THE READING ROOM: Booker T. Jones Writes about Music, Memphis, and More — in the Key of C
For as long as he can recall, Booker T. Jones, the legendary Memphis musician who helped put Stax Records on the map, has been fascinated with music. “Music just came naturally to me,” he said in a recent interview with No Depression. “It was just second nature to me.” Now, having just turned 75, the composer of hits such as “Green Onions,” “Time Is Tight,” and “Born Under a Bad Sign” (written with William Bell) has created a melodious symphony that blends notes from every measure of his life, from his childhood to his recent work with the Drive-by Truckers, in his tuneful new memoir, Time Is Tight (Little, Brown).
Moving back and forth in time, the episodic anecdotes in Time Is Tight carry Jones from his early love of music to his first day at the Satellite Recording Studios when he was 15 and his accompanying, at age 12, the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson when she showed up to sing at his church one Sunday afternoon without an accompanist. Jones recalls that he wasn’t sure in what key Jackson was going to sing her signature song, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” “My mother had written the song out in all 12 keys,” he recalls, “and I learned the song in every key. I still have that little book she wrote out for me.”
Each chapter in Time Is Tight takes its title from one of the songs that he includes on his new album, Note by Note, a kind of compilation of his most familiar songs, re-recorded (ND review). At the head of each story are measures of music that reflect the musical moments he describes in the chapter and that illustrate the dynamic power of music to paint a picture that precedes words.
Jones says he’s been working on the book for many years. “About 12 years ago, I had started writing in a journal, working on my songwriting and trying to kickstart my writing. I was trying to put pen to paper and keep the rhythm flowing,” he says. “I had written 12 or 13 essays about my life and my music, and my wife, Nan, said, ‘You have enough here to put into a book. Why don’t you turn this into a book?’ The next thing I know there was an agent involved.”
Jones started reading memoirs and books about writing memoirs. “I read one memoir by a good friend that was ghostwritten, and it just didn’t sound like the person I knew. I mean, all the facts were there, but it just didn’t sound like the person’s voice. That’s when I decided to write my book myself.” Once he had turned in the manuscript, Jones says that his editor, Phil Marino, suggested that Jones tell the story in flashback form, moving back and forth in time. “He also suggested adding music notes on each chapter. They came to me as I read back through the book.”
In an early episode, Jones recalls some of the first music he heard and the ways that he begins hearing music in all facets of his life. “And when I heard my mother play ‘Clair de Lune’ on the piano one afternoon, something happened to my heart. Up to that time, I had not heard anything so tender and sensitive. At the other end of the scale was Anton Dvorak’s Ninth Symphony. The piece, with its dissimilar, imposing chords, took my breath away. In spite of having no knowledge or understanding whatsoever of the method Dvorak employed to create such audacious music, I felt empathy and connection to the piece and its conception. As if I were compelled to try and create a similar work. I was so touched, I would have done anything to learn that art. I heard those very instruments in my own head. I began to absorb all sound. I heard rhythms in machines, in nature, in the wind. I became excited by the music that played in my mind. The promise and the possibilities were endless! Deep emotional passages echoed in my memory as sung by the a cappella black choruses in the Holly Springs, Mississippi, churches.”
Highlights of Jones’ book include his recollections of playing with artists including Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Emmylou Harris, Carlos Santana, and of course, Donald “Duck” Dunn and Steve Cropper, his stalwarts in the MGs, the Stax house band. One of Jones’ most poignant reflections focuses on his relationship with Otis Redding and Redding’s way with a song. “Otis and I had a quiet understanding. A silent communication. Neither of us was a man of many words; all it took was a look or a gesture. In the studio, Otis was comfortable with my piano accompaniment, having come from a similar gospel background. There was an intuitive flow between us — I related to his passion when he sang, which transferred to my playing. There was an ease and comfort, a certain joy in our musical relationship — it didn’t seem to matter if I was playing piano, organ, or guitar, we were musical kin.” On Redding’s singing: “To my knowledge, there has been no singer in the Western world who pleaded with the earnestness of Otis Redding. It wasn’t fake. His tempestuous inner self was full of apprehension, yearning, and love for everything he touched. … Otis was made for singing heartbreak songs, and I was made for writing unrelentingly unconventional verse and bridge changes.”
Music lives at the center of Time Is Tight. Early in the memoir Jones reflects on the positive power of music: “By the age of nine, I told myself, ‘Life was meant to be played in the key of C.’” It was the simplest, least complex key. It had no sharps or flats and was beautiful and pleasing to the ear. The flute, the oboe, the piano, the guitar, and the trombone were all created in C, and I believed that C was the natural key for the earth, humans, and the universe at large.”
Looking back on his mother’s death in 1977, Jones reflects on time and the power of music to live within and beyond it: “Life is a song sung between the verses and to grasp it is to let it slip through your fingers.”
“I am back to playing in the key of C,” Jones laughs. “I hope readers will get to know me and my music a little better,” he says of his memoir. I hope they can be inspired to fight against the odds and believe in themselves.” Time Is Tight lives up to the promise of Jones’ funky rhythms and memorable songs and reverberates with Jones’ fluid and melodious prose.