Soul legend Booker T. Jones as creative now as he’s ever been

Wednesday, 15 January 2014   | Wallace Baine  | Santa Cruz Sentinel

He could have born anywhere, in Little Rock, in Charlotte, in Baltimore. But in the fall of 1944, Booker T. Jones was born in Memphis. And that fact of geography not only shaped his life, it deeply influenced American music as well.

Today, Jones is something beyond a mere star. He is a member of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and a recipient of the Grammys’ Lifetime Achievement Award. He’s also one of the few people that can be said to have pioneered a beloved American musical genre: soul music.

As the frontman for Booker T. & the MGs and the prime instrumentalist behind the groundbreaking sound of Stax Records in the 1960s, Jones was an architect of a distinct Memphis sound that helped delivered R&B from Ray Charles in the 1950s to the funk of the 1970s.

And it might not have happened had been born some other place. Jones grew up as something of a musical prodigy, playing saxophone, trombone, piano, even oboe throughout his school years.

“Memphis is special,” said Jones who performs live for two shows at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center on Monday. “As a young musician, there were just so many opportunities, so many clubs to play, so many musicians to play with. In school, there were all kinds of instruments available to me. It was a gathering place for musicians from all around. Really, for musicians who have grown up in Memphis and have left, Memphis is a frame of mind.”

Jones will forever be famous for the 1962 Top Five hit “Green Onions,” one of the most famous instrumentals in pop music history. Jones wrote and recorded the song with his fabled band the MGs while still in high school.

“It was a Sunday afternoon and I was enjoying some free studio time,” he said. “I hadn’t even graduated (high school) yet.”

The MGs were a four-piece band that was a rarity in the days of civil rights unrest. They were a racially integrated band. Jones and drummer Al Jackson Jr. were black; guitarist Steve Cropper, bass player Lewie Steinberg and Steinberg’s replacement Duck Dunn were all white.

“You know, it was not a big deal to us at that time,” he said. “It’s a big deal now, looking back on it. But not then. We were just haphazardly thrown together mainly because we all like the same kind of music.”

The MGs did not make their most lasting mark as a recording act in their own right, but as the house band at Stax, though they continued to release hit records after “Green Onions,” including “Hip-Hug-Her” and “Hang-’Em High.” The band backed up many of the most glorious names of the era: Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Albert King and others. Over his long, 50-plus-year career, Jones has played on many landmark recordings. He was the piano player on Redding’s “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” and the bass player on Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door.” He was the producer of songs such as “Ain’t No Sunshine” by Bill Withers and Willie Nelson’s “Georgia on My Mind.”

However, at 69, Jones is no oldies act. The last five years have been one of his most fruitful periods as a recording artist, as he has found a new groove as an instrumentalist, composer and collaborator. His 2009 album “Potato Hole” on which he brought in the popular indie country band the Drive-By Truckers — Truckers’ lead man Patterson Hood is the son of David Hood, a long-time session man from Muscle Shoals, Ala., and a contemporary of Jones. The album won a Grammy.

In 2011, Jones released the ambitious where he unleashed his trademark Hammond B-3 organ in tribute to the city that created him, with such eye-popping guest collaborators as ?uestlove from the hip-hop band the Roots, and the late Lou Reed. In 2013, Jones was in record stores again with the album “Sound the Alarm,” which marked his return to Stax for the first time in 40 years.

“I think I’ve always been a creative person since I was probably six or seven years old and started playing ukulele and piano. And I’ve had a lot of ideas in my mind the whole time. But I haven’t really had the opportunity to record my ideas until recently.”

Stax Records is not what it used to be. The great Memphis label is now headquartered in Beverly Hills. With his return, Booker T. is the last echo of what Stax used to be, he said.

“They were really nice to me when I walked in,” he said. “I kind of think that I’m the constant between then and now. You know, just carrying on the tradition.”

{ Monday Two shows: 7 and 9 p.m. Kuumbwa Jazz Center, 320-2 Cedar St., Santa Cruz. $30 advance; $35 at the door. www.kuumbwajazz.org. }

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