The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer recounts stories from his longtime music career and performs a track from his latest CD, “Sound the Alarm.”
Organ master Booker T.
Tavis: Booker T. is among the best, an accomplished musician, record producer and songwriter, something of a child prodigy, he played the oboe, the saxophone, the trombone, the piano at school, an organ at church, and at only 17 he produced his first million-selling single, the iconic “Green Onions.”
Over his long career he’s worked with everybody from Willie Nelson to Ray Charles to Neil Young and dozens of others, and has produced dozens of his own albums, including earning individual Grammys as well as a lifetime Grammy achievement award. His new CD is out. It’s called “Sound the Alarm.” Let’s take a look at a clip.
Tavis: So I should start by asking what are we sounding the alarm about?
Booker T. Jones: You’re sounding the alarm because I’m hot. (Laughter) I’m on fire.
Tavis: You hot, but it was said so cool. (Laughter) You said it so coolly.
Booker T.: Thank you. Thank you, Tavis.
Tavis: This has got some wonderful collaborations on it.
Booker T.: Thank you.
Tavis: Talk about some of these collaborations, man.
Booker T.: Well, Estelle from England, the beautiful woman there with the beautiful voice.
Tavis: She’s got a voice too, doesn’t she?
Booker T.: The melodic sense, Estelle. Anthony Hamilton, the Southern soul singer, and Gary Clark Jr., the Austin, Texas blues boy.
Tavis: Poncho Sanchez.
Booker T.: Poncho Sanchez.
Tavis: Sheila E.
You got them all, man. (Laughter) You called in some favors on this one. Speaking of calling in favors, I guess one of the reasons why you can do that, as I said at the top, you have played with just about anybody who was everybody.
Booker T.: I’ve played with a lot of people.
Tavis: Why so many collaborations? It’s a beautiful thing, but for you, why so many collaborations over the years?
Booker T.: Well, all these great people bring out the best in me. (Laughter)
Tavis: Yeah, yeah. When you say it brings out the best in you – let me ask it another way. Is there a particular genre that brings out the best in you? You can play this Hammond B-3 behind anybody or with anybody, but what brings out, what kind of music brings out the best in you?
Booker T.: The truth is there’s more than one genre. Gospel music was the first for me, and then just around the corner was the blues that I loved, around the corner on Beale Street.
I spent many hours there. Then there was the classical music that my mother played. But as I grew up I learned to love the Latin, I learned to love Tito Puente, Mongo Santamaria. That’s why I’m hanging out with Poncho Sanchez and Sheila E.
So there are – and then of course there was Hank Williams coming over the airwaves from WLR in Nashville, Tennessee, WLS. So I do love a lot of types of music, and I love them feverishly.
Tavis: This is a crazy question to ask, but in the era that you grew up in, how much choice did you have to not be a musician. Memphis was – it still is, but it was the place then.
Booker T.: I was extremely fortunate to live around the corner from a recording studio and to be chosen to have a paper route to make enough money to pay for the music lessons. I was one of the chosen few to have a job and to walk through the curtain at Stax Records was just an amazing thing for me to do at age 14.
Tavis: Some of that discipline, though, speaks to you. I don’t know many kids today at the age of 14 who would be disciplined enough, dutiful enough, to work a paper route to earn money to take music lessons.
Maybe to buy some video games or something, but why were you working so hard as a kid to spend your money on music lessons?
Booker T.: I loved it. I loved it. It was what I wanted to do after school. There was football, there was baseball, but there was also my practice time that I always fit in.
I just happened to be at the right place at the right time, just able to play baritone sax at a time when they needed a baritone sax player over at the studio. I still practice every day.
Tavis: I can hear a record without even knowing it’s you and know that it’s you.
Booker T.: Well, I like that.
Tavis: Because there’s something about your style. (Laughter) How would you define that style that you created, your own thing?
Booker T.: Well it’s a combination of my gospel music roots in the church and my classical training and my love of the blues. I think it’s a unique combination, maybe, I’m not sure – I’m sure other people have those influences.
But being born in Memphis, Tennessee, on the Mississippi River, and having made my living playing down there on Beale Street, those particular elements created this Booker T. Jones style, mm-hmm.
