Booker T Jones: The king of Stax picks up his axe
With his band the MGs, Booker T was the resident genius at one of America's great soul labels. Now, with a bit of help from Neil Young, he's turning off his organ and enrolling in the school of rock
Sunday 26 April 2009
The footage still exists, sometimes in colour, sometimes black-and-white – always grainy. Sometimes the downstage focus is Otis Redding, stamping both his feet like a giant toddler in the effort to shake his soul down. Sometimes it's Sam and Dave, bouncing around in a spume of masculine sweat. There is even film of just the four of them, the MGs, in smart grey suits, clustering and bobbing while they do their thing. The footage is grainy but the sound is always tight, punchy, swinging, elegant, unembroidered. Soulful. And always Booker T Jones – their leader – looks strangely detached, smiling faintly off to one side, as if all the tumult going on around him has nothing to do with him at all, thank you. He just happens to be there at the time, sitting buttoned up and tidy at his organ...
The MGs (abbreviated from the Memphis Group) were the Stax house band throughout the 1960s, the elegant, swinging, punchy, ultra-tight rhythm unit which brought shape and structure to the seething music that emerged from Stax's Memphis home in the decade which also gave the world – well, the UK – the Mod and his buttoned-down style imperatives. Along with the Funk Brothers at Motown and the Muscle Shoals house band in Alabama, Booker T and the MGs were the blue-chip building contractors of soul music. It was they who pored over the plans, rolled up their sleeves and made the edifice stand.
So, given all that shapeliness and tightness, it is disarming to hear Booker T Jones's new album, Potato Hole. He cut it last September for the independent Anti label (also home of Tom Waits) after hiring an unexpected parcel of labourers to carry the musical hod. Neil Young plays incredibly loud guitar on the thing; rhythmic drive comes courtesy of the Drive-By Truckers, a hairy Southern rock band who number a further three guitarists in their ranks. Potato Hole is an almighty racket.
"My new incarnation," says the man who cooked "Green Onions" so fastidiously in 1962, "the way I have reinvented myself over the past 18 to 20 months, is as an in-your-face Southern bluesman who is playing rock – and that's coming from my heart." Booker T Jones levels his impassive features, blinks his heavy lids and takes a sip of water. He is the most diffident in-your-face Southern bluesman you could ever imagine.
A "potato hole" is a depository, a cache for secret food supplies dug into the dirt floor of a slave shelter in the Old South. "But my potato hole... well, we're not hiding what we've got in there. For me," says Jones, "my potato hole is the place I have deposited my musical treasures for safe keeping. The things you won't have seen. My little candies. You can go and get them in there, and so can I..."
The inference one is supposed to draw from all of this is that Booker T has always been an in-your-face Southern bluesman, it's just that we've never had the chance to peek into the hole before.
But why the Truckers? "The main qualification," he says, "is that they're an in-your-face, blues-based Southern rock band. They strum. They pick. They're from Georgia. And that's where you have to go to get that quality. Even more importantly, the Truckers were influenced by both me and Neil Young." This is said matter-of-factly, as if pointing out that the benefit his glass of water is bringing to his body is due to the water's wetness. "And the way it worked was just beautiful. They gave themselves over to me for that week. They didn't hold themselves back. They just allowed me to lay my ideas on 'em. There was no hint of an attitude, ever..."
Jones is an alumnus of Booker T Washington High School in Memphis, as were more than a few of the brightest stars of Memphis musical history. There are Booker T Washington High Schools all over the South, named for the slavery-born educator, writer and orator who emerged as a major, but not radical, leader of the African-American community
towards the end of the 19th century. The schools follow what we would call the comprehensive model. Booker T Jones's dad taught maths at the Memphis institution and when Jones Junior finally got there at the age of 14, "it was like coming home".
"The first thing that happened to me at the school was this incredible marching band, led by Mr McDaniels." Jones always name-checks everyone. It is his policy. "Plus they had a great combo – it was the first time I'd ever heard a combo play. And they had a fantastic band room stocked with instruments and a truly open-door policy. You could walk in any time and pick up an instrument and learn it. That policy extended to the music director lending [Stax writer and producer] David Porter his car to take me to Stax the first time I went there. The place had a spirit and a pride that was all to do with music. If you were a Washingtonian, it meant you had to do things to a certain level of excellence."
