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Booker T. Jones serves up Memphis soul and so much more

Booker T. Jones. (Courtesy of Matt Rogers)
Booker T. Jones. (Courtesy of Matt Rogers)

If you think of Memphis soul, the sounds of Booker T. and the MG’s comes to mind.

Booker T. Jones — master of the Hammond B3 organ — is a producer, composer, arranger and Grammy-Award-winning artist who plays multiple instruments. For many years, his band Booker T and the MG’s served as the house band at the famed Stax Records. The group’s tight, impeccable grooves are the underpinning of dozens of hits by Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Albert King, Sam & Dave and more.

An inductee of both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and in the Memphis Music Hall of Fame, Jones documents his life in his 2019 autobiography “Time is Tight: My Life Note for Note.”

Jones dove into the world of music as a child growing up in Memphis in the 1950s and 1960s. His mother and grandmother played classical piano at home. Out on the streets and on the radio, he listened to Memphis blues.

“I played Bach and Chopin on the piano,” Jones says. “My mother played Chopin, and I loved to hear her play the etudes.”

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His first instrument was the oboe. As a fourth grader, he was able to join the high school band as an oboe player, “because no one else would play that instrument. It’s a very difficult instrument,” he says. “Difficult to make the reeds. Difficult to understand. Difficult to get your fingers in the right place.”

Jones started playing in nightclubs when he was still underage. “I was very young. It was downtown Memphis. It was Beale Street. And the club owners made their own rules,” he says.

At 14, in 9th grade, he was playing bass in the Flamingo Room for $7 per night.

Booker T. Jones plays with Teddy Jones (Booker’s son) on guitar and Ty Dennis on drums. (Courtesy of Matt Rogers)

By the time he was just 17 years old, he was a studio musician at Stax Records. That’s when he created his first hit, which endures today. “Green Onions” is considered an anthem of the Hammond B3 organ. He says he wrote the song as part of his effort to get accepted into music school at Indiana University. He was surprised when he first heard it on the radio.

“I heard it in my dad’s little car, a [1949] Ford as I was crossing the bridge into West Memphis. It was on the radio. So I was kind of excited,” he says. “That was an experience I will never forget.”

He was in Memphis during the rise of the Civil Rights movement — Booker T. and the MG’s was one of few integrated bands at the time.

Booker T. and the M.G.’s. Booker T. and the M.G.’s. (Courtesy of Matt Rogers)

While in town for recording sessions, Stax Records musicians stayed at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where Martin Luther King was assassinated. Now it’s the home of the National Civil Rights Museum.

Jones says musicians used the Lorraine Motel as a central point for meeting and creating music.

“The Lorraine was the place we had lunch. The place where we had staff meetings,” he says. “So many of the songs that became popular for Stax were written in those hotel rooms. A couple of rooms away from where King was shot was where Wilson Picket would work and where Eddie Floyd wrote ‘Knock on Wood.’”

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Shirley Jahad produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Gabe Bullard. Jahad also adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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