Booker T. Emerges From His Own Potato Hole and Brings Neil Young With Him
by Terry Roland
In popular music over the past 50 years there are styles, songs and artists who, today, call us to nostalgia. There have also been those who stand the test of time. They transcend the trends of the day and the future. They have called us to history while continuing to work on their craft. In Booker T Jones' case, while he calls up some nostalgia with the golden liquid sound of his Hammond B3 organ, the memories may come, but today, he refuses to lean on nostalgia in favor of deepening his art.
On his first release in 20 years, Potato Hole, Booker T Jones returns to the forefront of today's Roots music scene sporting a career, which has spanned nearly 50 years.
The title, Potato Hole, refers to the 19th century American slave practice of making a hiding place under the wood floor planks of slave quarters to store extra food. Booker T considers the last 20 years of his own solo-silence to be his Potato Hole where he has kept his music and inspiration going.
An intense musical passion
can be felt, even physically, on this fine album. This is harder and more
urgent than the sound he helped create with the MGs. It moves
his music forward with strains of a post-punk edginess, blues, rock and
traces of gospel and early R&B.
The opening track is aptly titled Pound It Out.This hard-rocking work-out is followed by a consistent set of songs that never lets up for a single moment. There's not a hint of the digital, sampling, video-game sounding music of today.
This album is not so much
a come-back as it is a rising. It's as though the man emerges from his
Potato Hol to reclaim authentic rock-blues based popular music for
today. If this is the case, the joy and passion that has been captured
here is a total triumph. It's been a long time comin' as David Crosby once
said. We also hope it will be a long time before they're gone. It is an
interplay of musical thoughts and feelings that gives way to a rare, instrumental
lyricism unmatched in today's rock scene. Jones leads the way with grace,
passion, the smooth soul that has become his signature. There is, quite
simply, no wasted track here.
Remember, if you're too young imagine, the time in America,when we really were a city on a shining hill, in the morning of our remarkable history. The year was 1962. A controversial young president had just been voted into the White House. He was well-loved around the world. It was the pinnacle of JFK's Camelot. The nation became enamored with impossible dreams, like landing a man on the moon. Racism had been exposed for the archaic hatred it spewed for so many years.
It was also an arguably bleak time in rock music we think of as post-Elvis and pre-Beatles. Artists like James Darren and Bobby Rydell were the stars of the time and represented the mainstream.
But, in the alternative world of R&B and Soul music, what once was termed as 'race' music, with its own separate charts set aside from the mainstream(a term best translated as the white-stream) music of the day, was making headway. In the previous decade, it was common for white artists like Pat Boone to re-record the 'race' songs for white audience consumption with next-to- no profits going to the original artists like Chuck Berry and Little Richard. Even Elvis' career was built on this racist foundation.
But, in 1962, the Civil Rights Movement was in full swing. Martin Luther King was hitting his stride. At the same time, new, independent labels like Stax were emerging to provide an outlet for the long-ignored R&B black artists of the time. These names included Otis Redding, Sam Cooke and Sam & Dave. Their songs, written and recorded by them, were being heard on the mainstream radio stations.
Into this critical and tense time of American history steps Booker T & the MG's. With the help of this 17 year-old Stax musician and his distinct organ drawn from the obscurity of his southern gospel music past, Booker T & the MGs charged up the mainstream pop charts in a way which could have originated the term, ' a hit with a bullet.' Not only did their first hit, "Green Onions," make the charts, but it rose to #3 nationally according to Billboard.
In a matter of months, Booker T & the MGs became the first integrated band in the country to break down the musical barriers between rock and soul music. Five years later, Sly and the Family Stone would arrive, loudly demonstrating their diversity at historic concerts and festivals like Woodstock.
By high school in the early 60's, Booker was already a talent. He was well-studied in classical music. His knowledge of music theory and harmony led to the appointment of leader of the high school band. He even earned recognition in "Who's Who of American High Schools." This accomplishment brought him to the attention of Jim Stewart, a record executive from Memphis. He was brought on staff with Stax records in short order.
