Getting ready for his Jazz Fest appearance with Drive-By Truckers as his backing band, Booker T. Jones is thinking back to his first time in New Orleans. It was in 1962. He was just a teen prodigy then, still in high school, his Hammond B3 organ playing having just reached the public’s ear via his instrumental “Green Onions” with his Memphis combo Booker T. and the MGs. Soon his would be a household sound through his own hits as well as in his role as a Stax Records mainstay playing, writing and/or producing on essential sessions for Otis Redding, Albert King (he co-wrote “Born Under a Bad Sign”), Wilson Pickett, Willie Nelson (co-producing the Stardust album) and so many others. As he thinks back on that first New Orleans visit, the picture comes clear to him of a gathering hosted by Allen Toussaint’s production and business partner Marshall Sehorn.
“In my mind’s eye, I can see myself sitting there at a well-appointed dinner table, with wine and all kinds of exotic New Orleans food with a bunch of people around, 12 or 13 people,” he says. “Don’t know what the occasion was. I know there was a recording studio and label involved. But it was a very festive evening, with Marshall as the main character.”
The Jazz Fest appearance will be under rather different circumstances. Today Booker T., now 66, stands (or, as an organist, sits) as one of the most beloved figures in modern music, even for many who don’t realize to what extent they are familiar with his music.
His new album, Potato Hole, adds a few twists to the legacy. His first album since the 1994 MGs reunion That’s the Way It Should Be, it’s a full collaboration with the Truckers. The whole project was set up by Andy Kaulkin, the president of Los Angeles-based Anti Records and the genial fellow behind the equally intriguing and electrifying collaboration of the second-generation southern-rock iconoclast Truckers (leader Patterson Hood is the son of Muscle Shoals studio bass stalwart David Hood) with veteran soulstress Bettye LaVette in 2007. The seven Jones originals, one composition by Truckers guitarist Mike Cooley and two intriguing covers (OutKast’s “Hey Ya” and Tom Waits’ “Get Behind the Mule”) showcase Jones’ signature economical, melodic approach set in arrangements that draw in ways on his stints touring and recording with Neil Young in the ’90s. And in fact, Young was enlisted to add some lead guitar parts to these sessions.
Talking by phone from his home in the community of Tiburon near San Francisco, the Memphis native discussed his new album while engaging in some growing self-awareness of the impact New Orleans has had on him. He also had a thought about some impact he could have now.
“I have some instruments I’m not using anymore,” he said. “Wonder if I should bring them with me for some kids down there. I have great instruments in my garage that I haven’t played in years. Kids should have them. I borrowed everything I learned on except my clarinet. Bass, sax, all were borrowed from people or else I got them out of the band room. If they hadn’t been there, it would have been a lot different for me.”
Was New Orleans a big influence on you?
A lot of music that influenced me, I wasn’t really aware at the time that it was coming from New Orleans. Of course Fats Domino, but you have all the other stuff. “Workin’ in a Coal Mine,” all that stuff, that genre. That was some of the biggest influence on me besides the Meters.
A lot of people assume that it was the other way around, that you were an influence on the Meters.
I was? I don’t know! Never really talked to them. But I remember hearing them and thinking they were cool. And there was James Booker. I didn’t really know they were from New Orleans until later. I guess we could have told by the sound it was New Orleans.
The Meters were the only other group doing what we were doing. Were they behind Lee Dorsey? They didn’t put the musicians’ names on those singles. And I didn’t know Earl Palmer was playing on all that stuff until years later. He played on the “Uptight” record with me in Hollywood. Him and me and Ray Brown on bass and Herb Ellis on guitar. That was the trio for the opening theme to “Uptight.” My little dream group in Hollywood. I didn’t know who Earl was, just knew he was a great drummer. Then later I found out he was Earl Palmer!
New Orleans did influence me. That’s an understatement, the more I think about it. Mac Rebennack, wow. He was one of the really classically trained New Orleans pianists. He knew all the people, like Professor Longhair. And he has the chops and classical training to go with it. He was a character I spent a lot of time with in the ’80s, really influenced me.
What were the origins of the new album?
I was looking to do something new and looking for a label deal with new management. This style of music has been with me for a while. I’d been playing for a while, always loved rock, but didn’t get to do much in the ’60s. I wrote all the songs on guitar and added the organ parts layer. I’ve been a fan and played a lot with Neil on his own tours and when he was with Crosby, Stills and Nash—played with them in the early ’90s and really started to love that sound even more. So naturally it evolved that I would write my own in that way. I’ve always played guitar, always loved it since I was a kid. Had my first Silvertone guitar when I was maybe 12.
How different is it writing that way?
