The four-time Grammy winner reflects on his five decades in the music business and his latest project, “Sound the Alarm.”
Musician Booker T.
Tavis Smiley: Good evening. From Los Angeles, I’m Tavis Smiley. Tonight a conversation with one of the all-time greats – songwriter, record producer, arranger, singer and all-around good guy, Booker T.
Over the course of his extraordinary career he’s worked with everybody from Willie Nelson to John Lee Hooker, earning him numerous Grammys for various albums, as well as a Grammy award for lifetime achievement. He’s just released a new CD titled “Sound the Alarm,” and will perform tonight not one but two songs, so I’m looking forward to that.
But before we get to all of that, that conversation and that performance, as this is our 10th anniversary here on PBS, we continue to introduce you to some of the folk who make this program possible every night.
So joining me now is Leshelle Sargent, who started here some years ago as an intern and for quite some time now has been in charge of all of our media strategy and our public relations. So Leshelle, we have been blessed to have you on the program, and thank you for being a part of our team.
Leshelle Sargent: It’s been a wild ride, Tavis, and I just want to thank everyone out there, including my mom and colleagues and professors who always believed in me. And thank you, Tavis, for giving me this opportunity and for encouraging, empowering, and enlightening us for the past 10 seasons. Congratulations on your star at the Hollywood Walk of Fame. You so deserve it.
Tavis: Thank you, I appreciate that. Appreciate that. All right, tell us who’s coming up tonight.
Sargent: A conversation with musician Booker T., coming up right now.
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.
[Clips of Booker T. Jones]
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’re hot, but it was said so cool. You said it so cool.
Jones: Thank you, Tavis. (Laughter)
Tavis: This has got some wonderful collaborations on it.
Jones: Thank you.
Tavis: Tell me about some of these collaborations, man.
Jones: Well, Estelle from England, the beautiful woman there with the beautiful voice.
Tavis: She’s got a voice too, doesn’t she?
Jones: The melodic sense, Estelle. Anthony Hamilton, the Southern soul singer, and Gary Clark Jr., the Austin, Texas blues boy.
Tavis: Pancho Sanchez.
Jones: Pancho Sanchez.
Tavis: Sheila E.
Tavis: You’ve got them all, man. 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.
Jones: I’ve played with a lot of people.
Tavis: Yeah. Why so many collaborations? It’s a beautiful thing, but for you, why so many collaborations over the years?
Jones: Well, all these great people bring out the best in me. (Laughter)
Tavis: When you say it brings out the best in you, let me ask 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?
Jones: 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 Pancho Sanchez and Sheila E. So there are – and then of course there was Hank Williams coming over the airwaves from WOR in Nashville, Tennessee, WLS. So I do love a lot of types of music, and I love them feverishly.
Tavis: You just listed a number of genres there, and I’m not so sure that the Hammond B-3 works with classical. But is there a particular sound that this instrument does not work with or for so well?
Jones: Well, the first notes that I ever heard on a Hammond B-3 were Bach, “The Well-Tempered Clavier.”
Jones: My teacher, Mrs. Cole, when she opened up –
Tavis: Elmertha Cole.
Jones: That’s right.
Jones: Mrs. Elmertha Cole. She opened up the cover and she started to play “The Well-Tempered Clavier,” and that’s what hooked me on the sound of the instrument, was the way that sounded. So yes, it is definitely a classical instrument.
Tavis: Tell me about Ms. Cole, your teacher.
Jones: Mrs. Cole could sit as far away as we are with her little wand and pick out which finger was hitting the wrong note. She was that good. She was just an excellent teacher with a huge heart that cared about her students, and she was able to impart to me the way to express myself on that Hammond organ.
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.
Jones: 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 else. But why were you working so hard as a kid to spend your money on music lessons?
Jones: 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. But it was my passion and it still is. It still is. I still practice every day.
Tavis: Tell me about walking in to Stax the first couple times you went in that building. Obviously you’re one of the iconic artists on the label over the years, but tell me about those early days at Stax.
Jones: My friend David Porter obtained a hall pass and came and got me out of algebra class and told the teacher, I guess, that the band director wanted to see me or whatever excuse he came up with.
