Photo Credit: Piper Ferguson
Over five decades of timeless soul and contributions beyond his trademark Hammond organ sound fuel songwriter Booker T. Jones’ current career as a go-to collaborator for Southern roots purists. Jones’ career dates back to the early ‘60s. As a Memphis high schooler, he was a sought-after baritone sax session player. He later became one of the best-known organ players of the 1960s. It was no surprise, considering his childhood fascination with keys. “I was trying to play when I was probably about 4 or 5, but I couldn’t reach the keys,” Jones says. “My mama had an upright grand piano, so the keys were a little high for me.”
Before graduation, he had penned “Green Onions,” a Booker T. and the MGs hit that’s in the same rock-instrumental pantheon as “Telstar” by The Tornados and The Ventures’ “Walk Don’t Run.” Jones had no clue that a simple chord pattern he’d written on a piano would help define his career. “It was a surprise to hear it on the radio,” he says. “It was a song I always liked, but I never had that kind of foresight.”
Jones remained a sought-after multi-instrumentalist well beyond his years writing and performing hits for Stax Records. He’s since built a massive discography that ranges from Willie Nelson’s Stardust album (1978) to Rancid’s Let the Dominoes Fall (2009).
Loose local ties were bound in 2009, when the Drive-By Truckers, alongside Neil Young, backed Jones on his solo album Potato Hole. “That was the idea of Andy Kaulkin, the owner of the record label I was signed to at the time, Anti- Records,” Jones said. “I had written a bunch of guitar songs, and he wanted to come up with a band to do those songs for me. I think he made a good choice with the Drive-By Truckers.”
A charming instrumental take on Outkast’s “Hey Ya” furthers the album’s Georgia connections. Although Jones says the cover was Patterson Hood’s idea, it’s marked by the swirling Hammond organ tones that define such MG classics as “Time is Tight” and “Hip Hug-Her.”
An arranged marriage of convenience between Jones and the Drive-By Truckers sparked lasting friendships and the occasional live collaboration. “Every now and then we get together,” he says. “We’ve done a few New Year’s Eve dates. I started playing some of their music with them on the road, so we played a few festivals.”
Jones counts country purists Jason Isbell and Chris Stapleton as friends, and he’s performed at the White House with the Alabama Shakes. Simply put, his younger musician friends are a who’s who of 2016 Grammy winners. Those artists’ successes, and Jones’ appreciation for their music, reflects recent mainstream acceptance of throwback Southern sounds. “I was listening to the music [during the Grammys] and really appreciating the songs,” Jones says. “Just simple, down-to-earth songs about life with no pretense. People like and connect to that. That approach was our mantra back at Stax: simple, accessible music.”
It’s that same approach that keeps Jones on the road, piecing together setlists that cull from his lengthy career as a songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and producer. “We always incorporate something new, and there’s always something changing in my life,” he says. “There’s so much music that influences me, and as I get older there’s so much music I’ve been involved in creating. I like to bring that to special shows for each audience.”
To fully embrace his years as a prolific musician and fervent listener, Jones leaves a familiar seat every night—for the fans and his health. “I still love the Hammond organ, but I started as a guitar player, so I also play guitar in my show, and I sing the blues songs that influence me,” he explains. “I later found out it’s not good for you to sit too long. When you are working, you should spend some time standing.”
BOOKER T. JONES The acclaimed soul artist is backed by a cast of contemporary R&B musicians. See story on p. 10.
JAY GONZALEZ Solo classic-pop jams from Drive-By Truckers' keyboardist.