. Big cables running
into the east room, plus the musical equipment, but it ended up being
fun. President Obama and his wife enjoyed the music and all the
congresspeople and senators that came just relaxed and had a good time.
You played President Obama into the room with “Green Onions.” Who’s idea was that?
It was his idea. We’d played a fundraiser in San Francisco
a few years back. The President walked into the room, I played “Green
Onions,” and he said, “I want to make that the new ‘Hail to the Chief.’”
To you, what is the Memphis soul sound as contrasted with, say, the Motown sound or New Orleans sound?
Well, the Memphis sound is something that was too big and
broad to capture in that one-hour show. You had Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis,
Al Green . . . just too much. The show wound up focusing on Stax—I guess
because of me—but it could easily have been four hours long. So much
Memphis music got ignored by the mainstream, whereas the Motown sound
was so identifiably Motown—the Temptations, the Four Tops, Diana Ross
and the Supremes, and you still have kind of basically the same sound.
You don’t have the difference between Elvis Presley and Ann Peebles.
Then there was all the Gospel stuff that started in Memphis that got
overlooked, Joe Dukes, all those people.
Who came out of Memphis that you think should be a lot more recognized than they are?
For that show I called Bobby Manuel to play rhythm guitar.
He’s an example of undiscovered Memphis talent. Steve Potts, Bobby
Manuel, James Alexander—that was the rhythm section. That’s why the
music sounded so authentic.
Johnny Ace is one of my influences. Ann Peebles. Willie
Mitchell. I wouldn’t be here if Willie didn’t play. He was my very first
mentor. That’s how I got to meet [founding MGs drummer] Al Jackson Jr. I
was playing bass and Al was behind me and Willie was there. Plus, he
paid me some money! [Laughs.] Willie is in the Memphis Music Hall
of Fame, but he should be in a national hall of fame. He’s done so much
for music just by mentoring young musicians. He’s like Quincy Jones,
who will spend his own money to bring a young musician up. He did that
How did meeting Quincy Jones come about?
He’d heard “Green Onions” and invited me to New York and
took me downtown to these clubs. That was the first time I’d heard music
played like that—the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Band, in 1962 or ’63. When I
went to California and was trying to write music for the film Uptight,
he showed me how to coordinate beats per minute with frames per second.
At that time we had to because everything was on 35-millimeter film and
to edit a soundtrack to the picture, you calculated your tempo by the
number of frames per second. Quincy sent me those charts. He was just a
generous guy. I was so glad when he was inducted into the Rock and Roll
Hall of Fame. Sometimes people just have to give to young people that
don’t have. Willie Mitchell was like that. I wouldn’t be here had it not
been for him.
On that topic, is there any new musician on your radar?
The guitarist, Gary Clark Jr. We were doing a demo for
iTunes at Apple in Cupertino. I hear this music coming from downstairs.
It’s Gary and a drummer, and I go down there and give him my phone
number and I tell him, “If you need anything, call me.” He’s so humble.
He was already a star and I had no idea. But I found out that he was
from Austin and that he’d played with all the guys down at Clifford
Antone’s blues club. [Clark plays on the track “Austin Blues” on Sound the Alarm. —Ed.]
You performed with legends like Mavis Staples at the
White House event, and also with Justin Timberlake. What impression did
he make on you?
Justin is a true Memphis musician. He had the vibe, and
the communication was easy, with no need for many words. He’s a true
professional. You know, he comes from a part of Memphis that I wouldn’t
have known about in the early days, and he wouldn’t have known about
mine. Memphis was segregated. It was a minor miracle that Steve Cropper
and “Duck” Dunn and myself and all of us came together at Stax on
McLemore Avenue. That geographical juncture happened because Whites were
moving out and Blacks were moving in. Don Nix was another guy who tried
to mix it up with the Blacks and the Whites, kind of like Cropper.
A reader wrote on our Facebook page that you play with
great economy—few notes but tons of expression—and wanted to know about
It comes from what I did right and what I did wrong for my
childhood music teacher, Mrs. Elmertha Cole. Her paradigm for music
started with Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. You talk about
minimalism—Bach is the essence of musical sentences that use as few
“letters” as possible. Not only is this coming from an entertaining
standpoint, but also a spiritual standpoint. That has stuck with me from
ten or 11 years old: Don’t play any note unless it has some type of
significance. There was my mother, too. She was a very soulful and
emotive piano player. She played Gospel music and Chopin—everything
classical but also church music. But Mrs. Cole is the one that taught me
organ, so I owe her all that. Mrs. Cole was and still is my indicator of what’s right and what’s wrong in music.
Mrs. Cole’s house was also where you first heard the Hammond, correct?
