November 27, 2015

From the Vaults: Booker T. Jones

   National Public Radio has a series called ‘Tiny Desk Concerts’ posted on the internet and they are a source of some interesting insights into musicians from a broad spectrum of genres.  The concept is a bit strange:  invite a musician to perform in an office and film it as a live,  interactive interview.  I first discovered this series researching Lucius’ first CD Wildewoman and it was interesting watching a group of five people perform in such a small space.  My favorite clip so far is the illuminating piece about Booker T. Jones (as in ‘and the MGs’ – not to be confused with the professional wrestler Booker T.).  Perhaps a Hammond Organ doesn’t take up as much space as a five piece band, but it certainly seemed to fill up its share of the office used for the Tiny Desk Concert filming.  Did I happen to mention that there is a small audience in attendance whom I assume must be NPR staffers?  Yes, it is a bit crowded.

    When asked to play one of his own compositions, Booker T. played a tune that he recorded with

Booker T. and the MGs when he was seventeen years old and a senior at Booker T. Washington High School in Memphis.  If you surmised that the tune is known as Green Onions, go to the head of the class.  The smooth tone Jones coaxes from the Hammond B-3 is unmistakeable and even played without a full band, Green Onions has an unmistakable feel as the pulsating bass riff is punctuated with the more trebly fills from the other end of the keyboard.

    In answer to the question, “How did you end of playing the organ”, Jones said he began with piano lessons at about ten years of age.  His father had bought in a clarinet and he described it as a life altering moment, but he wanted to learn more and started on the piano.  His teacher, Selma Cole, happened to have an organ in her dining room and for the longest time, he thought it was just a china cabinet or another piece of furniture.  He asked about it several times and she said, “Oh, you don’t want to know what that is.”   She determined that he would not be able to afford the $15 organ lessons and piano lessons at the same time.  He got a job delivering papers to raise the funds needed.  The day she finally opened  up the organ and he saw the rows of keys, he had another ‘grabber’ moment.  She played him a snippet of Bach and he was fascinated with the warmth he heard in the organ’s tone.

    He credits Mrs. Cole with teaching him to crawl.  He explains that with an instrument like the piano or guitar, the strings are plucked and will continue to vibrate until they are muted.  On the other hand, the organ will only sound a note while the key is held down so one has to hold a note with one finger while using the other fingers to play other notes.  Crawling  gives songs performed on an organ the smooth, flowing feel that one doesn’t always hear with a stringed instrument that sustains notes while the strings are allowed to vibrate.

    Demonstrating how the draw bars on the organ can be used to change the Hammond sound from warm and natural to something that sounds eerie, Jones played Born Under a Bad Sign.  Jones and his writing partner at Stax records, William Bell, originally wrote the song for guitarist Albert King.  Eric Clapton and Cream’s version is probably more universally known than King’s, but Jones’ haunting organ brings a different feel to the song.  As good as Clapton’s take on the song is, I am not sure the guitar based version carries the same haunting feel as the one Jones plays in this Tiny Desk Concert.    He noted that Bad Sign was “written in my front room for Albert King, a left handed guitar player.”

    Another subtle nuance of a Hammond B-3 player can also be seen as Jones performs Born Under a Bad Sign when he deftly clicks the organ’s Leslie speaker on and off to add even more texture to the sound.  A Leslie speaker contains a pair of rotating horns, traditionally mounted in a vented wooden cabinet.   They give the organ a distinct vibrato or wavering sound.  It can be set for either a slower or faster rotation, but the sound of it winding up to speed or slowing back down to stop gives the Hammond another sound variation that is hard to replicate on any other instrument.  Jones uses his left hand to click the Leslie speaker on and off and does it so smoothly, one really isn’t aware that he has done it until the tone changes.

    Time constraints did not allow Jones to expand on his career at Stax Records and his work with the MGs including Al Jackson (drums), Steve Cropper (guitar), Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn (bass), and other stellar members of the Stax Records’ fabled house band.  He also didn’t get to talk about his first recording sessions where he played baritone sax and guitar (he is one of those multi-instrumentalists who seems to be able to play just about any instrument, even the oboe which is one of the more difficult reed instruments to master).  He did take the time to thank the NPR folks on hand for the job they do bringing music to their large audience.  

     Booker T. Jones may have come on the music scene in 1962, but this NPR clip shows that he is both humble about his ability and happy to have had such a storied career.   His first hit (Green Onions) may have been an instrumental, but Jones is also a very capable vocalist.  His latest releases were The Road to Memphis (2011) and Sound the Alarm (2013) which will be featured on WOAS-FM in the upcoming weeks.  Sound the Alarm features guest appearances by Gary Clark, Jr., Estelle, and a host of others.  It also marks his return to Stax Records where he got his start.  

    Don’t forget to check out our audio and video feeds at www.woas-fm.org .  Past editions of From the Vaults and other items of interest are also posted there for your reading and listening pleasure.

The video clip included here is Jones performing Born Under a Bad Sign on Live from Daryl’s House.