Interview and story by Don Wilcock

“To be a writer in the world, you need to have all kinds of eyes and ears open all the time and be noticing all kinds of little things and big things,” says Booker T. Jones, who headlines the free Albany Riverfront Jazz Festival at Jennings Landing on Saturday (September 12). “You need to be always looking out as a creative person. I think that’s what I do that alerts me (to things in the musicians’ personality that I’m able to translate into their music).”

In 1962, at a time when Motown had all but turned soul music into lipstick and slinky dresses, Booker T. Jone blended the Ray Charles-Hammond B-3-organ-special soul sauce of “What’d I Say” into a righteous and uproarious instrumental hit single called “Green Onions.” Hand-in-glove with guitarist Steve Cropper, bass player Donald “Duck” Dunn and drummer Al Jackson, Jr., Jones threw out the rule book against mixed-race bands in the south and built Stax Records – and the towering southern soul sound along with it – around his band the MGs, pumping out hit after hit for the likes of Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Eddie Floyd and Albert King.

As a producer, Jones has always been able to bring the best out in other artists. The opening quotes, for instance, are in reference to Bill Withers for whom Jones produced two deep soul hits in 1971 – “Ain’t No Sunshine” and “Grandma’s Hands.” “There’s an unassuming simplicity about him that just became very contagious,” says Jones about Withers. “I’ll put it that way. When Bill first showed up, he had on Brogans, and I think some overalls at my ranch in the early ’70s. So that said a lot, you know. He was building airplane toilets. That subtext – that sub-character – is still there in him. He’ll go and fix your door before he’ll sing for ya. He’s a carpenter. That’s who he is. He loves music. He just loves music. He can’t help it.”

In 1978, Willie Nelson asked Booker T. to produce Stardust, a collection of pop standards that took the country star out of his comfort zone. The LP included Nelson’s signature song “Blue Skies,” remained on the country charts for 10 years and earned Nelson a Grammy Award for Best Male Country Vocal Performance for “Georgia on My Mind.”

“After we started recording I (recognized something special was happening),” says Jones, “’cause I was listening to the tapes every night after the session. I would drive home and put it in the car and then stay up at home listening to it. Yeah! Yeah! It was special to me.”

Not every session works that smoothly. In 1981, he produced an album for Rita Coolidge – two years after he divorced her sister Priscilla. “Yes, it was problematic. I survived. I’ve had guitars thrown at me, but this time I think it was a Gibson L100. One of my best Gibson guitars got thrown all the way across the room at me.”

In this decade alone Booker T. Jones has earned Grammys for his own albums, Potato Hole (recorded in 2010 with the Drive-By Truckers) and The Road from Memphis (his 2010 album with the Roots). His latest album, Sound the Alarm, was co-produced by brothers Ross and Issiah Avila, whose credits include Janet Jackson, Mary J. Blige and Chaka Khan. Guests include young blues sensation Gary Clark, Jr. and contemporary R&B artists Raphael Saadiq, Mayer Hawthorne and Jay James.

“I’ve learned a lot from the people who are younger than me. In most cases I didn’t have any choice because I was the oldest guy in the place. But I have found that genius has no age. There was a whole bunch of guys who were my age or a little older, and they were taking in the young black guys like Gary into the clubs and showing them the blues, and that’s how he learned, and it kinda reminded me of how I learned down on Beale Street. I was always hanging around downstairs and not able to get in and telling ’em, ‘Oh, I can play. I can play,’ and Gary came up there. He’s authentic even though he doesn’t have the age to be an authentic player like Muddy Waters or Howlin’ Wolf. He was raised in that city nigh club environment.”

Booker T. Jones was 17 when he cut “Green Onions” with one other black man and two white guys. Booker T. & the MGs broke the rules and changed the paradigm with an instrumental so powerful it sticks in your mind forever after just one hearing. If Elvis created nuclear fusion with the collision of country and blues to produce rock and roll, Booker T. & the MGs did the same thing with Ray Charles B-3 soul and Steve Cropper’s funky R&B guitar to create the Stax southern soul sound.

“If I had any expertise with the chords, they had the expertise with the rhythm, and they just did it,” says Jones simply. “They just had the practice in the clubs and whatever and that tight rhythm, and I didn’t have to think about that or worry about it. All I had to do was play my little chords, and there it came together.”

Like so many great artists, Jones does not view what he did – and still does – as culture-changing art. About breaking the bi-racial rules of Memphis? “Yes, yes, we thought about that. I thought about that, but there was no choice. There was just no choice because we were doing what we were doing, and a lot of the world didn’t know about it at first, so it didn’t matter. We didn’t know if we were going to have any hit records. We were just having a good time, but yeah, we thought about it. It was against the rules, but that was OK.”

And, in spite of his incredible career of making music that streams through the heads of millions around the world, he says he still can’t tell when he’s hearing something that is destined to be a great hit. “I don’t think I do ’cause I have so much music in my head that I’m not sure that I know when something is great.

“I hear configurations of music, various configurations, sometimes in orchestra, sometimes a jazz group. Right now, I’m working on Jaco Pastorious music that I’m gonna go down and play with in L.A. This guy has arranged some Jaco Pastorius songs, and they have horns similar to the type of thing that Gil Evans did with Miles Davis in the arrangements, and so that configuration is what is set in my head right now, and it just varies from thing to thing. Sometimes it’s just the piano. It’s like the whole creative music thing. It’s a natural – a nature thing. Nature’s in charge of all of us, I think.”

WHAT: Albany Riverfront Jazz Festival
WHO: Booker T. Jones, Kate Davis, Keith Pray’s Soul Jazz Revival, the Joey Thomas Big Band and Larry Moses’ Latin Jazz Express
WHEN: 1pm Saturday (September 12)
WHERE: Jennings Landing at the Corning Preserve, Albany
RAIN SITE: The Corning Preserve Boat Launch Parking Lot under the I-787 Overpass, Albany

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