Booker T Jones Emerges with Potato Hole
Booker T. Returns with Hard-Edged Soul . . . and Neil Young Written by Terry Roland
Since the publication of this article in The San Diego Troubadour, Booker T has been nominated for two Grammies including Best Instrumental Pop Album and Best Rock Instrumental.
In popular music over the past 50 years there are styles, songs, and artists who today call us to nostalgia. There have also been those who stand the test of time. They transcend the trends of the day and the future. They have called us to history while continuing to work on their craft. In the case of Booker T. Jones, while he calls up some nostalgia with the golden liquid sound of his Hammond B3 organ, the memories may come, but today he refuses to lean on nostalgia in favor of deepening his art.
On his first release in 20 years, titled Potato Hole, Booker T. Jones returns to the forefront of today’s roots music scene, sporting a career that has spanned nearly 50 years.
The title, Potato Hole, refers to the nineteenth century American slave practice of making a hiding place under the wood floor planks of slave quarters to store extra food. Booker T. considers the last 20 years of his own solo-silence to be his potato hole where he has kept his music and inspiration going.
An intense musical passion can be felt, even physically, on this fine album, which is harder and more urgent than the sound he helped create with the MGs back in the 1960s. It moves his music forward with strains of a post-punk edginess, blues, rock, and traces of gospel and early R&B.
As the album opens with the solo sound of Booker’s Hammond B3, the drums crash simultaneously with Neil Young’s (yes! Neil Young) unmistakable fuzz tone guitar. The instrumental exchange between the two legends becomes a seamless musical communion with the two trading off leads as Jones’s organ and Young’s guitar weave in and out, over and under each other with pitch-perfect dynamic. They are joined by alt-country’s best band, the Drive-By Truckers, in a collaboration that would do the legendary MGs proud.
The opening track is aptly titled “Pound It Out.” This hard-rocking work-out is followed by a consistent set of songs that never lets up for a single moment. There’s not a hint of the digital, sampling, video-game-sounding music of today.
This album is not so much a comeback as it is a rising. It’s as if the man emerges from his own potato hole to reclaim authentic rock-blues based popular music for today. If this is the case, the joy and passion that has been captured here is a total triumph. It’s been a long time comin’ as David Crosby once said. We also hope it will be a long time before they’re gone. It is an interplay of musical thoughts and feelings that gives way to a rare, instrumental lyricism unmatched in today’s rock scene. Jones leads the way with grace, passion, and the smooth soul that has become his signature. There is, quite simply, no wasted track here.
How did Booker T. Jones arrive at this point? His story has not been told enough in music history. He is a musical and social/cultural ground breaker.
Remember, if you’re too young, imagine the time in America, when, unlike the propaganda-driven campaign of Ronald Reagan, we really were a city on a shining hill, in the morning of our remarkable history. The year was 1962. A controversial young president had just been voted into the White House. He was well-loved around the world. It was the pinnacle of JFK’s Camelot. The nation became enamored with impossible dreams, like landing a man on the moon. Racism had been exposed for the archaic hatred it had spewed for so many years.
It was also an arguably bleak time in rock music we think of as post-Elvis and pre-Beatles. Artists like James Darren and Bobby Rydell were the stars of the time and represented the mainstream.
However, in the alternative world of R&B and soul music, what once was termed “race music,” which had its own separate charts set aside from the mainstream (or white-stream) music of the day, was making headway. In the previous decade, it was common for white artists like Pat Boone to re-record race songs for white audience consumption with next to no profits going to the original artists, such as Chuck Berry and Little Richard. Even Elvis’ career was built on this racist foundation.
But, in 1962 the Civil Rights Movement was in full swing. Martin Luther King was hitting his stride. At the same time, new, independent labels like Stax were emerging to provide an outlet for the long-ignored R&B black artists of the time, including Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, and Sam and Dave. Their songs, written and recorded by themselves, were being heard on the mainstream radio stations.
Into this critical and tense time of American history steps Booker T. & the MGs. With the help of this 17-year-old Stax musician and his distinct organ drawn from the obscurity of his southern gospel music past, Booker T. & the MGs charged up the mainstream pop charts in a way that could have created the term, “a hit with a bullet.” Not only did their first hit “Green Onions” make the charts, it also rose to number three nationally on the Billboard chart.
