Booker T. Jones: Onions, Potatoes, Other Essentials With his band the MGs, Booker T. Jones created the classic instrumental "Green Onions." But they were also the studio band for Stax Records, making music with soul artists such as Otis Redding, Ray Charles and Wilson Pickett. His new album, with the Drive-By Truckers as his backup band, is called Potato Hole.
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Booker T. Jones: Onions, Potatoes, Other Essentials

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Booker T. Jones: Onions, Potatoes, Other Essentials

Booker T. Jones: Onions, Potatoes, Other Essentials

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DAVE DAVIES, host:

Terry spoke with Booker T. in 2007, the same year that Booker T. and the MGs won a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammys. Booker T. and the MGs was the house band for the Memphis-based soul label Stax Records. They backed up artists like Otis Redding, Rufus and Carla Thomas, Sam & Dave, Wilson Pickett, Albert King and the Staple Singers.

And they had their own hits in the '60s and '70s, including "Soul Limbo," "Hip Hug-Her" and "Time is Tight." They also did covers, like "Mrs. Robinson," "Hang 'Em High" and "Ode to Billy Joe." Their first and biggest hit was "Green Onions," recorded in 1962 with Steve Cropper on guitar, Al Jackson, drums, and Lewie Steinberg, bass. Steinberg was later replaced by Donald Duck Dunn.

Before we hear Terry's conversation with Booker T., here's a taste of "Green Onions."

(Soundbite of song, "Green Onions")

TERRY GROSS, host:

Booker T., welcome to FRESH AIR. It's an honor to have you on our show.

Mr. BOOKER T. JONES (Musician): Thank you, Terry. I'm glad to be here.

GROSS: Would you tell us the story behind the track that we just heard?

Mr. JONES: Well, that happened as something of an accident. We were at the studio as session musicians to play a session for an artist who didn't show up. So we used the time to record our blues, which we called "Behave Yourself," and I played on a Hammond M3 organ, and Jim Stuart(ph), the owner, was the engineer. He really liked it, thought it was great, actually, and wanted to put it out as a record.

And so we all agreed on that, and Jim told us that we needed something to record for a B side because we couldn't have a one-sided record. And one of the tunes that I'd been playing on piano we tried on Hammond organ, so you know, the record would have organ on both sides, and that turned out to be "Green Onions."

GROSS: Now, you know, Booker T. and the MGs basically became the house band for Stax Records, and you played a lot of their recordings. How did you become a member of the Stax house band?

Mr. JONES: Well, I was in 11th grade, and my friend David Porter knew that Rufus Thomas and his daughter Carla were recording were recording one day. And I guess they had requested a baritone sax part on a song, and David thought of me. David drove over to the high school, came up with some type of hall pass and got me out of class and somehow came up with the band director's car keys and keys to the instrument room.

So down we went to get the baritone sax out of the instrument room and into the parked car and over to Stax Records and through the door, and there I was.

GROSS: Why don't we hear the recording that you played baritone sax on, which is your first recording for Stax? You want to introduce it for us?

Mr. JONES: It's called "Cause I Love You" by Rufus and Carla Thomas.

GROSS: Okay, let's hear it.

(Soundbite of song, "Cause I Love You")

Mr. RUFUS THOMAS (Singer): (Singing) I done take the very best girl of mine, yeah. I done take the very best girl of mine, yeah. Gonna straighten up, baby, stop that cheatin' and lyin'.

Ms. CARLA THOMAS (Singer): (Singing) The way you lied about me, you lied about Louie, too, yeah.

Mr. THOMAS: (Singing) Oh, no. Oh, no.

Ms. THOMAS: (Singing) You lied about me. You lied about Louie, too.

Mr. THOMAS: (Singing) Oh, no. Oh, no.

Ms. THOMAS: (Singing) You got me feelin' so bad, I don't know what to do.

