Booker T. Jones returns to Memphis for performance
MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — As a teenager growing up in Memphis, Booker T. Jones delivered newspapers house-to-house, saving all the money he could for organ lessons.
Clearly, his investment paid off.
More than five decades since he played on his first record as a teenager — the danceable “Cause I Love You” by Rufus and Carla Thomas — Jones is still going strong. Now 71, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee is playing his Hammond organ with the same energy he did when Booker T. and the M.G.’s served as the house band for Stax Records in the 1960s and influenced popular music with their funky instrumental hits like “Green Onions” and “Time is Tight.”
On Saturday, Jones will take the stage at the Halloran Center in Memphis, and it will be his first performance in this city since 2012. Joining him will be teenagers from the Stax Music Academy, an after-school program for aspiring musicians who idolize Jones and the other musicians who worked for Stax, from Otis Redding to Sam and Dave.
For the young musicians, it’s an opportunity of a lifetime. For Jones, it’s a homecoming.
“It’s full circle for me, to come back and bring the show back with the music that is still fresh to me,” Jones said in telephone interviews. “I couldn’t do it if I didn’t like the music. I’d be doing something else.”
Jones says he was 14 when he played saxophone — not piano or organ — on “Cause I Love You” for Satellite Records, which soon after became Stax Records. Jones just hung around Satellite’s record shop until he got his break. He already was playing oboe, saxophone, trombone, and piano, and was serving as the organist at his church and the leader of his high school band.
He also was taking organ lessons, paid with the proceeds from his job delivering the Memphis Press-Scimitar newspaper.
“My piano teacher had a (Hammond) B3 organ in her dining room, and so that’s one of the reasons I delivered the Press-Scimitar, to pay for the extra lessons,” Jones said. “I just loved that sound from an early age.”
He was joined by guitarist Steve Cropper, drummer Al Jackson Jr. and bassist Lewie Steinberg as Stax’s house band, playing behind the label’s star singers. One day, when Jones was just 17, he and his mates were just waiting around in the studio when they started playing a tune that became “Green Onions.”
The song, with its funky bass groove and Jones’ punchy organ riffs from a Hammond M3, hit No. 1 on the Billboard R&B Chart in 1962. The song has remained in the American musical consciousness ever since, and was used in films such as “American Graffiti” and “Get Shorty.”
“It’s evocative,” Jones said of “Green Onions.” ″It means something is going to happen, or something is happening. It’s a ‘now’ song.”
Donald “Duck” Dunn replaced Steinberg in 1965. Booker T. and the M.G.’s kept their role as the Stax house band and kept churning out influential music, such as the instrumental “Time is Tight,” which Jones says is his favorite from the Booker T. and the MGs catalog.
The band’s influence went beyond music. In the mid-1960s, during some of the most turbulent days of the American civil rights movement in the South, the band’s makeup was a lesson in racial harmony. Jones and Jackson are black, Cropper and Dunn white.
“There were so many times when they were out front for us, especially when we were traveling,” Jones said of Cropper and Dunn. “I couldn’t buy food, I couldn’t check into hotels. They would do that type of thing. We actually did that for them in a couple of black neighborhoods when they couldn’t check in.”
Jones left Stax in 1970 and moved to Los Angeles, where he became a solo artist and producer. He spent some time away from music in the following years, even working as a real estate agent for a while.
Jones’ “Potato Hole” album, which he recorded with Drive-By Truckers and Neil Young, was his first solo album in two decades. It won a Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental Album in 2009.
His 2011 album, “The Road from Memphis,” won the same award two years later. He is joined by The Roots and Lou Reed on that album, and Jones sings on it as well.
At Stax Music Academy, located in the gritty Memphis neighborhood known as Soulsville, 17-year-old Kaylin Fields is learning alto saxophone, and she also sings. She plays music at churches in Memphis — much like Jones did — and is studying music just steps from where Booker T. and the M.G.’s recorded.
She is one of the musicians who was selected to play with Jones on Saturday.
“To look back and see the hits that he has and the progress he made by breaking racial barriers, it’s humbling,” Fields said. “Seeing what he did and what I’m doing now, it’s really encouraging to me.”