by Kyle Long
I'm sitting in a coffee shop as I write this intro to my interview with Memphis music legend Booker T. Jones. Albert King's blues classic "Born Under A Bad Sign" is blaring from the coffee shop's tiny speakers - a song Jones co-wrote and played on in 1967.
Mentioning that bit of trivia seems a fitting way to open this piece. While most music fans are aware of Jones' classic work on the Hammond B3 with Stax Records house-band Booker T. and the M.G.s, few know of Jones' important musical contributions as a producer, session player and songwriter.
From producing classic albums by Willie Nelson and Bill Withers, to playing bass on Bob Dylan's "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," Booker T. Jones has had a huge role in shaping the direction of American popular music.
I spoke with Jones ahead of his April 11 appearance at the Vogue.
NUVO: You graduated from IU in 1967 with a Bachelor's degree in music education. Did you enjoy your time living in Bloomington?
Booker T. Jones: Yes, I loved Bloomington. I had a great time going back in 2012 when I received my honorary doctorate and again last year when I received the Distinguished Alumni Service Award.
NUVO: You applied to IU prior to your 1962 breakout hit "Green Onions" with the M.G.s. What attracted you to the music program at IU?
Jones: Sometime when I was in high school I started getting gigs as a piano player around universities and fraternities in Memphis. I was working with bands that played standards, and one my favorites was "Stardust." I thought it was so well written and put together.
Somehow I found out that the author Hoagy Carmichael went to school at IU. So that set the stage for my interest in the school.
NUVO: What was campus life like for you during that time? "Green Onions" had been a massive pop hit for you and Stax Records was starting to explode - you must have been quite a celebrity on campus.
Jones: I was something of a celebrity. I had a lot of musical friends there and I was playing at fraternity parties on campus. Also I drove a white '63 Galaxie convertible, so I was something of a celebrity.
NUVO: I understand you used to drive back to Memphis from IU every weekend to keep up with the recording sessions at Stax?
Jones: Yes, I would head down 37 South going towards Bedford and through Paducah and catch Highway 51 to Memphis. I drove 400 miles every Friday.
NUVO: During those years did you ever have a chance to come to Indy and check out the famous jazz scene on Indiana Avenue?
Jones: I never knew firsthand what was going on in Indianapolis until I met David Baker a couple years ago and he told me what the scene was. I knew who all the players were because I was listening to those records. I was also a trombone player and I'd heard there were a lot of trombone stars in Indianapolis.
NUVO: You play at least a half a dozen instruments very well. Was there a particular moment when you realized the Hammond organ was going to be your signature voice?
Jones: When I started taking piano lessons I got a little demonstration of the Hammond B3 from my teacher and I developed an affinity for the instrument. But my fate was sealed when I heard Ray Charles playing Hammond on "One Mint Julep" with Quincy Jones' arrangement. When I heard that, I thought "that's the sound I want to make."
NUVO: It always surprises me to realize this, but the M.G.s were one of the first multi-racial groups of the rock and soul era. Is that something you guys were aware of and did it raise any eyebrows, particularly being based in the South?
Jones: We were aware of it, but we didn't have any choice. We were stuck with each other musically and we didn't really care much what waves were made out that. There were some clubs we couldn't play in and some restaurants and hotels we couldn't eat or sleep in. But we didn't tour that much so it wasn't to much of a hassle.
NUVO: You've played on so many legendary concert bills like Otis Redding's Monterey Pop Festival performance or the Stax-Volt Revue's 1967 European tour. How does it feel to be working onstage with electrifying performers like Sam and Dave or Eddie Floyd?
Jones: I played on a lot of stages in Memphis prior to working with those guys you just mentioned and I can tell you they really raised the bar for me. I become aware of a musical telepathy that happens onstage where people communicate without speaking to one another. I really learned a lot from those experiences.
NUVO: There's one particular M.G.s record I wanted to ask you about: Mclemore Avenue, your tribute to the Beatles' Abbey Road. I think that may have been the first album to cover a Beatles' LP in its entirety. What inspired you to make that record?