Mr. THOMAS: (Singing) Let me tell you woman, way deep down inside, baby.

Ms. THOMAS: (Singing) Baby.

Mr. THOMAS: (Singing) Hold you by my side, 'cause I love you.

Ms. THOMAS: (Singing) I love you.

Mr. THOMAS: (Singing) 'Cause I love you.

Ms. THOMAS: (Singing) I love you.

Mr. THOMAS: (Singing) 'Cause I love you.

Ms. THOMAS: (Singing) 'Cause I love you.

Mr. THOMAS: (Singing) 'Cause I love you.

Ms. THOMAS: (Singing) Yes, I love you.

Mr. THOMAS: (Singing) 'Cause I love you, and I'll never let you go. Come on.

Ms. THOMAS: (Singing) Come on…

GROSS: That's Rufus and Carla Thomas, the first recording that featured Booker T., but he wasn't on keyboards. He was on baritone saxophone. And Booker T. is my guest.

So you stayed, obviously. I mean, you were in 11th grade, you made this recording, and you ended up becoming part of the house band. How did they - was it hard to convince you to stay? Did you have to convince them that they needed you?

Mr. JONES: Oh, I convinced them. I actually had a paper route. That was my job in the afternoon, and no, I convinced them to try me out on piano and eventually organ. And I eventually played on an organ on a William Bell song, which they liked that part, "You Don't Miss Your Water," on one of the sessions. So after I played that part, I had the job.

GROSS: So what was it like going to high school and making records at the same time?

Mr. JONES: Oh, it was unreal. I was in a rush to get out school and get my papers thrown and get over to Stax. That was my thrill every day, to get to go there and play music until, you know 10 or 11 o'clock every night.

DAVIES: Booker T. Jones, speaking with Terry Gross. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: We're listening to Terry's 2007 interview with Booker T. Jones. He has a new album called "Potato Hole."

GROSS: Booker T. and the MGs is so associated with the Stax sound, such an essential part as what is described as the Stax sound, but how would you describe the Stax sound?

Mr. JONES: I would say it's a simple, earthy sound, you know, just born out of our blues and country and jazz roots and also gospel. It was a sound that, you know, we consciously tried to keep simple and with a lot of feeling.

GROSS: Do you remember the first time you met Otis Redding?

Mr. JONES: Yes. Otis was a valet for a band from Georgia, and he was carrying the clothes, and he was doing the driving and going for the food and coffee and shining shoes and whatever he had to do to keep the band going. And I remember the day he pulled up with - Johnny Jenkins & the Pinetoppers was the name of the group he was working for.

They just basically came in, and he sat around and waited, and they did their demo for Stax. And after they did their demo, Otis asked if he could sing a song, which was a little inappropriate. But they - we allowed him. Jim and Steve Cropper and the rest of us allowed him to sing a song with us, and that song was "These Arms Of Mine." And so everyone was moved by that. So at that moment, he became Otis Redding.

GROSS: So let's hear one of the records you made with Otis Redding. How about "Dock of the Bay"? Do you have memories of making this record?

Mr. JONES: Yes, I do have memories of that. That was a particularly special and hectic time. Otis was getting ready to go out on tour without us, and we had just returned to Memphis from the Monterrey Pop Festival in Europe, and Otis was disjointed and hurried and anxious and out of sorts. So he wanted to record all the time.

He was insisting that we stay, you know, uncommon hours, and we were working late at night, and people were probably sleeping at the studio, and it seemed like we were working around the clock.

GROSS: Well, that's not how it sounds on the record.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: It's not a record that sounds like it was made by people who were tired and overworked. Did the mood change once you started recording?

Mr. JONES: Well, I'm not sure that were tired and overworked when we did this particular one, but the week was one that we recorded, I think, a whole album in just a few days. So this might have been - I'm not sure what the sequence was when we recorded this, but you know, the music always took its - it always created its own energy once we started playing.

