Booker T. Jones: Back To Memphis The legendary leader of Booker T. and the MGs talks about his new album, his hometown and his early fascination with the Hammond B-3 organ.
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Booker T. Jones: Back To Memphis

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Booker T. Jones: Back To Memphis

Booker T. Jones: Back To Memphis

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You're about to hear a classic performance by Otis Redding. But wonderful as he is, we're playing this so you can listen to the band that's backing him up.

(Soundbite of song, "Try a Little Tenderness")

Mr. OTIS REDDING (Singer): (Singing) ...tenderness, yeah, all you got to (unintelligible)...

WERTHEIMER: That's Booker T. and the MGs, the house band at Stax Records, which produced so many soul hits in the '60s in the magical city of Memphis.

BOOKER T. JONES (Songwriter, Producer and Arranger): Memphis is one of those unique places on the planet where certain amazing energies accumulate. And people are born there who have extraordinary musical talent.

WERTHEIMER: That's Booker T. Jones. His latest solo album, "The Road from Memphis," is a tender tribute to his hometown. Booker T. is joined by the Roots and on this song, representing Memphis, by Sharon Jones and Matt Berninger.

(Soundbite of song, "Representing Memphis")

Ms. SHARON JONES (Singer): (Singing) I love it on the South Side, they know how to deep-fry. Take it up to Orange Mound, we're representing Memphis.

Mr. MATT BERNINGER (Singer): (Singing) I like it at the Harlem House, on the scooters at my mama's house. Make it out to Klondike. We're representing Memphis...

WERTHEIMER: You bring up some very specific places in the song.

Mr. JONES: I do.

WERTHEIMER: Tell us about Orange Mound and Harlem House.

Mr. JONES: Those places have so much to do with who I am musically and the moments that I spent there, the musical experiences that I had there with the jukebox at the Harlem House and listening to the radio out in Orange Mound, where my sister lived. And those experiences formed me.

WERTHEIMER: What's the history of Orange Mound? Is Orange Mound always a black community?

Mr. JONES: It was and I think it still is. You know, first swimming pool, first movie theater, a high school that had a marching band.

WERTHEIMER: Harlem House was a restaurant, right?

Mr. JONES: Yes, it was hamburgers and hot dogs after school. And it was...

WERTHEIMER: A sort of hang out?

Mr. JONES: Yes, it was cute girls sitting on stools...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JONES: ...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 and the songs that they played there.

(Soundbite of song, "Ain't That Lovin' You Baby")

Mr. JIMMY REED (Singer-Songwriter): (Singing) Let me tell you, baby. I tell you what I'm going to do. I'm going to rob, steal, kill somebody just to get back home to you. Now, ain't that lovin' you, baby? Ain't that...

Mr. JONES: That was Jimmy Reed. It was that music. Bill Doggett playing Hammond Organ.

(Soundbite of music)

WERTHEIMER: Let me ask you about the Hammond B3, the organ that is the the instrument that everybody associates with you. Why is it special?

Mr. JONES: It's a unique instrument. I mistook it for a china cabinet in my piano teacher's dining room, because it was closed up. But I asked her, what was that piece in the dining room? And she said, Oh, you don't want to know about that. You can't afford lessons on that. That's a Hammond B3 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 this first synthesizer that was used in clubs, churches.

WERTHEIMER: When it was introduced into popular music, it was jazz, wasn't it? I mean there was more jazz played on the organ then there was rock 'n roll and...

Mr. JONES: Yes. Yes. The first time I heard it, it was played on a jazz record by Ray Charles. He was playing on a Quincy Jones arrangement of "One Mint Julep."

(Soundbite of song, "A Bit of Soul")

Mr. RAY CHARLES (Singer): (Singing) Hey, just a little bit of soul...

WERTHEIMER: And so you - you took it in a new direction.

Mr. JONES: I did. I was fascinated with what I heard Ray do and I wanted to play that sound myself. But you know, it was just fortunate. I just found an instrument that I can speak through.

WERTHEIMER: You started using the organ on the Stax recordings.

Mr. JONES: I did, yes. For some reason, they got one. They got a smaller version of the Hammond B3. They got a Hammond M3, and that was there on the day that we recorded "Green Onions" - our first record.

(Soundbite of song, "Green Onions")

WERTHEIMER: Tell me about your new album, "The Road from Memphis." You sing yourself on "Down in Memphis."

Mr. JONES: Uh-huh.

WERTHEIMER: Let's listen to just a bit of that.

(Soundbite of song, "Down in Memphis")

Mr. JONES: (Singing) I got to pay union dues, make me want to sing the blues. I can't be a winner now, 'cause I'm born to lose, down in Memphis. Yeah...

WERTHEIMER: Let me ask you a question about the title of the album. It's called "The Road from Memphis."

Mr. JONES: Yes.

WERTHEIMER: As in the road away from Memphis.

Mr. JONES: Yes.

WERTHEIMER: And you live in Los Angeles now.

Mr. JONES: I do.

WERTHEIMER: What is your connection to Memphis these days?

Mr. JONES: I think I've come full circle. Of course I bolted from Memphis in 1968 as a young man. But I feel closer to the city now than ever before. I think all things eventually come home, and so that's what's happened with the music. If you listen to the music on this album, it sounds as though it was made in Memphis, 'cause it comes from my heart. And everybody involved with it understood that feeling and we were able to re-create that simple, evocative soul thing that, that happens in Memphis.

(Soundbite of music)

WERTHEIMER: Booker T., thank you very much for joining us.

Mr. JONES: It's been my great pleasure.

WERTHEIMER: Booker T. Jones's new album is called "The Road from Memphis." You can see Booker T. playing "Green Onions" at the NPR offices at

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