Jones: When I heard Abbey Road and I was just struck by it. I would listen to it from start to finish and I thought someone should pay tribute to the band. A lot of groups when they got to the point the Beatles were at that time, either quit or retired. But The Beatles just kept going and it was all about the music for them. They didn't compromise, they didn't do a commercial album and I thought that was so brave and a big statement and I really appreciated that.
NUVO: I wanted to ask about one of your productions outside of Stax Records. You produced one of the most loved albums in the history of popular music, Bill Withers debut Just As I Am. Any particular memories stand out of something you contributed musically to the album as a producer?
Jones: My main contribution was just getting Bill to sing. A friend of mine who ran some record labels brought him to my attention. At that time Bill was working in Inglewood, California making airplane toilets. Bill came out to my ranch with a notebook full of songs. I heard him sing and immediately called a studio to set up a session.
When Bill got to the studio he started asking me "who is going to sing my songs?" I said, "You are, Bill." He thought I was going to have somebody else come in and sing his music.
NUVO: You also produced Willie Nelson's classic Stardust album. You've worked a lot with Nelson and Rodney Crowell too. Can you tell me about your affinity for country music?
Jones: I heard Hank Williams when I was a young boy and it sounded to me like the white man's blues. I just loved Kitty Wells, Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn.
When I met Willie I found out he and I were playing a lot of the same songs. He loved playing the classic standards and as I told you I was playing those songs when I was thirteen or fourteen.
To me the blues and country have so much in common in their simplicity. It's every day man's music. It's not high-class music. For me there's just not much difference between the two. It's the sound of the heart crying out in pain.
NUVO: In 2011, you recorded The Road From Memphis album with The Roots. Your collaboration with them sounded so natural.
Jones: It was great playing with a hip-hop band. The Roots eschew a reliance on computers and drum machines. They use them sometimes, but they play everything like we used to with guitar, bass and drums. They're brilliant people and funky people. Their base sound was the same as mine, that Meters type of New Orleans funk. So it was a very natural collaboration.
NUVO: Jay-Z and Kanye West had a big hit a few years ago with "Otis," a song that heavily samples an Otis Redding session you contributed to. How did that record strike you and generally how do you feel about sampling as a form of creating music?
Jones: I see music as a free art form and I take it as a compliment when someone samples my music.
I liked that Jay-Z record and it really stuck me because it was so creative. I would've never thought of using those chord progressions like that.
I constantly go back and listen to the music of Beethoven, Brahms and Sibelius. That music is public domain now and available free of charge. We live in this world for a short time, we're just passing through. So I think music and art should be free.
This week's Cultural Manifesto podcast features audio clips from my interview with Booker T. Jones, who will appear Friday at the Vogue.
1. Carla and Rufus Thomas - Cause I Love You
2. Booker T. Jones interview "attending I.U. Bloomington"
3. Booker T. and the M.G.'s - Green Onions
4. Booker T. Jones interview "a star on campus"
5. Booker T. and the M.G.'s - Tic-Tac-Toe
6. Booker T. Jones interview "Indianapolis scene"
7. Booker T. and the M.G.'s - Soul Dressing
8. Booker T. Jones interview "Hammond organ"
9. Ray Charles - One Mint Julep
10. Booker T. Jones interview "legendary performances"
11. Sam and Dave - Hold On I'm Coming
12. Booker T. Jones interview "one of the first multi-racial groups"
13. Booker T. and the M.G.'s - Melting Pot
14. Booker T. Jones interview "covering the Beatles' Abbey Road"
15. Booker T. and the M.G.'s - Sun King Medley
16. Booker T. Jones interview "producing Bill Withers' debut"
17. Bill Withers - Grandma's Hands
18. Bill Withers - Ain't No Sunshine
19. Booker T. Jones interview "producing Willie Nelson"
20. Willie Nelson - Georgia On My Mind
21. Booker T. Jones interview "roots of country music"
22. Otis Redding - Tennessee Waltz
23. Booker T. Jones interview "on Kanye, Jay-z, and the Roots"
24. Otis Redding - Try A Little Tenderness
25. Booker T. Jones interview "playing with the Roots"
26. Booker T. Jones - Everything is Everything
27. Booker T. Jones interview "playing in Indy"
28. Booker T. Jones - Sound the Alarm (feat. Mayer Hawthorne)