Interview: Booker T. Jones

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The world-famous instrumentalist, Booker T. Jones, joins Eddie’s Attic on February 28th for a multi-show event. Famous for his songs, Green Onions, Hip Hug-Her, and A Change is Gonna Come; his melodic talent is legendary.

I had a chance to catch up with Booker to discuss his 50+ years as an accomplished musician, his beginnings in music, and the most exciting moments of his career.


JS: I want to know about your beginnings with music. I know you started really young, in high school, with playing instruments. What got you motivated to take that step?

BTJ: I started when my mom had an old upright piano, and I was trying to reach the thing with my tippy-toes. I had all these ideals in my mind, and I was trying to play the piano… and I begged for a drum. I got a ukulele probably when I was around 5 or 6-years-old from a 5-and-dime store downtown, and I read the diagrams on the back of the packets. So I was really young when I started with music.

JS: So you were playing from a very young age, elementary age, even.

BTJ: Yeah, my father bought me a clarinet when I was nine-years-old, going into 4th grade, and I got some clarinet lessons, and then I taught myself to play the oboe when I was 10.

JS: Wow! That’s a lot of musical talent, even when you were just really young.

BTJ: Well, I heard the oboe played next door to me. [My neighbor’s] son was a music director, and his son was an accomplished oboe player, so I knew what it was supposed to sound like. I was in the 4th grade, and I went to the Junior High School band room, and they had an oboe there that no one ever touched… so I got to take it home with me.

JS: That is really impressive, especially for 10! So, how many instruments do you play, exactly?

BTJ: You know, I’ve never counted, Jena, I don’t know if that’s possible. I have a lot of guitars, which sprung from the ukulele. I played baritone saxophone, and that sprang from the oboe and the clarinet. And, of course, the piano, which came from my mother and the organ kind of evolved from my piano lessons.

JS: So it’s just a whole slew of them! Wow. Which would you consider your favorite, would it be the organ?

BTJ: Yes, I became known as an organist, and it’s sort of my go-to instrument when I play a concert… it’s probably the most versatile of all the instruments because of the number of sounds you can get.

JS: So, I read that you grew up in Memphis; do you think that influenced your style of music and your desire to play?

BTJ: Yeah! I’m just reflecting on growing up in Memphis, and I think it was fortunate that I was born there. It’s a city with a great musical heritage. There are a lot of other musicians from there… WC Handy wrote his blues there. People from 300-400 miles round kind of gravitated towards Memphis. It was a breading ground for music.

I absolutely think it [influenced my style]because there was country there, there was classical music, blues, and a lot of jazz that I heard as a young kid.

JS: Yeah, and I’m sure that growing up in a city with that kind of passion just makes you want to be a part of it.

BTJ: Yeah! And I was able to make some money as a part of it! [laughs]

I started selling the Memphis Will at 6 cents a copy, but then when I realized I could go out to a fraternity party and make $5 in one night, that was quite a but more than 6 cents a copy. [laughs]

JS: So, about what age, then, did you get started with Booker T. and the MGs?

BTJ: Seventeen! I was 17 when we recorded Green Onions. We had worked together for about a year before that, as a studio band… I got my first job playing baritone sax, and that’s when I met everybody over there.

JS: That is remarkably young to be studying music, that’s really impressive.

BTJ: It was, and it was great to get out of algebra and all those classes. [laughs]My friend would come with a hall pass and say, you know, that the band director would want me for some important reason, and I would go to Satellite Records and play over there!

JS: I mean, that’s the best excuse I’ve heard for getting out of math class!

BTJ: [laughs]The teachers never knew the truth.

JS: So what would you say was your most pivotal moment as a group?

BTJ: Well, that was when we got to record for the first time as a band… we recorded Green Onions in the studio in June of `62 and people started playing it on the radio! That was it. That changed my life.

JS: So it set your whole trajectory with your career from then on.

BTJ: Yeah… yeah. But I would’ve been happy doing what I was doing. I was playing in clubs, and I was very happy as a session musician, I was very happy playing in night clubs. I would’ve been happy to do that the rest of my life.

