By Brian Wise
“I’m back home, so to speak,” says Booker T Jones.
More than four decades years after he left Stax Records and headed for Los Angeles, Jones is back with the label whose sound he helped to define. An ownership change led to his departure in 1971 and it is a new ownership change at Concord that has brought him back. (Earlier this year the label released the Charlie Musselwhite and Ben Harper collaboration, Get Up!).
In Jones they have re-signed a bona fide piece of history. It’s impossible to list all of his sessions but between 1963 and 1968, along with the MGs, he appeared on more than 600 Stax/Volt recordings, including classics by such artists as Otis Redding, Eddie Floyd, Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas, Johnnie Taylor and dozens of other Memphis artists. As a result of the Stax deal with Atlantic Records, he also worked with Wilson Pickett, Sam and Dave, and Albert King (that’s Booker T you hear on Albert King’s ‘Born Under A Bad Sign’, the song he wrote with William Bell).
Of course, Booker T. & the MGs were also hugely successful in their own right, recording a dozen albums that yielded 18 charting instrumental hits, including the classics ‘Green Onions,’ ‘Hip Hug-Her,’ ‘Time Is Tight’ and ‘Soul-Limbo.’ Their album McLemore Avenue, covering The Beatles’ Abbey Road, remains one of the great under-rated albums of all time and a personal favourite. (Later, they even recorded and toured with Neil Young). Along with guitarist Steve Cropper, bassist Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn (who passed away just last year) and drummer Al Jackson, Jones has made some of the most memorable instrumental music ever.
But Booker T Jones has not dwelt on the past too much recently. In 2009 signed with the ANTI- label (home to Tom Waits) and recorded the album Potato Hole with The Drive By Truckers and Neil Young, which led to an intriguing tour where they shared the bill with often interesting results. The album won a Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental Album. In 2011 he teamed up with The Roots, perhaps a more predictable combination than the previous recording, for The Road To Memphis (with guests Lou Reed, Jim James and Sharon Jones) and again won a Grammy.
“They had been making overtures to me actually now for a few years,” explains Jones about his return to the label whose reputation he helped found. “I had my time with my ANTI Records which is not far from them and I just gravitated towards Stax.”
“I didn’t know John Burk [the label’s A&R chief]very well and one day he had lunch with Bill Withers and myself,” he continues (Withers’ daughter guests on the new album), “and I really liked the guy. Then I met Norman Lear, the guy that pretty much owns the place, and then I met the people over there and we just hit it off.”
It must seem a little bit strange after 40 years being back on the label where he started his career?
“Yeah, it was,” agrees Jones, “because the label became defunct for a long time. It’s a real company now. It’s real people like before. Great people.”
Of course, one of the great experiences of visiting Memphis is going to the Stax Museum on McLemore Avenue (which houses a re-creation of the original studio ) and getting an appreciation of what it must have been like recording there.
“I’m glad you can see it like they did it,” says Jones. “They did it like the original Stax, not the Stax that I grew into with all the plush offices and when it became the big conglomerate company.
“It was a great opportunity for me from early in my life. I had just many, many great moments there and I’m just lucky to have been one of the people that was involved.
“The thing is, I look back on it and it’s almost like magic. I wonder how we did that so many times for so many artists? The musical lines that came up and the emotions and the moments that gelled just at the right point for Otis and for Sam and Dave and for Eddie and William Bell (the first time I played organ there), and Rufus and Carla. You look back and you wonder. Well, it’s like magic or something.”
Jones’ new album Sound the Alarm, is his first album for Stax since 1971’s Melting Pot and it is replete with guest vocalists and instrumentalists ranging from Gary Clark Jr. to Poncho Sanchez and Anthony Hamilton.
“I’ve just been following my path,” he adds, “not really intending to bump into all these incredible people but there they are.”
Jones, now 68, appointed his daughter Olivia as his manager three years ago and he credits her with helping to bring the current album to fruition.
She’s just been doing whatever’s necessary to get me going,” says Jones. “She’s been writing songs with me or introducing me to people. She introduced me to the people at Concord. She’s just been managing my career really well. I never dreamed my own daughter would be doing that for me but there she is. I let her do it because she has my best interests in heart and she loves what she does. She works hard. I trust her.”
Booker’s son Ted is also on the album, playing guitar on the final track, ‘Father Son Blues.’
