A young Booker T. Jones was intrigued by the sounds that wafted from behind a curtain in the Memphis record store he frequented.
|Booker T. Jones
That’s where the studio of what was then Satellite Records. Barely in high school, Jones already played all the saxophones and clarinet as well as piano and organ. He was already gigging, and he wanted to be on the other side of the curtain. That was his dream.
When he was about 15 years old, blues singers Rufus and Irma Thomas came to town for a studio session. The producers needed baritone sax player, and David Porter, a friend of Jones’, suggested the youngster.
He was dispatched to Booker T. Washington High School to get Jones, the school’s baritone saxophone and the band director’s car.
“It’s what I had wanted for years, but I couldn’t figure out a way to get there,” Jones said in a recent telephone interview.
Once he was there, he became a fixture, earning his keep on piano and organ.
Satellite Records became Stax Records the birthplace of hundreds of soul hits, and young Jones, became the leader of the house band Booker T. and the MGs, hitmakers in their own right.
In a career that spans over a half-century, Jones has shared the studio with an all-star list of popular musicians, including a number of fellow Rock and Roll Hall of Famers. A Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award honoree, Jones’ career is far from over.
The 67-year-old music legend will headline the Black Swamp Arts Festival with a set Saturday at 6 p.m. on the Main Stage.
While Jones played some live dates with the MGs, he was mostly known as a denizen of the studio, as a musician, arranger, composer and producer.
But back several years ago, Jones emerged again as a solo artist, releasing the Grammy-winning “Potato Hole” in 2009, featuring members of the Drive By Truckers and Neil Young and then last year released another Grammy winner “The Road to Memphis,” featuring members of the Roots.
“I’ve been through some changes,” he said when asked about his higher profile in recent years. “I’m more accessible as a person... I’m a lot more open. It’s paid off for me, I’m meeting more people, playing a lot more.”
Having performed with the best, Jones is hard to satisfy when putting together a band.
Some musicians have the misguided notion that because the music sounds simple, it is simple and easy to play.
But finding people who can lock into that distinctive groove is difficult, Jones said. “I’m very particular about the songs I played with the MGs. ‘Soul Limbo,’ ‘Hip Hugger,’ they’re not songs you can just get up and jam on. They have specific tempos, specific melodies.”
Take the MGs’ biggest hit, “Green Onions.” “It’s just four chords, basic 12-bar blues, but the rhythm to it has to be just so. It’s special rhythm.”
After extensive auditions in California Jones has assembled a band that can deliver the goods — drummer Darian Gray, who also sings and raps a little, guitarist Vernon “Ice” Black, and bassist Melvin Brannon.
Gray is from Memphis, and may have some relationship to the late “irreplaceable” Al Jackson Jr., the original MGs drummer.
“I think there’s a relationship there, He understands the music.”
For Jones, the MGs remain special. “We had a special connection. We kept the music simple. We kept the music funky and we had such a great time playing. We didn’t know we were making music that would last as long as it has.”
Jones brings the same attention to detail to live shows as he does to recording work. “Each live performance I try to make it just as special as a studio performance,” he said. “I want people to feel special like we’re having a private time together.” After all, he said, the audience is making an effort to be there.
That energy makes every show different without sacrificing the quality of the music the fans come to hear. “I try to recreate the music as earnestly, as much like the original, as possible. I play the verses and the choruses the same and maybe branch out some after that,” he said. “I don’t try to take off too much.”
Jones’ latest recording appropriately celebrates his connections to the Memphis scene that nurtured him.
His mother played classical and gospel piano, and Jones remembers standing on his tiptoes to try to play the instrument with two fingers. He started piano lessons when he was about 10 — “when I got a paper route and I could pay for them.”
His teacher had a Hammond organ in another room, and he saw another student go in the next room. He asked his teacher what was in there. She showed him the organ and played a few notes. “I was hooked.”
It took him a bit to earn enough money to study organ as well.
In school he learned clarinet that led to playing saxophone.
That background served him well, as he launched a career as a professional musician.
Still that wasn’t enough for him. Even after recording on hits for Stax, he went to college.
“As my musical experiences unfolded... I could play music I could hear. People heard me thought I was really good, but they didn’t know I wasn’t reading that music, that I was playing something I heard and even at that I couldn’t play everything I heard in my mind. So I knew that I needed to get some training from somewhere.”
Also, with a father who was a teacher, his family expected him to go to college.
So he attended the University of Indiana, commuting back to Memphis for sessions.
He was already earning extra money writing out the lead sheets that were sent to the Library of Congress for copyright purposes. And he could score a few horns and strings.
“But when it came to writing for full orchestra I needed the training I got in Indiana,” Jones said.
That education also gave him “the compositional skills and the basic knowledge of knowing how the music was put together, the theory that got me through those years of writing songs,” he said. “It was invaluable. It was a lot of fun, too.”
Just this spring, the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana awarded Jones an honorary doctorate of music. “I’m real proud of that.”