JS: Just anything to be around music.

BTJ: Yeah, I just love making music.

JS: So, Green Onions is probably fans’ favorite song of yours… it’s definitely mine. I grew up watching the movie The Sandlot as a child, but I didn’t realize the song [in the iconic ‘you play ball like a girl’ scene’]is the same; it kind of blew mind to be interviewing someone who impacted my own childhood.

BTJ: I didn’t know it was in that movie!

JS: It is! It definitely is, I remember looking it up when I realized the correlation between the two. I’ll have to send you the link.

BTJ: Please do! I knew it was in American Graffiti, but I didn’t know it was in the others!

JS: I definitely will! Movies like [American Graffiti, etc.] have been a tool for your music to reach several generations, going all the way back to when it was first written. I was wondering how it feels to impact generations of listeners for 50+ years?

BTJ: Well, it’s all part of a big surprise! I remember the first time that song came on the radio and I just about jumped out of my seat! That was in June of `62, but it’s continued all these years. I still get the same feeling when I hear it, just happy and surprised and… thankful! [laughs]

JS: Between being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992 and winning a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2007, you have been wildly successful at solidifying your place in music history. That level of success is something not a lot of artists get to experience, and I was wondering how that feels if you can put it into words.

BTJ: Well, I’m looking at these awards right now… the Grammy for Lifetime Achievement [award]probably means more to me than anything else. It [even]stands out from the others, it’s a little bit of a darker color, and it’s a little bit more exclusive, the actual award is. And it’s that way in life too because it was awarded by people who actually do what I do and I feel like they know what you have to do to survive and to enjoy a life of music. So, that one means probably the most.

The next is the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame award… it was a surprise. It was an accomplishment that I felt also helped propel my career after I got the award.

JS: Oh really? So, do you think it helped with your success as an artist?

BTJ: I do! I think it helped people notice and think more of me than they normally would have. [laughs]. I mean being in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is just… that’s just awesome.

JS: [laughs]It is! I feel like that’s a dream of a lot of artists.

BTJ: Yeah. I was very fortunate to get that award, really. That was in `92, and it’s 2016, so… wow.

BTJ: You know, though, Jena, I’m looking at a little award that was given to me. It says “To Booker T. Jones for Green Onions, [from]School Bands of Memphis” and that was in `62. That was taken up as a collection from all the band students in Memphis and given to me at a football game before I left high school, for recording Green Onions.

That’s probably the most touching award I’ve received. That was the first time I’ve ever received an award! And it’s tinier than all the others, but they paid for it with their little nickels and dimes.

JS: So, it definitely means the most to you…

BTJ: I think so, yeah. Green Onions was a big hit and they just… they appreciated me.

JS: Would you say that that kind of support has helped you move forward in your career as an artist?

BTJ: Well, it was hometown, and it was local… they gave it to me at the half time of the high school football game. It was really touching.

JS: How old were you at that point?

BTJ: I was 17! They had and convertible, and they turned the lights on and drove [it]around the station, and I sat in the back seat with two pretty girls on either side, and they gave me the award! [laughs]

JS: I love that you can still remember it like it was yesterday.

BTJ: Yeah! I’ll have to write about that in my book.

JS: Are you writing a book? An autobiography?

BTJ: I am, actually, working on a book that I’m in the process of writing. An autobiography. The working title is Time is Tight.

JS: That is excellent! I will have to buy it.

JS: So, you’ve played with a slew of legendary names, everyone from Willie Nelson to Ray Charles. Tell about the most interesting and rewarding collaboration that you’ve been a part of?

BTJ: That’s a tough question; there have been so many. Interesting… Bobby Barron and Hollywood. I was totally unprepared [when]I walked in the studio. The president of Atlantic Records first called my sister, for God’s sake, and wanted me to come to Hollywood to play on a song with Bobby Barron [laughs]. And so, I went over there and walked into the studio, and there’s a whole band ready to go. The Blossoms, Bobby, two drummers, walked in- 1… 2… 1-2-3-4, red light goes on, BOOM recording… that was Hollywood! [laughs][I was] a young, southern boy, totally unprepared for this type of professionalism.