“Ted is an amazing kid,” says the proud father. “I’m really happy to have him with us. I’m looking for good things from him in the future. He just took a job at an advertising firm. He just graduated. He’s a very smart boy. He thinks like an ad man but he plays guitar like Joe Bonamassa!”
Sound The Alarm, is much more of an R&B album than Jones’ previous two recordings – appropriate as it is on Stax.
“It is. It’s R&B,” agrees Jones. “That’s why it’s great that it’s on Stax. I’ve been doing rock and I’ve been doing hip-hop, jazz and other stuff but this time I’m back with what I started doing which is R&B like it would’ve been if I had stayed at Stax the whole time.”
Of course, what is now called R&B is not quite what it was in the heyday of the Stax label. To that end, Jones’ and his co-production team Bobby Ross and Issiah Avila (who co-wrote eight of the songs) have enlisted Anthony Hamilton and some younger, contemporary vocalists including Mayer Hawthorne (who has his own new album out soon) on the title track, Jay James and Luke James. ‘Your Love Is no More’ features Los Angeles retro group Vintage Trouble.
“That’s true. It has changed,” agrees Jones of the R&B genre. “I think this is something like what it would’ve developed into if Stax hadn’t fallen apart during the Disco period and during the hip-hop period.”
One of the surprise guests on the album is Bill Withers’ daughter Kori who sings a duet with Jones on the song ‘Watch You Sleeping.’ Jones produced Bill’s first album and has kept in contact ever since, despite the fact that Withers completely retired from the music scene in 1985.
“I’ve known [Bill] over 40 years,” says Booker. “I worked on his very first album when he was a carpenter building airplane toilets out there in Inglewood. I love the guy. I was made aware of her. They had a tribute to Bill for his anniversary back in Virginia and he made a film of her singing and that was on the tribute film. She just sounded beautiful. She sounds beautiful on my record too. She is just a great singer and a real nice girl.”
“You couldn’t convince Bill to get back into the studio, could you?” I ask eagerly.
“No, he thinks he’s a carpenter just like he did 50 years ago,” laughs Booker and recalls when they first worked together. “I had to convince him back then. We got in the studio – and this is a true story – all the musicians were there. We were ready to record and Bill walked up to me and said, ‘Booker, who’s going to sing these songs?’ It’s true. I looked at him. I said him, ‘You are Bill.’
“Then he just turned around and walked out of the studio. Then we made an album with him singing. Music is just a hobby to him. He’s really great but he often doesn’t take it seriously. He’s amazing.”
Maybe the odd guest out on Sound The Alarm might seem to be Gary Clark Jr, who plays on ‘Austin City Blues,’ but he is certainly not out of place when you consider the great blues players with whom Jones has worked.
“I met Gary at Apple iTunes in Cupertino and we were demonstrating some new music. I was working on my last album and he was doing a demo for them downstairs. I left my gig and went down to his gig to listen to him play. It was just great. I’m so glad to see it [his success]because he plays authentic music and he’s the real thing. He’s like a young Albert King.”
Apart from the vocal tracks on Sound The Alarm, there is the fantastic instrumental ‘66 Impala,’ featuring Poncho Sanchez and Sheila E. It is redolent of the sounds of East Los Angeles and, along with Gary Clark Jr’s spot, ‘Father Son Blues’ and the title song, one of the album’s four undoubted highlights.
“I have always loved Latin music,” admits Jones. “I had Tito Puente Records when I was a kid. When I got to California and I met Carlos Santana who introduced me to some of those Afro-Cuban players in his band. He had his greatest band then. We toured together. Coke Escovedo [the percussionist]was in the band and of course I met Coke’s brother Pete and Sheila is Pete’s niece. She plays like they did and they just have that thing going.
“It’s a natural part of me. I heard Mongo Santamaria doing ‘Watermelon Man’ and we loved that song back in Memphis. It’s a part of me, the Latin.”
“It’s original,” he says of the tune, when I tell him it sounds like a long lost classic. “Everything on the album is original. Between Poncho and Sheila, you can’t miss.”
“It’s influenced by Eric Burdon and War and the East LA feel,” he continues. “East LA has great musicians and great sounds come from that area. Great musical families out there.
Finally, I wonder if Jones’ recent Grammys success after so many years in the business helps to keep him recharged.
“It defines my life,” he replies. “It makes my life. I’m excited and I’m having a good time. I’m enjoying it. I’m just lucky. I don’t want it to stop. I just enjoy making new music and I love it.”
Sound The Alarm is available now on Stax.