Jones has gravitas by the shovel. He is one of those musicians who sees being a musician not as a career path, but as a social tradition, in which musicians form an unbroken chain of accomplishment and self-improvement. Does he have heroes? You bet he does. And he thinks about what having heroes means.
"I don't know if heroes can ever live up to the reason for having them," he says, presumably not wishing to load them with the additional burden of having to achieve personal perfection. "But I do think that, if possible, you should play music only for the sake of playing music."
Ray Charles tops his list. "I always believed that it was true, completely for real, whatever Ray was doing," he says slowly. "There are some people, like me, who go to a teacher and ask: how do you do this? I had a great organ teacher. She said, 'Do it like this' on a daily basis and in due course the organ became the instrument I was known for. But there are people who come on to this earth and nobody shows 'em anything and they just know how to do it. That thing is channelled through these guys. And coming from a journeyman's perspective, that's what makes these guys great.
"Ray was one of them, and so is Stevie Wonder. His album Innervisions is an example of a musician having something to offer more than the music; when you sense he's touching something a little bit beyond – when there's something there that is a little bit more than meets the eye. He is just amazing. Maybe it's something to do with his and Ray's blindness – but it all goes into the music."
Jones is impassive as any buddha at a dining table at a members' club in Soho. The white tablecloth throws light into his eyes.
"Stevie came to an MGs gig at the Bottom Line in New York one time. That would have been in the late 1960s. He was sitting over there at the bar..." You can tell Booker T is seeing Stevie now. But words fail him. "Uh... he just picks up on everything – it's like he's got tentacles out." He waves the memory away.
As formative an influence as Ray Charles, but at a much less metaphysical level, was Bill Doggett, the band leader/organist who had a mighty R&B hit in 1956 with "Honky Tonk". "Honky Tonk" is such a formal archetype of choogling greasy locomotion that it ought to come stamped with stern warnings from the Parody Police, as well as the Health Inspectorate. You can hear the links to the MGs, but the MGs come off as sleek R&B modernists by comparison. "After hearing Ray Charles, this was just too much. I just wanted to imitate it. We're talking hero here."
A less obvious hero is Gil Evans, the august band leader and arranger who shaped the cloud formations surrounding Miles Davis on Sketches of Spain and Miles Ahead, among others. "Talk about being out of the box," says Jones, in bandleader mode. "The preparation it must have taken to work both musically and non-musically with Miles Davis, and to accomplish what he did – I have great appreciation for it. He's a musical painter. He does with music what painters do with brushes... textures, colours, using instruments so that they can reach your sense of beauty."
Then there's the guitar, of which Booker T is mightily fond. You see, this shining light of the Booker T Washington High School band room is an authentic multi-instrumentalist. He has done the spade work on flute, clarinet, trombone, oboe, baritone sax, alto sax, soprano sax, several horns and guitar as well as organ. He wrote Potato Hole on the stringed instrument and he wields his axe all over the album alongside Neil Young and the three Truckers. "I became a keyboardist by default, because 'Green Onions' was a hit. But in my heart and soul I was always a guitarist." His guitar heroes are Wes Montgomery, Neil Young, Jimi Hendrix and... Chet Atkins.
Chet Atkins? The long-faced country picker, frowning on a high stool underneath a big fat Gretsch strung with telegraph poles?
"Yup. He truly made my heart jump."
Booker T is going down to New Orleans at some point in the coming weeks. He's 65 now. He's not going for the view, nor the gumbo. He is going to donate all the unplayed musical instruments in his garage to local schools. "When I was 12, 13 or 14, if those instruments hadn't been available to me for free, I wouldn't be sitting here today. And schools just don't have the programmes any more to pay for the instruments. So the kids need 'em free. They're all just sitting in my garage and that ain't right."
The spirit of the potato hole is all about survival.
'Potato Hole' is out now on Anti records
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