For many of us baby boomers, his music was the soundtrack to our lives. Booker T. Jones laid down a Memphis groove deep enough to wallow in, deep-dish Southern soul that rocked our bodies and soothed our souls.
Jones was only 17 when he recorded his hit “Green Onions” in 1962, an itchy, funky instrumental that got under your skin and stayed on your mind. Jones was already a working pro, playing Hammond organ with his group the MGs — Steve Cropper on guitar, Duck Dunn on bass and Al Jackson Jr. on drums — serving as the house band for Stax records in his Memphis hometown.
The MGs backed up the biggest dawg on the Stax roster, Otis Redding, in the studio and often on the road, along with Stax stablemates Sam and Dave and Eddie Floyd, also backing Wilson Pickett and Carla Thomas for studio cuts.
Jones was not only working full time but going to college as well at Indiana University.
“We were the house band at Stax, and it was a push, a struggle just for me to get away to go to school,” Jones said by phone recently from his Lake Tahoe, Nev., home. “From ’62 to ’66, that was a big deal, leaving against everybody’s wishes. We were ensconced. We were in the studio all the time.”
Redding cut six albums at Stax between ‘64 and ‘67, some with Isaac Hayes sitting in for Jones. But Jones still treasures the time he spent with Redding. In the booklet for the 1978 four LP vinyl release “The Otis Redding Story,” baritone sax player Floyd Newman reveals that Redding would have all the arrangements worked out in his head before he got into the studio.
“He knew every line and every hole in every place,” Newman said.
Redding would go over to the horn section and sing the parts he heard in his head, waving his big old fist in the air right in front of your face, pumping up the players. Although Jones played baritone sax as well, he was usually on keys for Redding’s sessions.
“He kinda depended on me for some ideas, and then he had his own ideas,” Jones says. “But yeah, he would sing his ideas to the horns. He would come down there and sing the lines with enthusiasm. And that impressed people, you know? He really knew what he wanted, and it was usually great.”
Tenor sax man Andrew Love, who teamed with trumpeter Wayne Jackson, billing themselves as the Memphis Horns, also comments in the booklet about Redding’s gift for putting the horn parts in places that in theory should not have worked, but when they tried them, they fit perfectly.
“We get these people with this uncanny knack for how things work, and they know,” Jones says with a throaty chuckle. “You don’t always trust them at first, but they know! He was one of those guys.”
But Jones says that although Redding’s had strong ides about what he wanted, his presence in the studio wasn’t overbearing — he was open to input.
“He allowed other things to go on,” Jones says. “His ego wasn’t so big that you couldn’t be doing something else if you didn’t want to, but most likely, you didn’t wanna be doing something else.”
Redding and his unique sound were a major component of the success of Stax records. But it almost didn’t happen. Redding was a big fan of Little Richard and initially tried to emulate his frenetic delivery until Stax owner Jim Stewart gave him some advice: ‘You’re not Little Richard, you don’t have to be Little Richard.’ And that’s when he became Otis Redding,” Jones says.
Jones was devastated over Redding’s tragic death in a plane crash in 1967.
“He was a friend of mine, and he was a good person,” Jones says. “It was a pleasure to be in the room with him. It was a privilege.”
Redding was such a strong presence that his energy filled any space he was in. “The word was passion, that’s what it was. He was just having a good time and doing what he wanted to do and it just turned into this strong energy. (He was) just a really good soul-that was a big loss for everybody.”
Jones carried on, staying at Stax and recording with The MGs and on his own. Things were never the same at the label after ‘67, when a clause in a distribution agreement Stax head Stewart signed with Atlantic records head Jerry Wexler gave them all rights including reproduction of the entire Stax catalog from ’60-’67.
“When Atlantic showed up, I thought they were just nice benefactors. I wasn’t so business savvy then. I wish I was,” he says, chuckling ruefully.
Leaving in 1970 to move to California, Jones put out several albums including the Grammy-winning (Best Pop Instrumental) “Road From Memphis” in 2011. His interpretation of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” is mesmerizing — his Hammond organ resembling an anguished human voice so uncannily that it takes a few bars to figure out it’s coming from Jones’ fingers and not from some swamp creature gargling with grave dirt.
“Two o’clock in the morning in New York, with Questlove on drums, and Captain Kirk on guitar,” Jones says referring to the Roots band members he used as band session men for the cut.
Jones currently tours with his youngest son Ted, 29, on guitar, who has been with his dad for the past three years. “I’m working on something with my son. I got him in my band. We’re having a good time. We’re working on music together.”
Jones is a soft-spoken man who radiates kindness and tranquility, wanting to leave behind a low-key legacy.
“Just that I gave people some good times and some way to relax and maybe get away from their worries and enjoy some music, just that simple thing,” he says.
With that response, it seems proper to thank him for providing us with the soundtrack of our lives.
“I appreciate it, he says humbly. “That’s what I’m talking about. That’s what I’m here for.”