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Blues in Britain Interview
Booker T Jones

© Copyright 2012 Alan White. All Rights Reserved.

Booker T Jones in conversation with Michael Ford. Previously published in Blues in Britain magazine and reproduced here with kind permission of Michael Ford, Editor, Blues in Britain.

When President Barack Obama stood in the East Room of the White House in February 2012 he said of the blues –

“It is a music with humble beginnings -- roots in slavery and segregation, a society that rarely treated black Americans with the dignity and respect that they deserved. The blues bore witness to these hard times. And like so many of the men and women who sang them, the blues refused to be limited by the circumstances of their birth."

The glittering occasion was a gala performance to celebrate the blues’ impact on the musical and societal developments in the USA and across the world. There were to be performances by B.B. King, Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews, Jeff Beck, Shemekia Copeland, Buddy Guy, Warren Haynes, Keb Mo, Mick Jagger, Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks.

It was fitting that the man chosen to be musical director was none-other than the legendary Booker T Jones.

I was keen to hear from him if the event had lived up to expectations.

“It was quite a show,” he told me.” I had a great time doing it. I’ve always loved the blues. I grew up on the blues. I grew up in Memphis listening to the blues and it’s shaped my life.

We assembled a really great band for the show. I had about six-to-eight weeks to work on it before we had to do the show. I had Narada Michael Walden on drums, he’s always been one of my favourites. Bobby Ross Avila (of the Avila Brothers) on bass. I had Jessie Johnson on guitar, so it was really a good blues band. Fred Wesley,  who worked with James Brown for so long, arranged the horns for me. He and I have been friends for a long time. He put a great horn section together – so that was it! The line-up was amazing, too, starting with Gary Clark Jnr. from Texas. He’d played with everybody back at Antone’s, in Austin. Gary and I used to hang-out playing with Willie Nelson down there. The concert they recorded for PBS TV was an hour long but I think we must have played for ninety minutes-or-more.”

© Copyright 2012 Alan White. All Rights Reserved.I asked him how significant it was that the event took place in the White House – the fulcrum of the US power-elite.

“It was very special it being in the White House. If you looked at the video you would see that the setting was very conservative. I don’t think that type of music had been played in that room before! The President and his wife really enjoyed it. They really relaxed. He came down for the sound-check, too, and it was just really comfortable for him because he came from Chicago and loved that music. And you know, we had authentic people there. We had BB King –if nothing else, just the fact that BB was there! And it was great for me personally to sit and spend some time with him and talk about Memphis. He’d gone to school with my sister and my brother-in-law and it was like a homecoming for me. I’d never really played with BB on stage before. We’d been on shows together but I was never MD for him. And, just to talk about friends and old times. It was great to be able to relax there and have such a good time there and have a blues show in the White House. The whole show was an organic event and it was great that it was happening in the East Room of the White House because it’s a room of great cultural significance in this country. It was a very historic moment and I’m glad they got it on tape.”

The unspoken significance of the venue must have resonated particularly strongly for both the President and for the many black musicians there. The East Room was where both Abraham Lincoln and John F Kennedy lay-in-state after assassination. Even more poignantly,  it witnessed the signing of the Civil Rights Act by President Lyndon B  Johnson in 1964.

By 1964, of course, in the deeply segregated South, Booker T and the MGs were the powerhouse sound behind the emerging Stax Record Company. They were, also, an integrated band. This integration was seen as a token of a better future for many in the States and us civil rights sympathisers in the UK. In 1967 the Stax-Volt tour of Europe, headed by Otis Redding, had a phenomenal impact on British dance halls and concert halls. I told Booker, sincerely, that their visit to Nelson, Lancashire, on 1st April 1967 had been the musical-night-of-my-life. 

“That’s cool! That makes me feel good. And it will make everybody else who was on that tour feel good because something very special happened to us in Europe in 1967. It was a special time. We were so together on stage. Wayne Jackson and all the other guys in the group...”

The sad truth is, of course, that there are not many of the touring party left to share those memories. Otis was dead within the year, drummer Al Jackson Jnr. was murdered in 1975, Mar Keys saxophonist Andrew Love died this year and, Booker’s great friend, ‘Duck’ Dunn died only days before our interview.