Yes, and again, the first notes I heard her play on organ
were Bach. An interesting thing about the Hammond is the dissent between
Laurens Hammond and Don Leslie—because the organ and the speaker were a
marriage made in heaven. The long, sustained note on the organ doesn’t
mean anything until the Leslie kicks in and starts to move the air.
Some songs on Sound the Alarm are very
contemporary. Others sound so vintage they could be from the Stax
archives. Was this conscious or did it just come out of the different
It was the collaborations—Iz Avila and his Akai MPC, for
one thing. You know, he’s a Stax disciple. I think the record sounds
like the natural evolution of Stax—like where Stax should’ve gone had
not it had the hiccup of bankruptcy and all that. It’s picking up where
it left off.
On the title track to Sound the Alarm, how did working with Mayer Hawthorne come about?
I was introduced to Mayer by Daryl Hall up at his house.
It was an eye-opening day for me to find a young, blue-eyed soul guy
that could hang with Daryl Hall. I was just shocked. We rehearsed those
songs maybe one time.
What was the sample at the beginning of someone saying that you “need no introduction”?
That’s Albert King. That was from a show in Los Angeles
that we did just before the Watts riots. Iz Avila threw that in there
with his MPC.
“Fun” is perhaps the most vintage-sounding track. What was its inspiration?
“Fun” was one of the Avila Brothers’ ideas. It’s different
from anything on the album. It’s very much a ’60s song. It’s like a
Four Tops type of thing.
Then you have a big contrast, “Can’t Wait” featuring
Estelle, which is almost an electronica track. Did you play any synths
I did some of the background, but that sound—I don’t know
if you can tell, but it’s actually a Hammond. It’s like what I did on
“Melting Pot,” where the reverb appears.
What’s the technique?
I get the reverb going and then I back off on the
expression pedal. I play, bring the volume back, and then you hear the
reverb sound—the tail—without the sound at the start. So that makes the
chords a little “behind.” For that song, if I play the chords on time it
doesn’t sound on time.
Another unusual Hammond tone is on the Kori Withers duet “Watch You Sleeping.” The motif is sort of Japanese. . . .
It’s all fourths. One little drawbar—the eight-foot—and real soft. But I’m going like this. [Plays fourths with both hands in contrary motion.] To me it sounded gentle, like the subconscious, like sleeping. That was how the lyrics came.
How did you and your son Ted get together on “Father Son Blues”?
We had an apartment in West Hollywood, and one day, Ted
was practicing guitar. He loves Joe Bonamassa and would watch him on TV,
and one day I thought, from the bedroom, that I was hearing Joe on the
TV, but it was actually Ted! That’s when I decided to put this tune
together for him, as he’s a great player and he approaches guitar like
training for a sport. Basically it’s just me trying to teach my son what
it was like in 1950 to play the blues in a club. The basic riff in that
song was what we played on Beale Street all night long!
It’s also the tune where you stretch out the most on the organ.
I know—even though it’s in the key of B. How weird is that? How do you play blues in B? The blues scale doesn’t fall under the fingers well in B.
Why B, then?
It sounds great. It rings. That’s why I used Db for Albert King for “Born Under a Bad Sign” as opposed to F or even C. Db is like Gb,
those certain keys. They’re hard to play in but you get that sound.
Different instruments ring better in certain keys. There’s something
about the way the world is made, the way the keys go through the air.
Some are more effective than others.
What’s in your home studio these days?
I still have my Hammond B-3, of course. Ableton, Pro
Tools, and Sibelius in the computer, and I’m using a Novation [SL Mk.
II] controller. We just moved, and I haven’t really got it set up yet.
Do you tour with a B-3 or portable, or is it on your rider for backline?
I have a New B-3 Portable and Leslie 3300 speaker—I love
the 3300, by the way—but these days I’m playing so many places that I
have to rent at every place. We might jump from Vancouver to Paris. I’ve
stayed on the player’s side of the organ so much that I’ve only just
gotten around to studying how it works, but vintage B-3s need to be
fixed more and more now, even the good ones. So I’ve been opening up Beauty and the B by Mark Vail and studying how the instrument works.
Are there any songs where you prefer playing piano rather than organ?
I wanted to play Leon Russell’s “A Song For You” the other
day for my wife Nan. Leon has these thirds and sixths at the beginning,
and on the organ, you don’t have the ring that you have on the piano.
The intro to “A Song For You” on the organ is just not as effective. You
can do it and walk down and you get to that final minor chord in the
intro, and then you start to sing. The emotional effect is lost on the
Hammond if you do that. But then you can do things on the organ that you
can’t do on the piano.
Did you also encounter Leon Russell early in your career?
When I had just gone from Memphis to California, emotional
because I’d left my home, he was the first person I met. He was
generous, just like Quincy Jones: “Come to my house, use the studio, use
the piano.” He’s completely open and he’s writing all these song and
he’s the session player of the century. He was playing on everything—and
he just let musicians stay at his house. He was working on “A Song For
You” when I was around, so the song still means so much to me. I’ll
probably do it tomorrow night at the gig. Leon is just a national
The Hammond was once sold as a pipe organ alternative
for smaller churches. Did you develop any organ technique playing in
church as a young man?
