GRAMMY Hall Of Fame Inspirations: Booker T. Jones
(To commemorate the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame's 40th Anniversary in 2013, GRAMMY.com has launched GRAMMY Hall Of Fame Inspirations. The ongoing series will feature conversations with various individuals who will identify GRAMMY Hall Of Fame recordings that have influenced them and helped shape their careers.)
It would be hard to find a musician who has had a guiding hand — actually, two guiding hands — in the creation of more classic recordings than organist supreme Booker T. Jones.
As a session player for the legendary Stax Records, and as leader of the hit-making instrumental group Booker T. & The MG's, Jones has performed on a staggering number of hits (many of which are now enshrined in the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame). He's backed such potent talents as Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett and Neil Young, and, as a producer, has crafted hit albums for artists including Rita Coolidge, Bill Withers and Willie Nelson. He's a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a three-time GRAMMY winner and, with the MG's, the recipient of a Recording Lifetime Achievement Award.
Jones' hands are still busy. In 2013 he released his 10th solo album, Sound The Alarm, which peaked at No. 30 on Billboard's R&B Albums chart and features a collaboration with recent GRAMMY winner Gary Clark Jr. on "Austin City Blues." Currently in the midst of a U.S. tour, Jones took time out of his busy schedule to discuss five GRAMMY Hall Of Fame recordings that have had a lasting influence on his career, including a few that feature his own hands at work.
Booker T. & The MG's
"I remember driving in the car with my father and hearing a track from the Ray Charles Genius + Soul [= Jazz] record. He had this great, straight organ sound, and I remember thinking that was the sound I wanted to make. I'd played a Hammond B-3 organ, but at Stax they had the smaller Hammond M-3. As soon as I played that, I realized that's what Ray had been playing, and that's what I was going to use.
"I'd come up with 'Green Onions' on a piano, and we recorded it as an afterthought — we just needed a B-side for a song called 'Behave Yourself.' But on the M-3, and with the band, that song had an attitude. I was 17 at the time, so I wanted everything to have an aggressive attitude. A little testosterone. The bass and drums lay down a great foundation, and Steve Cropper's guitar playing is magical. He sets up my parts perfectly with his little stabs. I'd played organ before this, but this was the song where I felt like I could really make the thing talk. It's still one of my favorite songs and the sound and the attitude still feel just right. And I love the fact that it's still a little bit of a mystery to me how it all came together. We really got it right the first time, and it's harder than you'd think to recreate."
Dave Brubeck Quartet
"I was very serious about jazz and music theory as a young musician, and my understanding of the Western concepts of music was just starting to get settled when I heard 'Take Five.' The recording almost scared me at first. It wasn't 'normal.' I had to really open my brain to let this one in.
"The sound of Paul Desmond on sax is so beautiful, and Joe Morello approaches the whole song as a kind of understated drum solo. The music and the interplay of the instruments was so subtle but so strange — a real departure from anything I was familiar with. And even stranger was that it was accepted as a pop song. It was on the Billboard charts! I think the average listener just hears that it swings — they don't even realize it's in 5/4 [time]. But as a musician, once you hear something that beautiful and that different, it's going to change the way you think."
"(Sittin' On) The Dock Of The Bay"
"I played piano on this one, for my friend Otis. Probably the last song of his that I played on. It always makes me think of all the time I spent with him, and the changes he was going through when he wrote this. He was dealing with becoming a big star as a very young man and was trying to please a lot of people.
"This one has a different feel than most of his songs — almost like a little country tune. He didn't tell us much about it. Just picked up a guitar and sang through it, and we got what he wanted. It was the culmination of kind of an eerie marathon recording session, which was very uncharacteristic for him. We were used to doing whatever he asked us to do, but I'd never worked with somebody who was that obsessed with getting the work done. We basically lived in the studio for a week. I don't know if he had some kind of premonition or not, but he worked so hard on this, and then he was gone from us at age 26 before the song was even on radio.
"There are times I'll stay away from the song a little bit because I know it's just going to make me miss Otis, but there are plenty of times when I can listen to it and just remember the good times we had, and remember what an amazing talent he was."
"A Change Is Gonna Come"
RCA Victor (1965)
"There's sadness here too because Sam Cooke was gone before it came out, but for me it's a little different than '… Dock Of The Bay' because I didn't know Sam. Listening to this song is like listening to a Martin Luther King Jr. speech. It's so full of emotion and so full of truth. It's life staring you in the face — so much human emotion in that vocal. I've recorded with a lot of people who have tried to get that feeling, but that's just Sam. The arrangement is so full and beautiful — a great instrumental introduction with strings and muted brass and horns, and then the way his voice comes in gives you goose bumps. This was another song that really affected me as a songwriter and showed me how much you could do and how much you could say with a three-minute song."
"Dance To The Music"
Sly & The Family Stone
"This was one of my favorites as soon as I heard it. I went right out to see Sly and the band at the Memphis Coliseum as soon as I could. This was 'rock and roll R&B' — a whole new sound. Opening up with that street corner quartet — having that great fuzz bass sound in there driving it along — [is] the best. I love the horns parts, too. It's funny that the MG's and the Family Stone were both bi-racial bands led by an organ player, but I didn't really think of Sly as a fellow organist because he was such a presence as a singer and he was such an incredible showman. I really don't remember seeing him spend much time behind the organ at the show I went to. But, like the MG's, they didn't seem to worry too much about mixing black and white players, which was a big deal to some people at the time. That's just who they were. The music was the most important thing, and it was great music."
(GRAMMY winner Booker T. Jones garnered his first GRAMMY as part of Booker T. & The MG's in 1994 for Best Pop Instrumental Performance for "Cruisin'." He earned two additional GRAMMYs as a solo artist, the most recent coming in 2011 for Best Pop Instrumental Album for The Road From Memphis.)
(Chuck Crisafulli is an L.A.-based journalist and author whose most recent works include Go To Hell: A Heated History Of The Underworld, Me And A Guy Named Elvis and Elvis: My Best Man.)