Booker T. Jones, the composer, arranger and legendary frontman of Booker T and the MG’s, recently released his third solo album in a near-lifetime of performing. Titled “The Road From Memphis,”it’s an ode to his hometown. In a phone interview, Jones, 66, spoke with Click Track about performing with Otis Redding at Monterey, chasing pre-show butterflies and why he is “a different type of animal” in the music industry.
You’ve written and produced for several people, but you’ve only released three solo albums. Why give all of your creativity to others, when you could so easily harness it for yourself?
I’m probably a different type of animal in this music industry and music business. I feel that one of my fortes is as an arranger. I went to Indiana University to learn how to conduct and compose and write, and I really love being out front. I feel at heart [that] I’m a performer, but what goes on inside me is often the stuff of arranging. I hear music like a composer, not always as a performer. So I give voice to that, I let it be. I’ve let be all my life. I’ve been in the background quite a bit.
Do you get back to Memphis often?
I do. My family is still in Holly Springs, [Mississippi]. That’s just a few miles south of Memphis. But you know I have my roots there. I also go back for many reasons, especially family.
In the years that you have been touring, where has your best crowd been?
Oh wow. Well, right in the middle of America – Chicago, Kansas, St. Louis. Of course I’ve had great crowds in Memphis, New York City has been really good to me…that’s a difficult question. But, Europe has been great for me – Germany and Holland and Belgium and England, Spain. I always find my way back there [to Spain].
What was your most memorable show?
Oooh, that’s a tough one. Probably the Monterey Pop Festival with Otis [Redding] a long time ago in the 60’s. That was probably the most memorable time on stage for me.
Do you still get pre-show jitters?
Yes I do, I do. There’s a fear that’s hard to get rid of. When you walk up those steps to the stage, or walk down or however.
You think you are afraid that you might not satisfy, that you might not be able to do your best, and you want to do your best. But you’re not always able to. Sometimes things go wrong with the sound or with something out of your control. It’s a real trick to get past that.
You focus on the organ [Jones is known for playing a Hammond B3 ], but are able to play several other instruments. Do you ever pick up the guitar again or any other instruments?
Yes. Often on stage, I play guitar and very often when I’m writing a song the guitar is the first instrument that I reach for. However, my other instruments – my clarinet, my saxophone, my trombone, and my flute, I sent to New Orleans a few years ago after the flood. I wasn’t playing them anymore, they were in my garage, and I thought, ‘They’re great instruments,” so I sent them out to be given out to the young kids there.
Do you think that you will set dates in Washington, in Memphis?
I hope so. Those are two of my favorite places. I was in Washington this year, recently, and of course you know it’s just always a great place to visit. So, but yeah, Washington and Memphis are two special places for me.
What do you want newer generations who know nothing but “Green Onions” to get from your new album?
This album is a revisit to the place I came from spiritually and physically – however it’s completely new. There no old music in it. I guess what I want people to realize is that there is a place on the earth that really gave us an insurmountable amount of great music, and that was Memphis, Tennessee. And it gave me a whole life– it made my life worth living. Because I was so fortunate to be born there and to get whatever this thing is that imbued in Memphis musicians. Everybody from…Al Green to Elvis Presley to B.B. King to Johnny Ace. There’s just a community – a music community – and an energy that you receive when you come from there.