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Soul Superstar

Booker T. Jones was instrumental in establishing Southern soul music. He's since won nearly every musical award there is, and plays often with new "neo soul" musicians


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Fifty-eight years ago, Booker T. Jones got himself an after-school job playing the music he'd loved since he was a toddler. 

He's been working ever since, in a career that has seen him found Booker T & the MGs—the band that established Southern soul music— as well as producing classic albums for Bill Withers and Willie Nelson and playing innumerable sessions with a Who's Who of music.

He's received every conceivable accolade, including induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and, most recently, picking up a pair of Grammys for two recent albums.

Now 73, Jones isn't resting on his laurels or giving the slightest consideration to retirement.

"I don't know what I would do if I wasn't doing this," Jones said from his Lake Tahoe, Nev. area home. "I would be sitting here being bored to death. I don't have any hobbies."

That after-school session playing job was for Satellite Records, a fledgling label in Jones' hometown of Memphis. For a high school student, he said it was a high paying gig.

"It was $5 a day then," Jones said. "That was good money."

The session work showed him he didn't need to become a doctor but could make a living doing what he'd done since he was about three: playing music.

Satellite Records became Stax Records soon after Jones played his first session for Rufus and Carla Thomas. 

The teenage Jones put together a band that included drummer Al Jackson, Jr., bassist Lewis Steinberg (later replaced by Donald 'Duck' Dunn) and guitarist Steve Cropper, who was the manager of the Satellite Records Shop in the front of the old Memphis movie theatre that became the now-legendary Stax studio.

"It was a default kind of thing," he said of the band, which took its name from the popular British sports car. "The MGs came together at first as a studio band, playing behind the singers. When we had our chance to make a record, it became a hit."

The hit grew out of Jones' desire to study music theory and composition at Indiana University. He was working on putting together chords for a composition for the school when, he says, "I came up with the chord progression that became 'Green Onions.'"

That instrumental hit brought Booker T & The MGs out of the studio and into the public—a band of two black guys and two white guys in the segregated South. 

"To be honest, it just slipped through the cracks," Jones said of the integrated band. "The powers that be didn't expect anything like that. Before anybody noticed, we'd become a unit. 

"We knew the South at that time may have been at a breaking point. I don't know if anybody really thought much about breaking the rules," he said. "We were pretty much hellbent on making music, white or black. We were sequestered there (at Stax). We went inside every day, nobody noticed who was coming in there. It was after we had a record they noticed."

In 1970, Jones stopped playing Stax sessions and moved to California, and the MGs put out their final record the next year. 

In Los Angeles, he did more session work and producing, including doing "Ain't No Sunshine," for Withers and, later, the 1978 classic, "Stardust," for his Malibu neighbor, Nelson.

A gifted multi-instrumentalist who would often play guitar on sessions, Jones's trademark—as it's been since the MGs days—is the Hammond B3 organ, a 475-pound behemoth that, accepting no substitute, he rents in each city he plays on tour. 

"The others don't sound the same," he said. "I play the Hammond B3 organ, either the original model or the new digital model, that sounds the same. I loved it (B3 sound). I loved it then and I love it now. I'm looking at one right now. I'm allowed to have one in my living room and I have one up in my studio."

Jones' shows, he says, include a lot of MGs material, including "Hip Hug-Her," "Time is Tight" and, of course, "Green Onions," along with songs from his session work and from artists, such as The Beatles, who have influenced him.

There will also be songs from his three most recent records, 2010's "Potato Hole," his collaboration with the Drive-By Truckers, 2012's "The Road from Memphis," his record with The Roots—both Grammy winners—and 2013's "Sound The Alarm," which features Mayer Hawthorne, Gary Clark, Jr., Estelle and Vintage Trouble. 

"The neo-soul artists, they're on 'Sound the Alarm,' they're making it just like we did," Jones said. "It's a movement. So they're attracted to me and I'm attracted to them. Patterson Hood (of Drive-By Truckers), his father David Hood, was a key R&B bass players down in Alabama, so he had all the records. We just really gelled in the studio together. They accepted me as a part of their band for a while."

Booker T. Jones
Sat., May 5. 6pm
Tower Theatre
835 NW Wall St., Bend

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