LIANE HANSEN, host:
Booker T. Jones is a grandmaster of the Hammond B-3 organ. During the '60s, he and his band, the MG's, were the house band for Stax Records in Memphis. They provided backup for Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Wilson Pickett, Albert King and a host of other stars. Booker T. and the MG's had their own hit tune, which is still being played today, "Green Onions."
(Soundbite of song, "Green Onions")
HANSEN: Booker T. was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992 and received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007. And for those fans who have been waiting for something new from the songwriter, producer and musician, the wait is over. Booker T. has just released his first solo album in 20 years. It's called "Potato Hole," and this is the title track.
(Soundbite of song, "Potato Hole")
HANSEN: Booker T. joins us from the studios of KQED in San Francisco. Welcome to the program.
Mr. BOOKER T. JONES (Songwriter, Producer, Musician): Oh, thank you so much. Thank you.
HANSEN: What's a potato hole?
Mr. JONES: The term comes from slavery days when the slaves had to dig actually holes in the earthen floors of their cabins - there were no wooden floors. And it was actually the only place they had to keep food cool and in some cases to hide it and store it.
HANSEN: And how does that apply to your record and the title of it?
Mr. JONES: Well, you know, if you look at the cover of the album, it's a hole and it's where I have my cool stuff deposited in there, not necessarily hidden. But it's my potato hole and it's a place where I have some good, funky cool stuff.
HANSEN: Yeah. There's a musician on this album that I would not have expected to be playing with you because he's not necessarily known for being funky: Neil Young.
Mr. JONES: Oh yeah, yeah. He's very funky. He was in a band, actually, when he was younger, called The Minor Birds, which was a funk band up in Toronto. But yeah, he's a very funky player.
HANSEN: Yeah. Did he influence you in any way, the sound of this album?
Mr. JONES: Yes, absolutely. When I started working with Neil back in the '90s, I couldn't help but notice what a big guitar sound he had and that was such a big influence. I mean, I was actually trying to copy that many times on these songs.
(Soundbite of song, "Native New Yorker")
HANSEN: The cut "Native New Yorker" actually sounds like it might be one of his tunes. One writer called it as grungy as the subway on a summer day.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. JONES: Well, that's good.
(Soundbite of song, "Native New Yorker")
HANSEN: Did you write that for him?
Mr. JONES: No, actually I had in mind the city. Everybody's had New York on their minds for the past few years for, you know, obvious reasons and just trying to capture the current aura of the city. And it's just an image that I had in my mind of some air guitar player might be playing in some 80th floor apartment there in the city some time.
HANSEN: So, you have kind of pictures in your mind when you're writing your tunes?
Mr. JONES: Yes. That's the way I write now. I find I really like to do that. That's exactly it - images in my mind and I put music to them.
HANSEN: Have you ever written any lyrics?
Mr. JONES: Oh yes, I have in the past. And there are hints of lyrics in these songs, however, I just play them on the organ rather than actually singing the words.
HANSEN: Did you write this album on the organ?
Mr. JONES: I started each of the songs on guitar, actually, and I had the organ in mind. I was using my Fender Strat.
Mr. JONES: Mm-hmm.
HANSEN: Is it an easy translation to the organ?
Mr. JONES: Well, there wasn't actually translation, it was going on at the same time for me. So, yes, it was an easy translation.
HANSEN: So, what's the new Booker T. sound we're hearing on this one?
Mr. JONES: I like to think of it as a new old sound. It's actually the old sound with some new elements, I believe. It's the same instrument and it's the same me, but I just am motivated a little differently here.
HANSEN: Were you motivated by the band that joined you, the Drive-By Truckers?
Mr. JONES: I was motivated by the attitude of that band and by Neil Young. I'm playing more rock. It's a little more in-your-face now. It's not quite as polite as the soul music I was playing in Memphis.
HANSEN: Yeah. You've said that they shaped the project and it kind of took you out of that comfort zone of 32-bar standards or 12-bar blues. You got flexible or more than you had been.
Mr. JONES: Absolutely.
Mr. JONES: I'm learning, I'm learning. I'm learning from the younger people and the younger musicians and every day I'm learning. Yeah, it's great.
HANSEN: In addition to the tunes you've written, you cover some tunes. And the one that I was kind of surprised to hear was the one by Outkast, "Hey Ya."
Mr. JONES: Yeah.
HANSEN: Why did you want to do this one?
