Booker T. Jones was at the heart of the Stax Records soul sound out of Memphis even before he came up with his instrumental groove, “Green Onions,” in 1962. He then led the indomitable M.G.’s on a series of organ-led hits, backed such performers as Ray Charles and Neil Young, and produced standout albums including Bill Withers’ debut and Willie Nelson’s “Stardust.”
In more recent years, Jones has won Grammys for albums recorded with the Roots and the Drive-By Truckers. Last month, he helmed the band backing the all-star MusiCares salute to Tom Petty before the Grammys, where his old songwriting partner William Bell sang “Born Under a Bad Sign,” the classic they wrote for Albert King.
Jones, 72, spoke to us from snowy Lake Tahoe about his hits, his youthful opportunities and the signature instrument that he can’t take on tour.
Q: What is it about such songs as “Green Onions,” “Time s Tight” and “Hip Hug-Her” that makes them stand the test of time? The groove? The simplicity?
A: You hit the nail on the head there: the simplicity. Well, the apparent simplicity, I’ll put it like that, from the position of the player. The apparent simplicity. “Green Onions” appears to be a simple song, but every time I play it I have to pay attention. I have to remember and school myself on how the notes go, because it’s just not as simple as it sounds.
Q: You recorded that song at 17; did you have any idea it would be a hit?
A: I wasn’t thinking about a hit. I was just having fun, playing chord changes I learned in my theory lesson. And that happened by mistake. We got to the studio, and something didn’t work with the band before us and we were supposed to be the backup band. I’m not sure whether they finished early or whether (label founder and producer) Jim (Stewart) was unhappy with what they were doing, but we ended up with a free studio on a Sunday afternoon.
Q: And you had that melody in your head?
A: Yes. I had been playing it on piano. … But I played the organ the previous session, so I was sitting at the organ and played it at the organ, and they liked it on the organ better than on piano.
Q: Seventeen is pretty young to be in a studio at all, let alone on all those Stax records.
A: It was, but I was fortunate. I had been in the studio two years at that point. Stax needed a baritone sax player, because their baritone sax player, Floyd Newman, was a schoolteacher. And he would be in school weekdays, so they came and got me out of algebra class. I got my baritone sax and went down there, and I got the job and told them I could play piano.
Q: It must be gratifying to have helped create the Stax sound that is so strong and influential today.
A: It was unbelievably good fortune to be born there, even if nothing had happened like it did. Because it was such a rich field to grow in – to learn the chords, to play with the musicians, to get the opportunities to play, just the atmosphere there, the schools, the horns that were available to me. When I was 9 years old, I had my hands on an oboe; I was playing oboe in the school orchestra. It was such good fortune.
Q: Having a hit with “Green Onions” defined your role as an organist, though it wasn’t your main instrument at the time, was it?
A: It did. I had always played ukulele, clarinet and guitar – that was my main rock ‘n’ roll instrument. That’s what I played at school and at home. I had a Sears Silvertone and I fancied myself as a guitar player. I got the job at Stax on piano because (Steve) Cropper was the guitar player.
Q: Once you had that hit, you stayed at the organ.
A: Well, I was happy at the organ. The first time I saw a Hammond organ, I just got a feeling inside about it and I was comfortable. I still am comfortable. Maybe I’m more comfortable at that than any other instrument.
Q: What is it about the Hammond B-3 that no other instrument can do?
A: Well, because it’s a sustained sound as opposed to a piano, and because it has those Leslie cabinets and the horns turn, you can make it sing like a human voice. You can make it sustain louder or softer. You can play more than one note at a time, or you can move the notes. I think an organ player can make it sing.
You know, they came up with this thing in 1934 out of automobile parts. Laurens Hammond designed it. He was a clockmaker and an inventor. He was just a special person. And sometimes the first time they do something is the best way. But none of the organs are practical. So when I play on the road, I have to play what the rental companies have.
Q: You can’t take one on the road?
A: That all ended in 1992 when the airlines changed their freight fares, and now I don’t carry mine any more. They started doing it by weight and it became prohibitive. … It’s also a very difficult instrument to maintain. It’s not meant to be moved around.
Q: Has anyone tried to make a digital keyboard that emulates that sound?
A: Yes, the process is going on right now. I’ve been going back and forth with Hammond for I don’t know how long in Chicago. They made another prototype; they want me to OK it. And to be honest with you, I’m still not sure about it. I’ve played them, but I’m still not comfortable with them. I want to be, but I’m not.