The One, the Only Booker T. Jones
I say Booker T, and you say Hammond B3. Yes, that’s been the correct answer for more than 50 years. But, dear fellow music lovers, Mr. Booker T. Jones is infinitely more than the instrument he indisputably owns.
Fifty-three years ago, Booker T. Jones was still in high school in Memphis, Tennessee, when he started getting known around town as a skilled multi-instrumentalist, and became part of the house backing band at Stax Records. He was just 17, and the year was 1962, when he wrote an instrumental song showcasing the B3 and entitled, after some title experimentation, “Green Onions.” Booker T. & the M.G.s had a million-seller with that song, and followed it with “Time Is Tight” and “Hang ‘Em High,” before Jones left the group in 1971.
At City Winery in New York, Jones played those hits with his excellent band featuring Vernon “Ice” Black on guitar, Darian Gray (whose birthday it was, and he was serenaded accordingly) on drums, Melvin Brannon on bass, and son Ted on guitar. The Joneses performed together a lovely “Father-Son Blues,” from Booker’s most recent album Sound the Alarm (2013). However, the conversational intros linking the songs – on some of which Jones played guitar – were as riveting as the familiar, yet various, set list. Not many musicians these days can, before playing covers of Jimmy Reed’s “Bright Lights, Big City” and “Baby, What You Want Me to Do,” talk about knowing Reed and working with him.
The Leaves wrote “Hey Joe,” but Jimi Hendrix made it his. Jones spoke quietly, and movingly, about talking to Hendrix at Monterey Pop, about hearing him play the song and how he did it. Recalling old friend George Harrison and his charm, Jones joked, grinning even as he shook his head in mock rue, “Oh, don’t ever introduce that guy to your wife.”
Jones has made music, and friends, with everyone, from Otis Redding to Rancid, from Harrison to neighbor Bob Dylan, to Lou Reed, Neil Young, and the Drive-By Truckers (who joined him on Potato Hole, 2009, which won a GRAMMY for Best Instrumental Album), Willie Nelson… the list still grows. So does the list of Jones’s musical honors, from the GRAMMYs to his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, to his honorary doctorate in music from Indiana University, which he attended in the early ’60s.
Jones’s playing, on organ and guitar, was flawless; yet his vocals never get the attention that they should. He sings with clarity and force, and in a grand range. Dapper in a suit and one of his trademark hats, with his ready smile and keen eyes, Jones looks, and performs like, a man far younger than 70. He’s entirely engaged in what he is doing on stage, with his band, and with his audiences too.
Before the show, after Bhi Bhiman’s brief but eloquent solo opening set, Jones walked through the house, greeting friends, shaking hands with strangers, welcoming people with a casual, old-style grace as if you were in his California home. He kept up that feeling throughout the show, all the way to what you thought was the closing song: a rocking, rolling “Time Is Tight.”
Remember, though, Booker T, and the M.G.s, were fans of The Beatles, so much so that, in 1970, they released McLemore Avenue, an all-Abbey Road (1969) covers record. Jones closed his show with a cover of old friends: a vital, sexy “Don’t Let Me Down.”
With his four – so far – GRAMMYs, and Sound the Alarm marking a brilliant return to Stax Records after 40 years, Jones is currently on tour. Catch him if you can, and change your plans to make it so if you think you can’t. Performers of his caliber, capability, energy, and endurance are few and far between these days. Booker T. Jones, live and in person from 1962 until today, and tomorrow.