By Steve Newton
When Booker T. Jones answers the phone at his Lake Tahoe home he sounds cool, calm, and collected. Mostly cool. That’s no surprise, as Jones has been producing some of the chilliest sounds around for the last 50 years or so. Ever since his instrumental combo the M.G.’s shot to fame with the Stax hit “Green Onions” in 1962 he’s been a fixture on the American music scene, his contributions earning him induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992 and a Grammy for lifetime achievement in 2007.
Knowing how productive Jones has been during his illustrious career, I ask him what he has planned for the day—besides chatting with the likes of me. Is he gonna write a tune or two, perhaps?
“You know what?” he replies cheerfully. “That is on the agenda. I’m workin’ on my songs; we have some new ideas. But my main project is that I’m working on my memoirs. I’m working on the story of my life, you know.”
And what a fascinating read that promises to be. Jones–wh0 plays Vancouver’s Vogue Theatre this Saturday (February 13)–could mention how he cowrote “Green Onions” while still in high school, and how at 16 he scored his first pro gig playing sax on the 1960 Rufus & Carla hit “ ‘Cause I Love You”. That’s before he was known for the percolating Hammond B3 organ sound that became his trademark with the M.G.’s and still is today.
Jones’s B3 stylings have most recently been heard on his 2013 album, Sound the Alarm, which features appearances by the likes of singers Mayer Hawthorne, Estelle, and Jay James, and guitarists Raphael Saadiq and Gary Clark Jr. One guest on Sound the Alarm whose name might not ring a bell is Ted Jones, who delivers some fierce guitar on “Father Son Blues”. Turns out that’s Booker’s 22-year-old son, whose talent Jones Sr. wasn’t even aware of until he mistook his playing for that of six-string stalwart Joe Bonamassa.
“We had a big TV in the family room,” he recalls, “and I thought the big TV was on. I had bought him a guitar, but I didn’t realize he was in the room, and man, he was rippin’ it! I thought it was Joe on YouTube or somethin’!”
When asked if he has a personal fave song on the album, Jones doesn’t go with the track featuring his kid, but chooses the one boasting a more acclaimed picker: Clark. “I really love ‘Austin City Blues’,” he says. “We were doing neo-soul, and I think it was an accomplishment to do that song. It’s blues the way I heard it as an eight-year-old in Memphis.”
It’s been a long journey since then for Jones, who, at 71, has outlived scads of music legends who never made it to 70. The recent deaths of people like David Bowie and Glenn Frey aren’t lost on him.
“That’s been happening so much,” he says, “so much. Of course, it happened to me years ago when I lost [Booker T. & the M.G.’s drummer] Al Jackson Jr. in the ’70s, and then of course, you know, [M.G.’s bassist] Duck Dunn three years ago.
“I’m in a field where some of my contemporaries abuse their bodies,” adds Jones, “and so they pass earlier than they should. But I’m feelin’ good, you know. I was a pretty good boy, fortunately.”