Booker T Jones in
conversation with Michael Ford. Previously published in
Blues in Britain
magazine and reproduced here with kind permission of Michael Ford,
Editor, Blues in Britain.
When President Barack Obama stood in the
East Room of the White House in February 2012 he said of the
“It is a music with humble beginnings --
roots in slavery and segregation, a society that rarely
treated black Americans with the dignity and respect that
they deserved. The blues bore witness to these hard times.
And like so many of the men and women who sang them, the
blues refused to be limited by the circumstances of their
The glittering occasion was a gala
performance to celebrate the blues’ impact on the musical
and societal developments in the USA and across the world.
There were to be performances by
It was fitting that the man chosen to be musical director
was none-other than the legendary Booker T Jones.
I was keen to hear from him if the event
had lived up to expectations.
“It was quite a show,” he told me.” I had
a great time doing it. I’ve always loved the blues. I grew
up on the blues. I grew up in Memphis listening to the blues
and it’s shaped my life.
We assembled a really great band for the
show. I had about six-to-eight weeks to work on it before we
had to do the show. I had Narada Michael Walden on drums,
he’s always been one of my favourites. Bobby Ross Avila (of
the Avila Brothers) on bass. I had Jessie Johnson on guitar,
so it was really a good blues band. Fred Wesley, who worked
with James Brown for so long, arranged the horns for me. He
and I have been friends for a long time. He put a great horn
section together – so that was it! The line-up was amazing,
too, starting with Gary Clark Jnr. from Texas. He’d played
with everybody back at Antone’s, in Austin. Gary and I used
to hang-out playing with Willie Nelson down there. The
concert they recorded for PBS TV was an hour long but I
think we must have played for ninety minutes-or-more.”
asked him how significant it was that the event took place
in the White House – the fulcrum of the US power-elite.
“It was very special it being in the
White House. If you looked at the video you would see that
the setting was very conservative. I don’t think that type
of music had been played in that room before! The President
and his wife really enjoyed it. They really relaxed. He came
down for the sound-check, too, and it was just really
comfortable for him because he came from Chicago and loved
that music. And you know, we had authentic people there. We
had BB King –if nothing else, just the fact that BB was
there! And it was great for me personally to sit and spend
some time with him and talk about Memphis. He’d gone to
school with my sister and my brother-in-law and it was like
a homecoming for me. I’d never really played with BB on
stage before. We’d been on shows together but I was never MD
for him. And, just to talk about friends and old times. It
was great to be able to relax there and have such a good
time there and have a blues show in the White House. The
whole show was an organic event and it was great that it was
happening in the East Room of the White House because it’s a
room of great cultural significance in this country. It was
a very historic moment and I’m glad they got it on tape.”
The unspoken significance of the venue
must have resonated particularly strongly for both the
President and for the many black musicians there. The East
Room was where both Abraham Lincoln and John F Kennedy
lay-in-state after assassination. Even more poignantly, it
witnessed the signing of the Civil Rights Act by President
Lyndon B Johnson in 1964.
By 1964, of course, in the deeply
segregated South, Booker T and the MGs were the powerhouse
sound behind the emerging Stax Record Company. They were,
also, an integrated band. This integration was seen as a
token of a better future for many in the States and us civil
rights sympathisers in the UK. In 1967 the Stax-Volt tour of
Europe, headed by Otis Redding, had a phenomenal impact on
British dance halls and concert halls. I told Booker,
sincerely, that their visit to Nelson, Lancashire, on 1st
April 1967 had been the musical-night-of-my-life.
“That’s cool! That makes me feel good.
And it will make everybody else who was on that tour feel
good because something very special happened to us in Europe
in 1967. It was a special time. We were so together on
stage. Wayne Jackson and all the other guys in the group...”
The sad truth is, of course, that there
are not many of the touring party left to share those
memories. Otis was dead within the year, drummer Al Jackson
Jnr. was murdered in 1975, Mar Keys saxophonist Andrew Love
died this year and, Booker’s great friend, ‘Duck’ Dunn died
only days before our interview.
