Booker T Jones Revitalizes the Memphis Soul Sound


Booker is back. The living legend, who with his group the MGs helped create the Memphis soul sound at Stax Records in the 1960s—and ushered in the idea of racially integrated bands in the process—has been getting so much well deserved attention of late that it feels like he never left.

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His 2009 comeback Potato Hole, a rock-influenced project featuring the Drive By Truckers and Neil Young, won the Grammy for Best Instrumental Album. The phone started ringing off the hook, and one of those calls was Roots’ drummer Questlove, who then produced Booker’s 2011 album The Road from Memphis. Boom—another Grammy.

Recently, Booker musically directed and played B-3 on PBS’ In Performance at the White House. The episode, which aired April 16, celebrated Memphis music and featured artists such as Mavis Staples, Queen Latifah, Ben Harper, and Justin Timberlake, not to mention one very delighted U.S. President.

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 is different.

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.’” [Laughs.]

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 for me.

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 this approach.

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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 wasand 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. That’s historic.

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 collaborators?

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 on it?

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 treasure.

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 church—hymns.

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 fortunate.

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.

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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.