So even if you were tired, you know, playing with Otis and playing with each other, the music just, you know, it just got a life of its own. And so the tiredness didn't matter.

GROSS: Well, let's hear "Dock of the Bay," Otis Redding and my guest, Booker T. on keyboards on this recording.

(Soundbite of song, "Sitting on the Dock of the Bay")

Mr. OTIS REDDING (Singer): (Singing) Sittin' in the mornin' sun, I'll be sittin' when the evenin' come, watching the ships roll in. Then I watch 'em roll away again, yeah.

I'm sittin' on the dock of the bay watching the tide roll away. Ooo, I'm just sittin' on the dock of the bay, wastin' time.

I left my home in Georgia, headed for the 'Frisco bay 'cause I've had nothing to live for. Look like nothin's gonna come my way. So I'm just gonna sit on the dock of the bay watching the tide roll away. Ooo, I'm sittin' on the dock of the bay, wastin' time.

Look like nothing's gonna change. Everything still remains the same. I can't do what 10 people tell me to do. So I guess I'll remain the same.

Sittin' here resting my bones…

GROSS: That's Otis Redding, and my guest, Booker T., played piano and organ on many of the recordings on Stax Records, like the one we just heard. Were you close with Otis Redding?

Mr. JONES: Yes - unfortunately, yes.

GROSS: Unfortunately because he died in a plane crash.

Mr. JONES: Yes. He was a very close friend of mine, yes.

GROSS: And on that same plane were several members of the Bar-Kays, a band that also recorded on Stax.

Mr. JONES: Yes.

GROSS: Did it make you think twice about flying? I mean, musicians, there's such a history of plane and car accidents for musicians who are so - spend so much time on the road.

Mr. JONES: Well, yes, Terry, it did make me think twice about flying in the smaller planes and the single, double-engine twin planes. I still trust the jets, and I still trust destiny. So I'm okay with flying.

DAVIES: Booker T. Jones, speaking with Terry Gross. We'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies filling in for Terry Gross. We're listening to Terry's 2007 interview with Booker T. Jones. In the '60s and '70s his group Booker T. and the MGs had several hits, including "Green Onions," and they were the house band for Stax Records. Booker T. has a new album called "Potato Hole."

GROSS: You wrote a song called "Born Under a Bad Sign" that I always felt was a much older song. I mean it's such a kind of classic blue song. I figured it was around a whole lot longer. You want to tell us the story behind writing this song?

Mr. JONES: Yes. The company had acquired Albert King as an artist and I was assigned to be his producer, and so we needed music for him. And at that time my partner was William Bell, my writing partner, and he came over the house late one night - it was actually the night before the session - and you know, we need something for Albert King. And William wrote the words and I wrote the music in my den that night. And that was one of the - one of my greatest moments in the studio, as far as being thrilled with a piece of music. I was very, very happy with the way that turned out.

GROSS: What made you so happy about it? What do you particularly like about it?

Mr. JONES: The feeling of it. You know, it's the real blues, you know, done by, done by the real people. It was Albert King from East St. Louis, you know, the left handed guitar player who was just such - one of a kind and so electric and so intense and so - so serious about his music and so involved with the lyrics and with the song. You know, he just lost himself in the music and he's such, such a one of a kind character. And we had written a song for him and we were doing it, it was coming off, and it was, you know, I was there personally in the middle of it, so it was just exhilarating, you know? It's kind of hard to describe.

GROSS: Well, why don't we hear it - this is Albert King recorded in 1967, and my guest is Booker T., who's featured on this track.