It was, of course, all many years ago.

I heard Paul Simon say, once, that whilst he wasn’t keen to sing ‘Sound of Silence’ every time he performed if he saw Paul McCartney sing he definitely wanted to hear ‘Yesterday’. I asked Booker, with this in mind, how he felt about playing ‘Green Onions’.

“‘Green Onions’ is still my favourite. I said many years ago that I’d never get tired of it and, you know, I haven’t. It’s in the music – it’s just one of my favourite songs. If I hadn’t played on it I would still love it!”

We agreed that it sounded just as good today as when it was released fifty years ago.

“It’s amazing to think that if you go back fifty years before that” I said, “The big hit of 1912 was ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band” (A ragtime number written by Irving Berlin for Arthur Collins whose social sensibilities can be gleaned from  his other big hit ‘All Coons Look Alike to Me’ - it was, thankfully, another world!)

Booker’s daughter Olivia is in the music business too.

“She manages me and wrote some of the music on The Road from Memphis with me,” He explained.

I wondered how different the music business is for her than it was for him.

“Quite a bit different, quite a bit. It was very localised when I started. Also, we were recording analogue onto one track. You had to be lucky, when we started to get more than twenty-five or thirty people to hear you play. Now you can put your music on the internet and have hundreds of thousands hear it instantly. That doesn’t guarantee you success, though. I don’t know if it’s good or bad – plusses and minuses, I think. But I was very fortunate that I could walk from home to a recording studio when I was fifteen.

That’s unheard of now, “he laughed “I certainly can’t walk around the corner to a recording studio now.

Albert King’s Born Under a Bad Sign album was one of the most influential of the 1960s. I asked him about his role in it.

 “Once again, we’re talking about playing with a very unique, special, person – Albert King. Jim Stewart knew that, Steve Cropper knew that. I think he was down on his luck as far as record labels go, so I think Stax was the last resort for him.  They assigned him to myself and William Bell which showed a lot of trust in us; I’m happy they did that. Al Jackson Jnr. produced a good part of the album. I don’t know if we procrastinated or what, but we didn’t come up with the song ‘Born Under a Bad Sign’ until the day before the session. Al played like Jimi Hendrix – a right handed guitar upside-down and left handed. He was unique like BB in that he invented a new style of playing blues guitar. He was such a sweet man, I really loved him. We just got lucky writing that song and him singing it and playing it like he did. And the band we had that day was amazing. The MGs, the Mar Keys and Isaac Hayes! It’s one of my favourite songs, too. I wrote ‘The Hunter’ with the MGs and Carl Wells. We had ‘Crosscut Saw‘ on the album, ‘As the Years Go Passing By’- that was a classic time!”

It seemed to me that the album represented a change of direction for Stax but Booker disagreed.

“No, it wasn’t a change of direction for Stax because we’d had blues artists before Albert. Rufus Thomas was basically a blues singer. The change of direction happened right at the beginning when Satellite was founded. Jim Stewart had a lot of country music on the label – he was a country fiddler himself. But as soon as he got Rufus Thomas and William Bell he was into the blues!  We have to thank the DJs like AC ‘Moohah’ Williams and all the people at WDIA for what they did. They had a 50k watt station and they were dedicated to it. Lots of them were singers or keyboard players, too. And songwriters. It was the influence of that station that brought Albert King to Stax.”

The radio station WDIA ‘the Goodwill Station’ was the first to have black-Americans presenting programmes. At one point they reached 10% of black Americans in the US. It was a hugely influential operation.

“Stax famously ran a Stay in School campaign back in 1967” I reminded him “Do you think that music can actually be a positive influence on Society.”

He was adamant – “My view on that is that society can’t even exist without some form of art. It’s the artist’s responsibility to reflect society. If we didn’t have art we wouldn’t really know who we are. I think that music plays a much more important role than some people realise.”

In conversation with Michael Ford

© Copyright 2012 Alan White. All Rights Reserved.


Thanks to Michael Ford, Editor, Blues in Britain magazine for permission to publish this interview with Booker T Jones

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