Booker T. Jones remembers the moment he became enamored by that fat Hammond B-3 organ tone, which has become his signature sound.
“I heard Ray Charles on the radio playing one with Quincy Charles on ‘One Mint Julep.’ I fell in love with the sound,” he says, explaining that he immediately got a paper route delivering the Memphis Press-Scimitar and the Commercial-Appeal, just so he could pay for the organ lessons.
“I was 12,” he adds.
Fortunately for Jones, his piano teacher owned a B-3, a versatile and challenging instrument that was quite rare. That was 1956 and Jones already was on the path that would lead to his role as the leader of the celebrated organ band Booker T. & the MG’s, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement.
Jones is soft-spoken and modest during a call from his Lake Tahoe home, often punctuating his sentences by humming a gentle “Mmm-hmm.” His long career is the subject of an upcoming memoir.
“The book project is daunting,” he admits with a laugh. “But that’s just because I started my career so early and I’ve lived a long time. I was, maybe, 12 or 13 years old when I got my first job playing piano at a dance — that was at Memphis State University for a fraternity. I got my first job as a songwriter when I was 16 or 17 years old. I played in a large number of places. I worked in Memphis and then I worked in L.A. twice, and then I worked in Nashville, as well as various places in Texas.
“So,” he notes, “I’ve met a lot of people.”
Booker Tallaferro Jones, Jr., grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, where Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and B.B. King and other rockabilly, blues, country and gospel acts recorded at Sun Studios, at a time when the gritty Memphis R&B and soul scene was set to rival Motown. He snared his first studio session at 16 playing baritone sax for soul singer Rufus Thomas and his daughter Carla Thomas, on “’Cause I Love You,” on the fledgling Satellite label (which later became Stax Records - aka Soulsville).
“I was playing hooky from school,” he says. “My friend Dave Porter, who also was playing hooky, recommended me. I got the sax from the school band room. Dave borrowed the band director’s car and took me over there to play on the session. I’d been trying to get to that place for years. I always wanted to do that kind of thing as a kid, but I couldn’t get through the door.”
Playing piano and organ, 16-year-old Jones soon became an integral part of the sound at Stax Records, contributing to sessions for William Bell, Otis Redding and many other soul artists. He recalls the session for Redding’s breakthrough single, “Try a Little Tenderness,” as one of the highlights of his own career.
“I was able to have a big musical input into that session,” he says. “I helped to shape a lot of that. It was a very emotional song. It was one of things where you were fortunate to be where you are.”
In 1962, he teamed up with fellow session guitarist Steve Cropper and others to record an instrumental organ tune called “Behave Yourself.” For the B-side, Jones crafted “Green Onions,” a 12-bar blues tune that grew from a piano riff he had created while practicing a music-theory lesson. “I had changed the third [note in the chord sequence] to a minor third and just started playing that on my mom’s piano,” Jones says. “I played it for the band - we already had recorded “Behave Yourself” as an organ song, so I switched from piano to organ on ‘Green Onions.’”
PLANNING TO GO?
What: Booker T. Jones, live in concert.
When: Fri., July 27, at 8:30 p.m.
Where: Mystic Theatre, 21 N. Petaluma Blvd.
Admission: $36 (day of the show); $38
Tickets: Call (707) 775-6048 or visit MysticTheatre.com.