Booker T. Jones gives in to his urge to rock



By Steve Newton

In the music business, having the right manager is huge, as Hammond B3 legend Booker T. Jones recently learned. Before recording his latest album, Potato Hole, Jones found a new manager in Dave Bartlett, who hooked him up with the Drive-By Truckers, the raggedy southern-rock outfit that serves as his backing group on the CD.

“He was suggesting that I jam with some new people,” explains Jones on the line from his Bay Area home. “He introduced me to Jason Isbell of the Drive-By Truckers down at South by Southwest about two years ago, and I became aware of the band through him.”

Isbell left the DBTs before the recording of Potato Hole, but current members Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley, and John Neff spread their guitars all over the CD, making it the most rockin’ disc of Jones’s illustrious career. His first release on the Anti- label, it opens with the aptly titled “Pound It Out”, which sets his trademark organ sound amid a crunchy, riff-driven shuffle. The all-instrumental album also sports a butt-shaking take on OutKast’s contagious dance track “Hey Ya”.

“I went for the rock this time,” notes the 64-year-old Jones. “I’d never done it before because I really hadn’t had a record label that didn’t see me as strictly an R&B artist. With the new label, they were like, ”˜Well, where do you want to go, Booker, and what do you want to do?’ So I said, ”˜Oh, I want to play some rock!’ ”

To help accomplish that feat, Jones recruited Neil Young—whom he’d first met in 1991, at the historic tribute to Bob Dylan at Madison Square Garden—to add his own rough-hewn guitar stylings. After playing for years with the incomparable Steve Cropper in Booker T. & the MGs, Jones is used to handling the best six-string wizards around. His current touring band continues the tradition, boasting the talents of former Black Crowes stringbender Marc Ford.

“I’ve been fortunate in my career,” notes Jones, “and not just with guitar pickers, but with writers and singers and everything.”

Some of the artists Jones has worked with in his various roles as musician, producer, and arranger include Sam & Dave, Eddie Floyd, Bobby Darin, Wilson Pickett, John Lee Hooker, Bill Withers, Willie Nelson, and Albert King (for whom he cowrote the blues classic “Born Under a Bad Sign”). But he doesn’t hesitate when asked which artist has left the biggest impression on him.

“Yeah that was Otis,” he blurts out, “Otis Redding. We were friends, and to have a friend like that who just explodes—you know, one moment he’s a quiet guy sitting next to you talking and then the next moment he’s just exploding with musical energy on-stage—was amazing.”

Jones’s journey to becoming a master of the B3 started when he was just a kid taking piano lessons from a Mrs. Cole on Orleans Street in Memphis. She had an organ in her dining room, and when she played it for him it was love at first sound. By the time he was 17, in 1962, he’d featured the Hammond on the Booker T. & the MGs instrumental hit “Green Onions”. Forty-seven years later, he’s never gotten tired of that tune.

“It still is one of my favourite songs,” he claims. “I love hearing the original version and I love playing it. It’s like a part of me.”

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