Borrowed the band director’s car and we picked up this baritone sax and then took me over to play on a song by Rufus and Carlo Thomas called, “‘Cause I Love You,” and that’s me playing the baritone sax.
That was the first time I got through that door, but I’d been trying to get through that door for years. But he was able to take me through there. David Porter.
Tavis: Yeah, I love David. Hi, David. Great guy. Wrote so much of that Isaac Hayes stuff. That’s David Porter.
Jones: That was later. Isaac was later.
Tavis: (Unintelligible) later, I’m saying, but for those who may not know the name David Porter, you know Isaac Hayes, you know David Porter and so many other greats that came through that label. What was it like years later when you became a Stax artist?
Jones: There was a time of pleasurable moments and opportunity that was just unbelievable. We were introduced to soul artists that just took us to the heights. Otis Redding just lifted us up with his inspiration. Albert King, the way he played the blues just lifted us up, made us play better.
Sam and Dave on stage, being behind them on stage and just not believing what I’m seeing before my eyes. It was a time of just opportunity and inspiration.
Tavis: Before I get a phone call from somebody, David Porter is more than Isaac Hayes. He is Sam and Dave; he’s anybody and everybody at Stax.
Jones: It’s true.
Tavis: David Porter had a hand in it years later, so we want to give Dave his props. How did you process at that time being on Stax versus, say a Motown? Because for folk who remember that era, Motown had its brand and they were out the gate first, but when Stax showed up with all that soul, it was a whole different kind of day.
Jones: We were listening to everything that Motown did, and we didn’t compare. We tried to emulate some. But at the same time, we wanted to keep our individuality. So we thought of ourselves as being the simple, funky musicians, and them being the more sophisticated people, is the way we thought of it.
Tavis: Tell me about those Booker T. and the MG days.
Jones: Those were the days of the Hammond organ and trying to integrate the (unintelligible) sound of a Bill Doggett or a Ray Charles or a Jimmy Smith. Those were my mentors, or those are my inspirations, and exciting, exciting times.
Tavis: I’ve always believed that Jimmy Smith is one of the best to ever touch the instrument. Tell me more about his gift, as you see it.
Jones: The amazing thing about Jimmy was that he got better as he lived. He was amazing when he started.
Jones: But the older Jimmy Smith was just out of this world, just unbelievable.
Tavis: How did you – I mentioned earlier you were a child prodigy, you played all these instruments. How did you end up settling – not that you don’t play whatever you want to play – but how did the Hammond B-3 end up your signature instrument?
Jones: Well as I said, my teacher – I tried to play like my mother. My mother was a beautiful keyboard player. She played piano, and she expressed so much feeling. I tried to imitate her.
I wouldn’t call myself a prodigy. I was just a kid that worked hard. I thought myself the oboe, the clarinet, because I love the sounds of those instruments. I got my degree from Indiana playing trombone, another instrument that I just felt close to.
But when I really wanted to express myself I would always look for this odd, unique instrument, the Hammond B-3 organ. This thing that weighs 475 pounds, it’s completely unwieldy, but for me, it was the place I felt most comfortable.
Using her techniques, using the way she taught me to move my fingers, and the way she taught me to have myself come out through the instrument, I don’t know a better way to express it, I was able to do that at times when I needed to with the Hammond B-3, and the Leslie speaker.
Tavis: This may be an impossible question; let me ask anyway. It’s one thing to be trained as you were by Mrs. Cole, but at some point, you put your own stank on it, you put your own funk on that thing, and –
Jones: That became –
Tavis: Yeah, because I can hear a record without even knowing it’s you, and know that it’s you.
Jones: 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?
Jones: 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, that 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.
Jones: Oh, I see.
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, (unintelligible) in Indiana.
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 –
Tavis: – and secularizing it.
Tavis: Did you have a similar journey, or how did you navigate learning this thing in the church and taking it to the streets?
Jones: Well, let me say one thing about the Pentecostal temple. I was raised Methodist CME, Episcopal. So I would stand outside the Pentecostal church and listen. (Laughter)
Tavis: For all my Methodist Episcopal friends, did y’all hear that? Yeah, yeah, Pentecostal is hegemonic. If you want some good music, come check us out.