Rewarding was… Albert King & Ottis Redding. Just musically rewarding, just being happy to be there and be a part of their sessions. The Tenderness session with Ottis Redding and the Born Under a Bad Sign session with Albert King… That was just fun, just ‘oh man, I am so glad to be here’.

JS: Especially from a fan perspective, I bet. It was probably really exciting to be a part of it.

BTJ: Absolutely! Absolutely.

JS: I also know you’ve done collaborations with your daughter, Liv Jones, who is also your manager. How does it feel to be able to share this part of your life and talent with her?

BTJ: She’s a multi-talented person! I had studio time booked in New York to record with singer for the Road From Memphis and was unprepared, didn’t have lyrics. I sent her music, and she was able to write quickly. She wrote for Lou Reed- who doesn’t DO other people’s lyrics, but he did this particular song that she wrote! She had about 4 or 5 occasions of that where she just really saved me.

JS: What does it feel like to be able to work with your daughter and share the life of music and the talent with her?

BTJ: It’s just another layer on the fortunate cake! She’s my manager. You know, she called you, a few minutes ago [to set this up]. She’s just got my back. [laughs]It’s great, it’s great. I’m fortunate to have her.

JS: We’re excited to have you come back to Eddie’s this Sunday! You’ve played Eddie’s Attic once before in June 2015, and we’re excited to have you back this Sunday! What is it about the venue’s atmosphere that keeps you returning?

BTJ: I like the intimacy! As a matter of fact, I’ve been making preparations for this whole tour based on Eddie’s and based on it being so small. I’m bringing what’s called a ‘jam hub’ so we can make space. Part of the reason it was so small is because we had monitors last year. So, my main hang up was that I didn’t have enough space. So, there’s gonna be more room now!

It was nice being that close to people! I got a warm welcome there.

JS: Yeah, we’re definitely excited about it. The atmosphere, from a buyers’ standpoint, I feel like, is really cool because it gives you a chance to be close to the artist.

BTJ: Yeah! It’ll be fun. It should be good because we’ll have more space. I was bumping into my son on stage last time, which isn’t bad [laughs].

JS: What is the craziest thing that has happened on tour?

BTJ: Oh well… touring, that’s just… I’ve been doing it for a while. I’m trying to think of something particularly exciting. I think about being in a boat on a lake, touring in Norway when the sun doesn’t go down or being in the same area when there’s no daylight.

It’s an amazing thing to go around the world; I remember being really scared in Brazil because there were SO many people, so many that we couldn’t move. 50,000 or 60,000 people for the concert. They were all standing around, and the car couldn’t move. So that was scary.

JS: What’s next for you in music?

BTJ: Well, I’m sorting that out. I’m working on a lot of options… I’m working with my son, and he’s becoming a musician. And I’m working on a new music project of my own and on my memoirs!

JS: Yeah, you mentioned the memoirs. Do you have a projected publication date for that or no?

BTJ: No, I wish I did! Unfortunately not.

JS: And what about the new music project? Is that in terms of recording?

BTJ: Yes! I’m in the beginning of writing songs and getting sounds together.

JS: So new music on the horizon, that’s exciting.

BTJ: Yeah! Hopefully soon!

 

Booker T. Jones demonstrates his immense talent and immeasurable playing ability in everything he does. His experiences as a musician in the ‘60s and his passion for the art have kept him wildly successful throughout the entirety of his career. Don’t miss this iconic artist as he performs live at Eddie’s Attic on February 28th for a two-show event (6 PM and 8:30 PM).

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About Author

Jena is the PR and Box Office Manager for Atlanta music venue, Eddie's Attic. She has written for Sorority Lyfe, PostGradProblems, Paste Magazine, OpenEars Music, & The Interdisciplinary Humanities Scholarly Journal.

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