In a matter of months Booker T. & the MGs became the first integrated band in the country to break down the musical barriers between rock and soul music. Five years later, Sly and the Family Stone would arrive, loudly demonstrating their diversity at historic concerts and festivals like Woodstock.
By high school in the early ’60s, Booker was already a talent. He was well-studied in classical music. His knowledge of music theory and harmony led to the appointment of leader of the high school band. He even earned recognition in Who’s Who of American High Schools. This accomplishment brought him to the attention of Jim Stewart, a record executive from Memphis. He was brought on staff with Stax records in short order.
During those days Jones’ busy schedule had him attending high school, working as a staff musician for Stax Records, and studying classical music composition, composing and transposition at Indiana University. While still a teen at Stax, he cowrote such classicss as “I’ve Never Found a Girl,” “I Love You More Than Words Can Say,” with Otis Redding and along with William Bell the song, “Born Under a Bad Sign,” for Albert King, which later became a popular song for the blues-rock band Cream. Then, in 1962, as he and Steve Cropper were taking a break between backup recording sessions, they began to jam. Jim Stewart, president of Stax records at the time, heard this jam and the music they were playing that day soon became “Green Onions.”
At 17 years old Booker T. Jones broke through with a major national hit, inventing an organ-based blues sound unheard of prior to its release. With this, the divide between white mainstream recordings and “race records” would close and the separation of rock and soul musicians by race lines would decline. So, in a real sense, Booker T. & the MGs were a foreshadowed illustration of Martin Luthor King’s famous 1963 speech “I Have a Dream.”
There is a controversy as to how the MGs became the MGs. The official story of the name, according to Stax records, refers to “Memphis Group.” However, Chips Moman, producer and former member of a band with Booker T. called the Triumphs, states that the name came from his car at the time. This version of the story has been confirmed by both Booker T. and Steve Cropper. However, Stax records maintains their official story.
In 1969, Jones fell in love with the Beatles’ Abbey Road album. The Beatles returned the love by stating they had patterned much of their music from the sound of the MGs. John Lennon characteristically called the group “Book a Table and the Maitre D’s.” During a tour in 1967, the Beatles had a limo pick up the band at an airport so they could kneel down and kiss Booker T. and the MGs’ rings.
Lennon said he wanted to write an instrumental piece for the band. While he never fulfilled that dream, Jones, Dunn, and Jackson recorded an album in 1970 called McLemore Avenue, named after the the location of Stax Record. The album cover parodied the famous Abbey Road cover. McLemore Avenue covered the songs on Abbey Road, blending them into three extended songs.
In the early ’70s, after a long string of hits, the group disbanded. Jones would eventually move to California. Demand for his music continued.
During the ’70s Jones had a hit with a song called “I Want You with his then-wife, Priscilla, who was singer Rita Coolidge’s sister. He also was a major player in the success of Bill Withers music producing and arranging hits like “Ain’t No Sunshine.” The association with Rita Coolidge led him to studio work with Kris Kristoferson, her husband at the time, which eventually led him to the role of producer on Willie Nelson’s flawless Stardust, an album of classic popular songs from the ’30s and ’40s. He also contributed his Hammond organ on albums for such artists as Ray Charles, Neil Young, and Natalie Merchant.
In 1992 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and in 2007 he received a Grammy lifetime achievement award.
At the 30th anniversary tribute show for Bob Dylan at Madison Square Garden in 1992, he was asked to reform Booker T. and the MGs to be the house band for the historic event, providing back-up for Tom Petty, George Harrison, and Lou Reed. It was there that Jones met Young and the two have evolved their friendship into an innovative musical collaboration.
So, it is now 2010. In some ways the world has changed from 1962. In other ways, it has not. Once again, we have a young, controversial president in the White House who is loved around the world. Again, the nation seems polarized between diametrically opposing political views. Racism has raised its ugly head cloaked in the disguise of a Neo-Con agenda. Once again, we have a seemingly impossible dream: universal health care for all in the United States. Unfortunately, this seems to be as realistic as landing on the moon. And into the mix, once again, arrives now 64-year-old Booker T. Jones with a new album of songs that hits hard into the common spirit and history of soul, blues, and rock. Again, the music calls us all to unity.