I did play in church. There was nobody else to play for
them. I had to be there, in a suit and tie. The church was just a couple
blocks from the club, too. I’d leave the club at 4 A.M.
and get to Bible class at 9. My church, though, was an African-American
Methodist church where the service was more formal compared to things
like the Sanctified Church. We played classical religious music in the
What type of project would you like to do next?
Well, if you walk into my studio, you’ll see the score for
Beethoven’s Ninth right under the computer, and that’s what’s on my
iPod. I’m not saying it will necessarily be the next project because
there are so many other things and new musicians that I love. At the
core, though, is the instrument of all instruments: the orchestra. In my
dreams there are pieces I haven’t captured yet—and that’s what I
originally trained to do. It was hard because you had to have score
paper all over the place and your hand would get tired from writing
parts in different key signatures. Now that they’ve refined Sibelius,
anything is possible. I recently played with the Memphis Symphony, and
I’d written out a whole arrangement of my tune “Time Is Tight” for them,
and I just caught the bug.
Do you see yourself composing for orchestra? Conducting?
I still have to learn what the masters were teaching. Once
I study Beethoven and Brahms more, then I’ll have a basis to write my
own music. I think I might be able to conduct my own music. You have to
know a composition very, very well to conduct it. So, possibly.
Because I come from Memphis, I think I’d have something unique to offer.
This wouldn’t be commercial at all. But it’d be the crowning point of
my life to be able to put some of my ideas down for orchestra. The
orchestra would be my Lamborghini.
You’ve said that commercial success hasn’t been a priority. But is it fair to say that it has found you—again—and is finally letting you do things your way?
I think that these days I’m one of the privileged few to
have a recording contract, to have the opportunities I have. I’m a
privileged guy to be able to play shows for people all over the world.
I’m getting opportunities that not many people get. There are people who
have my abilities who don’t have those opportunities. I meet them—great
musicians not making enough money. Music is suffering. So I feel very
What would you say to a talented musician who’s starting out and values artistic integrity in the way you do?
My wife Nan and I just moved to Tahoe, and I wanted to get
a library card. I walked into the local library, and André Previn’s
book [No Minor Chords: My Days in Hollywood] was right there. He
was always an inspiration for me—I first learned about him in the ’60s,
so I checked out the book. His observations about being commercial
versus following your own craft, and why he left Hollywood, are just
searing. He and I have some things in common. He came from somewhere
else—Germany in his case—and for a while Hollywood was the only place
for him. He worked his tail off there for very little reward, and
finally followed his own heart when he started to conduct and write for
orchestra. He also loved jazz. To be himself and make money was a
big challenge. He got a booking agent to book him around the world with
all these orchestras, ended up losing money on a lot of gigs, and his
hotel room was tiny. That’s the same thing we went through. He had to
pay his own way, but he was doing what he loved.
Booker’s Tips for Organists
Listen to Great Players. I got my inspiration from
hearing Quincy Jones’ arrangement of “One Mint Julep” and Ray Charles
playing on it. That’s when I heard “the sound.” Ray didn’t care directly
about the Hammond, but he defined a sound. Then I heard Bill Doggett.
That was the funkiness. Then I heard Jimmy Smith and that was the “Oh my
God.” Jack McDuff was the attitude—just bad. If I hadn’t heard those people I wouldn’t be here. Next up, I want to go to New York and hear Akiko Tsuruga.
Curl Your Fingers. If you catch a basketball
with your fingers splayed flat out, you’ve had it. You have to curl
your fingers. It’s the same on the keyboard. You have less reach, but
because of the way the hand is made, you get more strength and dexterity
from the curl.
Change Leslie Speeds Tastefully. I tend to
like straight tones but my philosophy is that a straight tone doesn’t
mean anything unless it’s animated with the Leslie. Just like music
doesn’t mean anything without silence. It’s the same with the fast
Leslie—the tremolo. Sometimes I use the tremolo in addition to the
chorale (slow speed) for the full effect.
Find Your Voice and Stick With It. You need
to have this crazy faith in your own voice somehow coming through. When
people know it’s me when I’m playing the organ, that’s a phenomenon,
because I’m basically imitating Jimmy Smith and Ray Charles and Bill Doggett. In
my mind, I’m imitating but to others, it sounds like me. I
learned Bill Doggett’s solo to “Honky Tonk” and Ray Charles’ solo to
“One Mint Julep.” Self-belief is important for a Hammond player because
it’s an unwieldy instrument and an unlikely solo instrument, but the
people who’ve stuck with it have made successful careers.