Mr. JONES: They did a beautiful but simple thing. They threw in a two-four bar, and you just don't hear that in rock and roll or in R&B much anymore. And it's just so inventive and it's just so happy and light.
(Soundbite of song, "Hey Ya")
HANSEN: Do you have an approach that you take when you're covering someone else's tune?
Mr. JONES: Well, there was an older approach. Now, you know, I like to put the lyrics in front of me and just try to play the lyrics on the organ.
HANSEN: So, Andre 3000's stutter, I mean, is that kind of trying to replicate that in "Hey Ya"?
Mr. JONES: Yeah, that's what I was doing, yeah.
HANSEN: You recorded "Green Onions," your big hit in 1962. You were on summer break after your sophomore year in high school - gave you the money to go to college. You were, what, 16, you're 64. Is there a lesson you think you've learned in your career in music that would be good advice for young musicians today?
Mr. JONES: I would advise to do something I do, and that is to practice every chance I get. I still go back to the scales that I was playing when I was, you know, 15 and 14. That hasn't changed. And I still believe in what I'm doing at alternate times when no one else does. It's a pretty lonely chore to write. Because, you know, you bring something forth and you don't know whether it's any good or not. So, you just kind of have to be kind of stubborn and believe in yourself.
HANSEN: How did you get that first gig at Stax?
Mr. JONES: That came to me through my friend David Porter. I was probably in a math class or an algebra class at Booker Washington High School in the morning. And my friend David came and got me out of class with a hall pass and took me down to the band room and picked up a - borrowed a baritone sax, and borrowed the band director's car and rushed me over to Stax Records to play on "'Cause I Love You" being recording by Rufus and Carla Thomas. And that was my entry through the door. That's how I got through the door there.
HANSEN: You went to Booker T. Washington High School? Is that where your name comes from?
Mr. JONES: My father, Booker T. Jones, was a teacher at Booker T. Washington High School and I was named after my father.
HANSEN: We asked through Twitter if there were any of our listeners who had any questions for you.
Mr. JONES: Oh yeah?
HANSEN: Yeah. And we received one from Spencer Kane(ph). And he wanted to know, of all the artists you saw at Stax, who blew you away the first time you heard them sing?
Mr. JONES: That would be Otis Redding, sitting next to me asking if we could stay around a little longer and if he could maybe sing a song and what song is it? And it would be "These Arms of Mine." He just sang a few bars of it sitting next to me. There was no microphone on or anything. That just blew me away. I remember that moment.
HANSEN: And you continued to back him up.
Mr. JONES: Yeah.
HANSEN: I mean, given this is the first solo album in 20 years, why wait so long? You've been so busy?
Mr. JONES: Well, it actually wasn't a wait. I was improving myself. I was getting myself up to speed. I come from the old school of recording, the analog school. And I found myself in a world that had left me behind. I didn't know digital recording, so I had to go back to San Francisco State University and a couple of other music schools and learn digital audio. And then I had to revamp the way I was writing.
Mr. JONES: Just the attitude, the way I was connecting to the creative muse. I have a more definite way of - a definite method when I sit down in my studio now, rather than just hoping for the best.
HANSEN: What's your method?
Mr. JONES: Well, I visualize.
Mr. JONES: I visualize. And then usually music comes to accompany the visual. It's a more sure way of writing rather than just playing a riff or something and just hoping that something, you know, and then I get an idea.
HANSEN: Is there something you'd like to do that you haven't been able to do yet?
Mr. JONES: Yeah. I want to continue making music at this point in my life. I'm really excited about it. And I feel like I've discovered a new path.
HANSEN: So, I'm going to let you play DJ. What tune from your new album should we go out on?
Mr. JONES: Well, there's one that I really love called "She Breaks."
HANSEN: What do you love about this?
Mr. JONES: It's the feeling of it. It's the feeling that I had when I started the song. Just the notion and the reminder that women, or a woman, is often required to be so strong so often in life and for such an extended period of time, but that a woman may be capable of breaking down at the sight of something extremely beautiful or at the sight of something ugly. But it's just the point that it's a frail thing and that she breaks.
HANSEN: Booker T. Jones, his new album is called "Potato Hole," and he joined us from the studios of KQED in San Francisco. Thanks so much. Good luck with this.
Mr. JONES: Thank you for having me, Liane.
(Soundbite of song, "She Breaks")
HANSEN: You can hear Booker T. Jones' tribute to New York and his Outkast cover at NPRMusic.org.
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.