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Soul-man Booker T. Jones brings Memphis mojo to Petaluma

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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.

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.

Lewie Steinberg, the MG’s original bass player, named the song “Funky Onions,” but record producer and Stax co-founder Jim Stewart’s sister, Estelle, felt the name was too crass.

“It was 1962 and it was a very conservative time,” Jones says.

So the title was changed to “Green Onions.”

“A more acceptable name,” Jones laughs.

The single peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and No. 1 on the R&B chart. Five months later, “Green Onions” became the title track to the debut album by Booker T. & the Mg’s, the first of a dozen albums and string of hits that included “Hip Hug-Her,” “Soul Limbo,” and “Time Is Tight.”

But Jones grew disillusioned with the label in 1969 and moved to Los Angeles. He released several albums with his wife, Priscilla Coolidge (sister of singer Rita Coolidge). In 1994, he joined Cropper, bassist Duck Dunn and others for a Booker T. & the MG’s reunion album, “That’s the Way It Should Be. His own 2009 solo album “Potato Hole,” featuring the Drive-By Truckers and Neil Young, won a Grammy Award.

It was his first solo album in 20 years.

Jones’ tenth and most recent album, 2013’s “Sound the Alarm,” featured a guest appearance by Texas powerhouse blues sensation Gary Clark Jr.

Over the years, Jones has toured extensively, led the house band at the Rock and Roll of Fame induction ceremonies, and performed at a 2017 Stax tribute at the Royal Albert Hall BBC Proms in London.

And, In May, “Green Onions” was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame

What was the secret to Booker T. & the MG’s mojo?

“The sound was different,” Jones says. “The simplicity was pervasive and unrelenting - a lot of the music that came out at that time was complex, a lot of the Motown songs had complex arrangements.

“We,” he says, “were pretty accessible and definitely groove oriented.”