(Soundbite of song, "Born Under A Bad Sign")

Mr. ALBERT KING (Singing): Born under a bad sign, I been down since I begin to crawl, If it wasn't for bad luck, you know I wouldn't have no luck at all, Hard luck and trouble is my only friend, I been on my own ever since I was 10, Born under a bad sign, I been down since I begin to crawl, If it wasn't for bad luck, you know I wouldn't have no luck at all, I can't read, haven't learned how to write…

GROSS: That's Albert King from 1967. The song was co-written by my guest, pianist and organ player Booker T., who co-wrote that song. Now, when you were playing in at Stax Record, when you were in Booker T. and the MGs and you were the house band and making your own records, the South was still pretty segregated, but your band was comprised of African-American and white musicians. Did tensions from - did racial tensions from the outside world ever affect the band or did you feel pretty well protected by that, from that?

Mr. JONES: Well, we were insulated, you know, as most Southern social institutions are. We were insulated because we - we had our little door there that we locked behind us at Stax and nobody knew what was going on in there or who we were. So we weren't affected until we became pretty famous. Around '67 or '68, after Dr. King came to the city and Dr. King was murdered in a place that was very close to us - he was murdered at the Lorraine Hotel, and that was our meeting place and that was a place where we ate very often - so that affected us. But in general we didn't have big racial issues there.

GROSS: When you say the assassination affected you, did it - I mean I imagine everybody in the band was pretty upset about it. Did it - did it cause any tensions within the band? Yeah.

Mr. JONES: What I mean - what I mean it brought - it brought outside attention to us and what we were doing there.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. JONES: The fact - the fact that we were interracial. I like to call it a not too well kept secret that we were interracial. I think, you know, when we were playing music that nobody really cared that we were interracial. I think they cared more about the music. I think whites and blacks both didn't pay too much attention to the racial aspect of it.

GROSS: Did you feel there were times you needed to keep it kind of a secret?

Mr. JONES: Absolutely. The logistics rather demanded it. You know, we couldn't travel when we started without having two of us go get food, and sometimes those two were myself and Al, or sometimes those two were Steve and Duck. The other two would have to check into hotels and…

GROSS: Right, because two of you were white, two of you were black.

Mr. JONES: Exactly, exactly, so we always had to have - we were always on somebody else's territory, no matter where we were. So - but Steve and Duck and all the white members of Stax began to love soul food and they - I think they preferred to hang out at our restaurants, you know? So we just really didn't have a problem as long as the rest of the world didn't have problem with us.

DAVIES: Booker T. Jones speaking with Terry Gross. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: We're listening to Terry's 2007 interview with Booker T. Jones. He has a new album called "Potato Hole."

GROSS: We were talking before about how when - when you started at Stax Records you were in high school and you continued high school and then in fact you went to college and studied music. After high school, while you were still playing at Stax and while you were gone, Isaac Hayes would play piano or organ? Is that…

Mr. JONES: Uh-huh, uh-huh. Yes, Isaac filled in for me in the house band and played organ and piano on lots of great records.

GROSS: Now, so many people, if they were in your position, would say, well, to heck with college or even high school; I have what I've always wanted to do, I'm, you know, making my own records, I'm in the house band of a - of a growing record company who needs school. What kept you going to high school and college, in spite of the success that you were having?

Mr. JONES: Well, I had not yet met my own standards. I wasn't yet writing the music that I was hearing in my mind, and - and you know, I had a classical background and I had the curiosity for - for all of the European greats that had written so much wonderful classical music, and I needed to know how to arrange for the orchestra. I needed to know how to conduct. And I needed to know how to arrange the right music for my job at Stax also. So I just had to continue my education in order to try to improve myself as a musician.

GROSS: You know, had I just been listening to your records, I wouldn't have guessed that you were into classical music, and I might not have known that you were as kind of studious and serious sounding as you are.

Mr. JONES: Yes. Uh-huh. Yeah, I spent many hours as a boy listening to my mother play classics. My mother was a classical pianist.

GROSS: Uh-huh.

Mr. JONES: And then when I was at Indiana, you know, they had a great, great library underneath the music building, which was free and open to anyone 24 hours a day. So I spent many hours under there, you know, listening to the old masters, you know, everything from Bach to Stravinsky to Chopin and learning about music and learning how it was put together and studying.