Tavis: So you know a bit about my back story, I know more about yours. But the reason why I love this instrument so much, this Hammond B-3, is because long before I’d ever heard of Ray Charles, long before I heard of Jimmy Smith, I’m a kid growing up in a Pentecostal church.
Booker T.: Oh, absolutely.
Tavis: So I fall in love with, and I was choir director when I was – people don’t know this, but I was choir director of two choirs for years at my Pentecostal church, a little church in Indiana.
Booker T.: Okay, mm-hmm.
Tavis: So I fell in love with this instrument through the church. I raise that because you mentioned Ray Charles earlier, as did I, for that matter. But Ray had a moment in his career where he was catching hell, for lack of a better phrase, for taking that instrument and taking that sound –
Booker T.: Absolutely.
Tavis: – and secularizing it.
Booker T.: Absolutely.
Tavis: Did you have a similar journey, or how did you navigate learning this thing in the church and taking it to the streets?
Booker T.: Well let me say one thing about the Pentecostal temple.
Booker T.: I was raised Methodist CME, Episcopal, so I would stand outside the Pentecostal church and listen. (Laughter)
Tavis: For all of our Methodist and Episcopal friends, did y’all hear that? Yeah, yeah – Pentecostalism is hegemonic. If you want some good music, come check us out.
Booker T.: This is the truth. I stood out on – the truth – out on the street there in Memphis. But yeah, my teacher, my classical teacher, Mrs. Merle Glover, was a CME organist there.
But yes, it was a no-no to bring this type of music away from the spiritual environment and we were doing something that we knew was not kosher, for lack of a better word.
I understand that Ray probably couldn’t – he caught hell, like you said, at home for doing this. But it brought so much pleasure to such a large number of people, me included.
The reason I wanted to become an organ player was because I heard Ray Charles play on Quincy Jones’ arrangement of “One Mint Julep.” I heard that sound, and it just struck me. I thought that’s what I want to do with my life. That’s the sound I want to try to make.
Going for that, that’s the instrument that I gravitated to, was the Hammond M3 organ, which was the one at Satellite Records, which became Stax Records. So that’s how I ended up sitting there with that instrument, trying to figure out a way to sound like Ray Charles.
Tavis: Every instrument, Booker T., in its own way speaks to us. Every instrument has its own voice. But there’s something about the sound of that organ and the way those keys just resonate.
How would you describe how the organ speaks to us? What does it say to us? What is it about the sound of it that resonates with us?
Booker T.: The difference is is that you can try to make that thing sing. Unlike a piano, when you strike a key on a piano, in a few seconds the sound is going to die down unless you strike it again.
Not true with the organ. Once you strike a note on the organ, it’s going to stay with you until you either make it louder or softer or let it go. So it’s a little bit like the human voice, so you can put a human characteristic in it.
Tavis: How would you situate this with your corpus, the rest of your body of work? This fits in how?
Booker T.: This is –
Tavis: “Sound the Alarm.”
Booker T.: – something of a 360 for me. It’s my return to Stax Records, which was my genesis in the music business; my original record label was Stax Records.
But this music, I think, is music that would have been made had Stax not gone through some of the hiccups, I’ll call them – changes that caused the company to falter because of disco in the ’70s and because of hip-hop and rap in the ’80s and ’90s, and because of the financial problems that Stax Records went through.
I think if Stax had been allowed to live all that time, this is the type of music that they would be making. I can say that because I was one of the original people there. I think this is what it would have evolved to. I’m very proud of this music and had a great time making it, and great, really happy to present it on Stax Records.
Tavis: All right, so the new project from Booker T. is called “Sound the Alarm,” with some brilliant and wonderful and delicious collaborations. Beyond that, though, now a very special treat – Booker T. is going to play us out tonight with two songs.
The first, from his CD “Sound the Alarm,” is called “Fun,” and it is fun, and then the classic “Born Under a Bad Sign.” So two big songs from Booker T. Tonight. I hope you will enjoy them.
I’ve enjoyed this conversation, man. Thank you for coming on.
Booker T.: Oh, thank you for having me.
Tavis: Good to have you here.
Booker T.: It’s a pleasure to be here. It’s my honor.
Tavis: So enjoy, thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.
[Live performance of two songs]
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