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

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

Arts and Entertainment
Kathy (Sally Lindsay) in Ordinary Lies
tvReview: The seemingly dull Kathy proves her life is anything but a snoozefest
Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

music
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

film
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

film
Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

film
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

    War with Isis

    Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
    Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

    A spring in your step?

    Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

    Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
    Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

    Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

    For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
    Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

    Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

    As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
    The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

    UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

    Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

    Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
    Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

    Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

    If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
    10 best compact cameras

    A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

    If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
    Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

    Paul Scholes column

    Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
    Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
    Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?