GROSS: How did she feel about the music you were playing at Stax, your mother?

Mr. JONES: She loved it.

GROSS: She's good.

Mr. JONES: She loved it. She loved it.

GROSS: Uh-huh.

Mr. JONES: She loved it. Yeah, she was at the time my greatest fan. She kept a scrapbook and she loved it. Boy, I was fortunate. Both my parents were fans.

GROSS: You played a lot of different instruments when you were young, I mean, tell me if I'm wrong here. You played ukulele, oboe, saxophone, trombone, piano, organ, clarinet.

Mr. JONES: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

GROSS: Did having like a working knowledge of all those instruments help you as a musician and as a musician who is so often, you know, accompanying singers?

Mr. JONES: Yeah, I think it did. I think it helped me get the structure of music in my mind, starting with oboe, which is a C instrument, and I played that when I was in fourth grade because I was too young to be in the band and they won't let me in. But no one else would play oboe, so I took that up and that's how I got in the band and fourth grade. And then moving from that to clarinet, which is a B-flat instrument, and then from that to piano, which is another C instrument, helped me get, you know, the structure of music in my mind.

GROSS: Does it bother you when really funky records, like the Booker T. and the MGs records, are used as an argument against classical music? Do you know what I mean?

Mr. JONES: I didn't know - I didn't know about that.

GROSS: No, I don't mean that people single out your records, but often, you know, often people who like, you know, like funk or soul or, you know, music that sounds more like bluesy or improvisational will use it as an argument against what they perceived to be like stuffy old European formal music.

Mr. JONES: Well, you know, the melody to "Time is Tight" was written, I wrote that in Paris, on the banks of the river Seine. If you were to ask for a classical melody from me, I think that would be it. Do you know the song "Time is Tight," Booker T. and the MGs?

GROSS: I do, I do. Uh-huh.

Mr. JONES: Well, if you listen to the melody, listen to the simplicity of it, and I think that was born out of my classical roots, actually. It's not - it's not a twelve bar blues, you know. It's an odd number bars, and you know, I listen to people like Jean Sibelius and - people who wrote these long flowing melodies and found, you know, found a personal comfort in - in that type of thing. And a lot of people tell me that they just love - that song makes them feel relaxed and comfortable. And so, you know, there's a lot to be said for classical music, I think, that people don't know where the influences come form.

GROSS: Well, I think we should listen to "Time is Tight." So here it is. "Time is Tight," Booker T. and the MGs.

(Soundbite of song, "Time is Tight")

GROSS: That's "Time is Tight," Booker T. and the MGs from 1969. It's featured on the new Stax 50th anniversary celebration collection. My guest is Booker T., who played a piano, an organ on many recordings on Stax Records, the Booker T. and the MGs recordings, and a lot of artists as well. You left Stax Records in 1969.

Mr. JONES: Uh-huh.

GROSS: Which I think is the same year Stax was sold to Gulf and Western.

Mr. JONES: Uh-huh.

GROSS: Did that have any reason - was that part of the reason why you left?

Mr. JONES: I left after Stax was sold to Gulf and Western.

GROSS: Because it was sold or…

Mr. JONES: Well, not because it was sold, but because it changed, because the owners had control and the owners were able to dictate how this company was run, and so they did that. They had every right to do that. They had big companies and they knew what they were doing. They had Paramount Pictures and they were a very successful company and they decided that they wanted to change things in Memphis, and so they did. And the things they changed made it lose its appeal for me.

GROSS: Well, what were the changes?

Mr. JONES: They changed the outlook. They - they made us feel as though, well - they made us - made a quota as far as how much music we produced. That was the first thing that really affected me, because we were always able to have down, you know, dry periods when we just couldn't come up with anything and when it just wasn't happening. And so everybody would get tense and, you know, we would argue and - and we just absolutely had no music. But then, to come out of that, we would come up with something great.