Jones: This is the truth. I stood out on the street there in Memphis. But yeah, my teacher, my classical teacher, Mrs. (unintelligible) 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’s 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. And going for that, that’s the instrument that I gravitated to, was the Hammond M-3 organ, which was the one at Satellite Records, which became Stax Records.
So that’s how I ended up sitting there at 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?
Jones: 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: That’s a great description. That’s what it is. (Laughter) Yeah, that. That’s what it does, and that’s why I love it so much. But fast-forward, you got your first big hit, million-seller, “Green Onions.” After that, you still had the good sense and the presence of mind to say, “I still need more training.”
There are a lot of folk who have a million-seller who ain’t going to nobody’s school at that point. They’re on the road, they’re making money, they’re making records, they’re making hits.
You took the time, as you said earlier, to go to Indiana. Why do I raise that? Because I too am a proud graduate of Indiana University. So here on national TV tonight, two Black men who’ve done fairly well who are products of the Indiana University educational system. So here’s a shout-out for IU. So tell me why go to IU, why get musical training at this institution?
Jones: Being true to myself. I was fooling people. People thought I could play. People thought I was good. But I knew that I could not play the music I heard in my mind, I couldn’t write it down. I was hearing symphonic sounds. I was hearing so much music that I was incapable of getting out.
So I knew I needed help, and I had the money. I had saved $900 from my paper route for tuition. I’d already paid the tuition at Indiana when I recorded “Green Onions.” (Laughter) So I would have forfeited that.
Tavis: So you had to honor it. That’s the real story now. (Laughter) The real story is you didn’t want no more training. You had put your money down and you couldn’t get it back. That’s why you went to Bloomington. (Laughter) I understand that. I’m laughing at 900 – you had saved $900?
Jones: Nine hundred dollars.
Tavis: On a paper route?
Jones: That’s right, good for two semesters.
Tavis: You’re the most disciplined Negro I have ever met in my life. (Laughter) Fourteen-, 15-, 16-year-old kid.
Jones: Thank you. But it was a family tradition, though. My grandfather built a school with his own two hands in Marshall County, Mississippi, because he believed that people should develop their minds, they should cultivate their minds.
That’s where our salvation really was, was in generating mental health and education. My grandfather educated all of his children. They all went to college. They all went to Mississippi Industrial, MI, or school, and so that was my tradition.
Tavis: Wow. How would you situate this with your corpus, the rest of your body of work? This fits in how?
Jones: This is –
Tavis: “Sound the Alarm.”
Jones: – 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, 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 I had a great time making it, and great, really happy to present it on Stax Records.
Tavis: As much as I love talking to Booker T., the best part of this conversation tonight will be when I shut up (laughter) and you get a chance to hear not one, but two songs from Booker T. in just a moment. I’ll tell you about what he’s about to play for us.
Let me ask real quick, I got a minute to go here, since you mentioned all those different genres of music over the course of the years that we have endured from disco to pop to R&B and to hip-hop, how have you remained constant? How have you remained relevant? How have you not disappeared during all of that change?
Jones: Well the truth is that I have done some languishing during that period. I actually had to enroll in San Francisco State University to reeducate myself about how to record music.
I studied digital music at San Francisco for about three years in order to bring myself up to speed, because I realized, I walked into the studio with Hans Zimmer one day and I saw all these screens, and I didn’t know what they were doing.
People were sitting around; I didn’t know what they were doing. I said to myself, “How can I produce a record? I don’t know what this new technology is.” So I had to reeducate myself and reinvent myself, and that took a while.
Tavis: Smart man, went back to school again. I love you, man. (Laughter)
Jones: Oh, thank you.
Tavis: Education is key in the Booker T. household. I love it, I love it. 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. 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.
Jones: Oh, thank you for having me.
Tavis: Good to have you here.
Jones: It’s a pleasure to be here. It’s an honor.
Tavis: So enjoy, thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.
[Live performance by Booker T.]
Jones: (Laughs) Thank you.
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