Otis Redding's 1966 recording of "Try a Little Tenderness" is an American classic, but not just because of Redding's spirited vocals. Backing him up on that song are Booker T. and the MGs, who produced countless soul hits in 1960s Memphis as the house band for Stax Records. Decades later, bandleader Booker T. Jones still has Memphis on the brain.
"Memphis is one of those unique places on the planet where certain amazing energies accumulate," Jones tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer. "People are born there who have extraordinary musical talent."
Jones' new solo album, The Road From Memphis, assembles talent from all over the country. Sharon Jones, Lou Reed, Yim Yames of My Morning Jacket and Matt Berninger of The National all contribute guest vocals; members of The Roots, perhaps this generation's biggest house band, provide instrumental muscle. The songs, however, are firmly situated in the time and place of Jones' upbringing, often calling out landmarks by name.
"Those places have so much to do with who I am musically," he says. "The moments that I spent there, the musical experiences that I had there with the jukebox at [local restaurant] the Harlem House, listening to the radio out at Orange Mound where my sister lived — those experiences formed me. It was cute girls sitting on stools and guys hanging around and listening to music. But there was a feeling. It was personified in the songs that were coming out of the jukebox."
The album features plenty of Hammond B-3 organ, an instrument with which Jones is singularly associated. He says that the first time he saw a B-3, he didn't even realize it was an instrument.
"I mistook it for a china cabinet in my piano teacher's dining room, because it was closed up," Jones says. "But I asked her, 'What was that piece in the dining room?' And she said, 'You don't want to know about that. You can't afford lessons on that. That's a Hammond B-3 organ.' But she did open it up and play a few notes for me, and I was just fascinated by the look of it and the drawbars. Normal organs have pipes, but the Hammond organ is electronic. So it's sort of like the first synthesizer."
Jones left Memphis in 1968 and currently lives in Los Angeles, but he says he feels closer to his home city now than ever before.
"I think all things eventually come home, and so that's what's happened with the music," he says. "If you listen to the music on this album, it sounds as though it was made in Memphis."