But Gulf and Western sent memos that caused us to change our production techniques to the - to the fact that we had three bands going around the clock and - and they wanted a certain number of albums in a certain time period. And so, the president and the vice president, you know, the people who were running the company had to bring out the producers in from the other cities. They brought in producers from Los Angeles and Detroit, you know, because they had to make these quotas and it became a different company.

GROSS: So when you left, did you leave on your own?

Mr. JONES: Yes, I did. I left all by myself. Nobody came with me.

GROSS: What was your life - life like when you moved to Los Angeles?

Mr. JONES: Well I - I - my life was uncertain for a while. But then I found friends in California, they rescued me. And - so I was able to survive out there - out here, rather.

GROSS: And how did your musical life change?

Mr. JONES: Well, as I said I - I found friends who were also somewhat nonconformists, who - who rescued me. I - I met Clarence Avant who at the time was one of the leading entrepreneurs, African-American entrepreneurs in the music industry and he had a start up label that he was working with in California. And he had this guy that was building airplane toilets in Inglewood who had songs that he really loved. His name is Bill Withers and…

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Bill Withers was building airplane toilets?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JONES: Absolutely, absolutely. And Clarence - Clarence called up and sent Bill up to my ranch in Malibu and Bill came up (unintelligible) there with a little tablet full of papers and an old beat up guitar and started to sing songs. And he had some great songs in there. So I was able to work with him and then…

GROSS: So you actually helped discover him.

Mr. JONES: Yeah.

GROSS: I didn't realize that. Okay.

Mr. JONES: I had friends that introduced me to Herb Alpert and Terry Moss, and they were - they were starting a record label and…

GROSS: That was A&M records.

Mr. JONES: Uh huh, yeah. So, we had a relationship. So, I worked with him for a few years and into that producing and arranging albums on Rita Coolidge and various people on their label. And I actually ended up doing solo albums on A&M Records during that time and - and I was able to survive.

GROSS: And you produced Willie Nelson's, you know, now classic "Stardust" album.

Mr. JONES: Yes. Uh-huh. Yes, that - that was one of the reasons why I think I made right decision - was - was because I was able to work in some different genres that I wouldn't have been able to do at Stax Records. Stax wanted to keep it pretty much Memphis soul, which was fine, but Stax was not ever going to be, I don't think, a pop label or a country label. So I don't think I would have been able to take Willie Nelson there or Earl Klugh. I don't think we could have been able to jazz there.

GROSS: And your tastes are so wide ranging, you want - you…

Mr. JONES: Yes.

GROSS: …wanted - you wanted to work in a - in a wide ranging way.

Mr. JONES: Yes, it's one of my greatest disadvantages, liking so many - so many different kinds of music.

GROSS: Can I ask you about your name?

Mr. JONES: I'm named after my father who was Booker T. Jones Sr. and he was named after Booker T. Washington. And the name was Booker Taliaferro. Taliaferro is the middle name.

GROSS: And how did you end up like dropping the Jones from the professional part of your name because it's like Booker T in the MGs? And nobody knows you as Booker T.

Mr. JONES: Well yeah, the - the band needed a name when we recorded "Green Onions." So Al Jackson, the drummer, you know, I was, you know, what'll put - what'll we call it. He said, well, Booker T and the - and he just came up with the MGs. There was a little… This guy, this engineer on the song Chips Moman was driving a little British Leyland sports car, it's called an MG. I don't know if you've ever seen those. And he had to park outside. He used to do tricks with it and everything in the snow, you know. And so they looked out the window, the Booker T and the MGs.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: It's being great to talk with you. Thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. JONES: Well, thank you for having me Terry.

DAVIES: Booker T and Terry Gross recorded in 2007. Booker T's new album is called "Potato Hole." Coming up linguist Geoff Nunberg defends the passive voice. This is FRESH AIR.

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