It was, of course, all many years ago.
Paul Simon say, once, that whilst he wasn’t keen to sing
‘Sound of Silence’ every time he performed if he saw Paul
McCartney sing he definitely wanted to hear ‘Yesterday’. I
asked Booker, with this in mind, how he felt about playing
“‘Green Onions’ is still my favourite. I
said many years ago that I’d never get tired of it and, you
know, I haven’t. It’s in the music – it’s just one of my
favourite songs. If I hadn’t played on it I would still love
We agreed that it sounded just as good
today as when it was released fifty years ago.
“It’s amazing to think that if you go
back fifty years before that” I said, “The big hit of 1912
was ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band” (A ragtime number written by
Irving Berlin for Arthur Collins whose social sensibilities
can be gleaned from his other big hit ‘All Coons Look Alike
to Me’ - it was, thankfully, another world!)
Booker’s daughter Olivia is in the music
“She manages me and wrote some of the
music on The Road from Memphis with me,” He explained.
I wondered how different the music
business is for her than it was for him.
“Quite a bit different, quite a bit. It
was very localised when I started. Also, we were recording
analogue onto one track. You had to be lucky, when we
started to get more than twenty-five or thirty people to
hear you play. Now you can put your music on the internet
and have hundreds of thousands hear it instantly. That
doesn’t guarantee you success, though. I don’t know if it’s
good or bad – plusses and minuses, I think. But I was very
fortunate that I could walk from home to a recording studio
when I was fifteen.
That’s unheard of now, “he laughed “I
certainly can’t walk around the corner to a recording studio
Under a Bad Sign album was one
of the most influential of the 1960s. I asked him about his
role in it.
“Once again, we’re talking about playing
with a very unique, special, person – Albert King. Jim
Stewart knew that, Steve Cropper knew that. I think he was
down on his luck as far as record labels go, so I think Stax
was the last resort for him. They assigned him to myself
and William Bell which showed a lot of trust in us; I’m
happy they did that. Al Jackson Jnr. produced a good part of
the album. I don’t know if we procrastinated or what, but we
didn’t come up with the song ‘Born Under a Bad Sign’
until the day before the session. Al played like Jimi
Hendrix – a right handed guitar upside-down and left handed.
He was unique like BB in that he invented a new style of
playing blues guitar. He was such a sweet man, I really
loved him. We just got lucky writing that song and him
singing it and playing it like he did. And the band we had
that day was amazing. The MGs, the Mar Keys and Isaac Hayes!
It’s one of my favourite songs, too. I wrote ‘The Hunter’
with the MGs and Carl Wells. We had ‘Crosscut Saw‘ on the
album, ‘As the Years Go Passing By’- that was a
It seemed to me that the album
represented a change of direction for Stax but Booker
“No, it wasn’t a change of direction for
Stax because we’d had blues artists before Albert. Rufus
Thomas was basically a blues singer. The change of direction
happened right at the beginning when Satellite was founded.
Jim Stewart had a lot of country music on the label – he was
a country fiddler himself. But as soon as he got Rufus
Thomas and William Bell he was into the blues! We have to
thank the DJs like AC ‘Moohah’ Williams and all the people
at WDIA for what they did. They had a 50k watt station and
they were dedicated to it. Lots of them were singers or
keyboard players, too. And songwriters. It was the influence
of that station that brought Albert King to Stax.”
The radio station WDIA ‘the Goodwill Station’ was the first
to have black-Americans presenting programmes. At one point
they reached 10% of black Americans in the US. It was a
hugely influential operation.
“Stax famously ran a Stay in School
campaign back in 1967” I reminded him “Do you think that
music can actually be a positive influence on Society.”
He was adamant – “My view on that is that
society can’t even exist without some form of art. It’s the
artist’s responsibility to reflect society. If we didn’t
have art we wouldn’t really know who we are. I think that
music plays a much more important role than some people
In conversation with Michael Ford