Plenty of musicians start their careers when they’re teenagers. But few have taken the path that Booker T. Jones
has taken. Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum
back in 1992, he’s left behind an incredible legacy both as a session man and as the leader of his band, the M.G.’s. When he was only a child, he realized he had a natural ability to play music.
“I think I got a little musical acumen from my mother and father,” he admits via phone from his Lake Tahoe home. “My mother played piano. She probably played when I was in the womb. My father sang. My sister and brother were both singers. I taught myself on a drum from the five and dime store downtown and I got a ukulele from there too. I picked around. I couldn’t read music, but I taught myself a couple of chords and stuff like that.”
He was in twelfth grade when he wrote the organ-propelled “Green Onions,” a song that would become one of his biggest hits.
“It was June of 1962,” he says when asked about the track. “I was just about to graduate. A number of situations inspired it. I had been taking music theory and from a choral teacher and he was teaching me that on piano. I was playing around with different chord progressions. I had gotten a job at Stax Records as a session musician, playing different instruments, mainly saxophone and piano. The opportunity was there to record a song on a Sunday afternoon when the artists who had booked the studio had finished and left.”
He says the time he spent on Stax, which he left in 1969, was instrumental in shaping his career.
“I got to supplement my paper route by playing sessions at Stax,” he says. “It got me through high school. It was a great part time job. It continued through college. I had some great experiences. It defined my life actually.”
When he arrived in California in 1970, he quickly started working with some of the more notable musicians based there.
“It was exciting,” he says. “There was a lot going on in California. Musicians came from all around the world and were creating new music and meeting each other. Stephen Stills came from Texas and Leon Russell came from Oklahoma. And Bill Withers came from Virginia. I met him through the guys at Soul Stax Records. When Stax got sold to Paramount, this guy discovered him. He made a living selling companies. He decided to start his own and in doing that he found this singer in Inglewood. He sent him to my ranch in Malibu to ask me what to do. I went right into the studio with the guy.”
Another highlight was a series of tours that paired Jones and his M.G.’s with classic rocker Neil Young
. The two had become friends when they met at a Bob Dylan tribute concert in New York.
“We backed up the whole show and we hit it off with Neil,” Jones says. “I had known Stephen Stills and Graham Nash in L.A. before that. We had a good time musically there and he felt comfortable with the band. He had been a soul guy before he got into rock ’n’ roll. He had a band in Detroit called the Mynah Birds. The tours were great. He’s a great guy. It was simple music and music that we were comfortable with. He gives everything on stage. It’s actually instructional for upcoming musicians. He gives everything to each audience. That’s why his audience is so big.”
On Jones’ most recent album, 2013’s Sound the Alarm
, he teams up with neo-soul singers to play music that sounds like it was recorded in another era. It’s a soulful, solid effort that shows Jones is still at the top of his game.
“It’s more about going back to the Stax style of R&B,” he says of the album. “Most of the people on the album are neo-soul singers and players who are reviving the ‘60s style of R&B. Everybody I met on the album is somebody I met in a situation. I met [singer] Anthony Hamilton
at the Grammys, standing in line after the show waiting to get in. I thought it was more than a coincidence.”
On a short U.S. tour that includes a concert at the Music Box Supper Club
, Jones says he’ll play a wide selection of material that shows the range of the music he’s made over the years.
“It’s rather spontaneous but includes music that’s influenced me and music I’ve been involved in,” he says of the set list. “It’s something I either played on or influenced me to play. I might do Ray Charles
music. I was a big Ray Charles fan. I played on some Bob Dylan songs so I do some of that. The M.G.’s music is always on my show. Some of the songs from the newer albums from Potato Hole
to The Road to Memphis
, the album I did with the Roots
. It’s the story of my life and my career. I have a great group of musicians. My son Ted just started playing guitar with me and Vernon Black is on guitar. I got a guy from Memphis, Darian Gray, playing drums. It’s a great, great organic group.”
Booker T. Jones, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 25, Music Box Supper Club, 1148 Main Ave., 216-242-1250. Tickets: $38 ADV, $42 DOS, musicboxcle.com.