For me it’s not so different because I’m thinking of the organ when I’m writing on the guitar, thinking of the melody. With these songs, in some cases I was following like a little line in my mind, or an image. With “New York” I was thinking of a person in New York and all the people and the skyline, which it would be like to be a native New Yorker and playing this melody. With “Reunion Time” I was thinking what it would be like being down South and meeting all my family members and the flowers in the lobby and sitting with the young people and old people and the hugs and news, imagining what it would feel like playing the music that would go along with that. That’s part of the process.
Were you familiar with the Truckers before?
I was familiar with some of the band members. We talked on the phone and had so many similar influences. They were fans of Lynyrd Skynyrd and Neil Young. And so was I. And Neil had been our fan, so we had a lot in common.
You have some common history with Patterson.
David Hood [Patterson’s father] had played some of my favorite bass lines, and he did a turn with Neil also. Patterson is one of the few kids that really come from the whole tradition. Jerry Wexler was staying at their house all the time when he was a little boy. He really understands that southern R&B tradition.
The Truckers’ and Neil’s guitar approaches are rather different from Steve Cropper’s with the MGs.
I did all the demos on all the songs, playing the guitar parts, the basic parts. But I was playing in their and Neil’s style. It’s a rock album, not an MGs album. They did their interpretations of my demos. And on some songs I actually played guitar—on “Potato Hole” and “Reunion Time.” And I played some hard rock guitar on the demos. I have a Stratocaster and I was tuning my guitar like Neil would or the Truckers would. They play Les Pauls so get more overtones, but I was playing that style.
Did new ideas emerge in the studio?
There was some pretty heavy jamming, some impromptu stuff. One of the most impromptu was “Space City.” I had been listening to the song with headphones, the original demo. I started to play the song on organ, unaware that the others were in the room with their instruments, and I was unaware that the tape was rolling. I started to play and then heard the bass and then the guitar, and we kept playing. So we ended up with it in one take. That was amazing.
Did the MGs do that kind of thing?
Yeah, we did a lot of that, just jamming and playing. But very often I would come in with a pretty definite idea and we would just recreate that.
What makes your style your style? It’s not a style like some of the key B3 players that came before you, the really churchy jazz-soul of Jimmy Smith or Jack McDuff, for examples.
My piano teacher, Mrs. Elmertha Cole, was also my organ teacher. She opened the Hammond organ and played a few notes to show me. She was doing something called “crawlin’,” hold the note with a thumb and then play melody with the other fingers. Then maybe hold with the forefinger and play with other fingers. You can only do that on organ. That struck me. Ray Charles’ keyboard style affected me more than Jimmy Smith or anyone. When he played “One Mint Julep” with Quincy Jones, that was the arrangement that made me want to play. And he wasn’t crawlin’, but it was Ray Charles!
You wrote a very eloquent, moving piece for the Anti Records blog about civil rights history and the mood of the nation.
My feeling right now is that when they wrote the Constitution, there was an attitude of, “Let’s be a nation that stands for this and see if it will work.” And now it’s 2009. We may not be where we need to be financially, but as idealists, the whole world is looking up to us right now. America is not pretending to be a democracy. It actually is. So it’s like Martin Luther King’s dream come true. A great feeling. I think the real thing, not just words. Now, we have all these problems to work out, but there’s a comfort I’m feeling. A comfort that someone can write a Constitution and 200 years later this country is righting itself. True realizations of the founding fathers’ ideals and dreams.
You’ve talked about your “musical DNA” blending African drums with Debussy and Liszt. How does that play into the new music?
I hear it in my melodic sense and my emotional sense with this record. I hear my past influences and as you call it the musical DNA in the melodies, the way I construct the melodies. It’s funny—certain pieces you hear and you know. Like Jean Sibelius’ Finlandia. A piece like that, you hear it and that’s it. You’ve got it for life. Put that on top of Debussy’s La Mer or Clair de Lune, and then listen to John Lee Hooker or Albert King or B.B. King, that’s all there. And I can hear all those influences in the new record.
There must have been some moments over the years when you said, “I can’t believe I’m sitting here playing with so and so!” Do any particular ones stand out?
Those are the moments when I really have to be a different person, if it really is one of those special moments. I’ve been reading all these books about how to be in the moment, how to live your life and get the most. But working a job, I have to learn how to focus on that moment and get focused on what I’m doing so I don’t lose my place.
It’s easier to look back on those moments than when you’re there. Then it’s a rollercoaster—“Okay, right now I’m flat and don’t want to screw up.” But there are special ones. “Born Under a Bad Sign” moments [with Albert King]. “Try a Little Tenderness” [with Otis Redding]. Moments onstage with different people. “Oh my goodness, this is wonderful!”