Booker T. Jones looks back on Stax and the Memphis sound

From his earliest years in the segregated South in Memphis, Booker T. Jones’s driving force was music.

While he worked paper routes and played gigs in local nightclubs to pay for lessons and support his family, on the side he was also recording sessions in what became the famous Stax studios — all while in high school.

Not long after that, he would form the genre-defining group Booker T. & the M.G.’s, whose recordings went on to sell millions of copies, land a place on Rolling Stone‘s list of the top 500 songs of all time, and help forge collaborations with some of the era’s most influential artists, like Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett and Sam & Dave.

Booker T. Jones’s book Time Is Tight is a deeply moving account of how he balanced the brutality of the segregated South while transforming a burgeoning studio into a musical Mecca. He also released a companion album called Note by Note to accompany the memoir.

Jones joined us in the Gumbo Kitchen to talk more about that book and all the memories contained within it.

Recommended Links

What made you decide to write a book at this point?

Well, I didn’t decide to write it at this point. I was writing essays in practice for songwriting. I brought the essays home, showed them to my wife, and she suggested that I make the essays into a book. I thought it was a good suggestion. But I was not a writer. I thought that I could do that, but of course I had to learn the process, and that took a while.

Why did you opt out of using a ghostwriter?

I had many good offers from great writers. Toward the end of the second draft, I read a book by a very good friend who passed away, and it was a great book, but it didn’t sound like my friend. I wanted my book to have my voice, even if it was not well-written.

At some point early in your career, you accompanied Mahalia Jackson, didn’t you? How did that happen?

This was at a private home out on Parkway in Memphis on a Sunday afternoon for a tea attended by church ladies. Mahalia was on tour, and I’m not sure what happened but her accompanist was not able to make it, so they were looking for someone to play piano for her. They called my church, and they suggested that I do it. My mother taught me the song, Take My Hand, Precious Lord. She taught it to me in every key — we weren’t sure which key Ms. Jackson she was going to sing it in.

Another cool story in the book is how you became a member of the Stax house band. Can you share that?

I was in algebra class. I wasn’t too crazy about that. Buy my friend David Porter knew I played baritone sax, and at Stax that day, they were having a session. Carla Thomas and her father Rufus Thomas were recording the song ‘Cause I Love You. They wanted another saxophone; their saxophone player was a teacher and he was in school. So David came to get me out of my algebra class with a hall pass. He borrowed the band director’s car and sped me over, and I walked in and played my very first recording session.

We’ve all seen The Blues Brothers, where the band is playing with chicken wire in front of the stage. That actually happened to you, didn’t it?

Yes, it did happen to me in a club in Texas when I was playing with the M.G.’s in the ’60s. They put the chicken wire up after the soundcheck. We came for the gig, and there it was. The night went by without incident, but I couldn’t relax on stage that night.

New Orleans had its very distinct sound. Muscle Shoals had their sound. Motown had theirs. How would you describe the Stax sound?

The Stax sound was very accessible, funky sound that was based on simplicity and feeling. Most of the Stax singers of their day were like Otis Redding, they put a lot of feeling into the music. It was pretty accessible, and danceable in a lot of cases.

When I listen to bands like The Meters, Booker T. & the M.G.’s, The Swampers, I find the music to be deceptively simple. I spoke to George Porter, Jr., of the Meters, and he told me people never play their song Sissy Strut properly, as simple as it is. Is it the same with Green Onions?

I’ve heard a few organ players play it correctly, but mostly people don’t play it with the right hand doing the right thing. It was based on a contrapuntal movement. I was studying Bach at the time and playing blues in Memphis. The top note moves down and the bottom note moves up. And like you said, it’s deceptively simple and not that easy to play.

After Green Onions is released, it’s a hit. And you insisted on staying in school. Why did you do that?

I had enrolled at Indiana University. Green Onions started blowing up the charts in September, but I had already filled out the papers and paid for two semesters of tuition. It was a legacy of my family to try to get an education. But I needed some music education. I was fooling people. I didn’t really know how to read music. I could play music that I’d heard before, but I needed that instruction on everything.

Can you tell me about the first time you met Otis Redding?

I saw a guy taking a bass drum and suitcases out the back of a station wagon and loading them on the sidewalk in front of Stax. He was the driver for Johnny Jenkins and the Pinetoppers, and he was the guy who went to get lunch for us when they were doing their recording sessions. His name was Otis Redding. It was the same guy who sat next to me and sang These Arms of Mine toward the end of the day. That changed everything, because he was not supposed to become a star like that and take attention away from the main band like he did.

So he shows up loading gear, and he leaves basically as a star?

Absolutely. I can’t imagine what it was like in that car ride back home.

One of the greatest performances I’ve ever heard was Booker T. & the M.G.’s and Otis Redding at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. Here you are playing for all the hippies — the “love crowd,” as Otis put it — and everyone’s wearing flowers in their hair and that’s what they’re singing. Did you have any fear, going on stage that night, that you would not be accepted?

There was a lot of apprehension. When we got into town, we realized how different we were. We were wearing mohair suits and it was like we were in Elvis Presley’s band or something. But we got a very, very warm reception.

In 2011, you released what I would easily call the album of the year: The Road From Memphis, backed by hip-hop band The Roots. I think it’s one of the best records you’ve made in your career. What was recording with The Roots like? It felt like a modern-day Booker T. & the M.G.’s.

Thank you. I’m glad you feel that way about it. It was recorded here in New York City, and it was a challenge getting Questlove away from Jimmy Fallon’s The Tonight Show. They were just starting that, so they were doing double duty when they worked on my album. But they paid so much attention to my music and gave so much of themselves. That’s the one that I had Sharon Jones, and I had Lou Reed come in and sing a song.