During those days Jones' busy schedule had him attending high school, working as a staff musician for Stax Records and studying classical music composition, composing and transposition at Indiana University. While still a teen at Stax, he co-wrote classic songs like "I've Never Found A Girl," "I Love You More Than Words Can Say," with Otis Redding and along with William Bell the song, "Born Under A Bad Sign," for Albert King,which later became a popular song for the blues-rock band, Cream. Then, in 1962, as he and Steve Cropper were taking a break between back up recording sessions, they began to jam. Jim Stewart, then the president of Stax records, heard this jam and soon, the music they were playing that day became "Green Onions."
At 17 years-old Booker T Jones broke through with a major national hit inventing an organ-based blues sound unheard of prior to "Green Onions." With this, the divide between white mainstream recordings and 'race records' would close and rock and soul musicians being separated by race lines would decline. So, in a real sense, Booker T & the MG's were a foreshadowed illustration of Martin Luthor King's famous 1963 speech, "I Have A Dream."
There is a controversy as to how the MGs, became the MGs. The official story, according to Stax records, has the name referring to 'Memphis Group.' However, Chips Moman, producer and former member of a band with Booker T called The Triumphs, states that the name came from his car at the time. This version of the story has been confirmed by both Booker T and Steve Cropper. However, Stax records maintains their official story.
In 1969, Jones fell in love with The Beatles' Abbey Road. The Beatles returned the love stating they had patterned much of their music from the sound of the MGs. John Lennon characteristically called the group, "Book a Table and the Maitre D's." During a tour in 1967, The Beatles had a limo pick up the band at an airport so they could kneel down and kiss Booker T and the MGs rings.
Lennon said he wanted to
write an instrumental song for the band. While he never fulfilled that
dream, in 1970 Booker T, Dunn and Jackson recorded an album called McLemore
Avenue, named after the the location of Stax Record. The album cover parodied
the famous Abbey Road cover. McLemore Avenue covered the songs on Abbey
Road blending them into three extended songs.
During the 70's Booker had a hit with a song called, "I Want You with his then-wife, Priscilla who was singer-Rita Coolidge's sister. He also was a major player in the success of Bill Withers music producing and arranging hits like, "Ain't No Sunshine." The association with Rita Coolidge led him to studio work with Kris Kristoferson, her husband at the time, which eventually led him to the roe as producer on Willie Nelson's flawless, Stardust, an album of classic popular songs from the 30's and 40's. He also contributed his Hammond organ on albums for artists like Ray Charles, Neil Young and Natalie Merchant.
In 1992 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and in 2007 he received a lifetime achievement Grammy award.
At the thirtieth anniversary tribute show for Bob Dylan at Madison Square Garden in 1992 he was asked to reform Booker T. and the MG's to be the house band for the historic event providing back-up for Tom Petty, George Harrison, Lou Reed . Booker T met Neil Young at this historic event and the two have evolved their friendship into an innovative musical collaboration.
So, it is now 2010. In some ways the world has changed from 1962. In other ways, it has not. Once again, we have a young, controversial president in the White House who is loved around the world. Again, the nation seems polarized between diametrically opposing political views. Racism has raised its ugly head cloaked in the disguise of a Neo-Con agenda. Once again, we have a seemingly impossible dream, universal health care for all in the United States. Unfortunately, this seems to be as realistic as landing on the moon. And into the mix, once again, arrives now 64 year-old Booker T Jones with a new album of songs that hit hard into the common spirit and history of soul, blues and rock. Again, the music calls us all to unity.
In a recent interview, talking about his past crossing culture and musical boundaries and its impact on his current work, Booker said, "I always loved rock 'n roll." Otis Redding heard the Stones and I heard the Beatles in '65, so I was influenced by what was happening with the guitars. "I played guitar, but it was a softer, R&B, soulful guitar. Except when I was on my own at home and we did a couple of songs with Eddie Floyd and Otis, when the things was turned up to 10 and I was strumming the thing," he recalled. "But it (rock) was out of place in Memphis and out of place at Stax. Then once I actually heard Hendrix, who did this stuff without any reservations, it was just another reason to leave Memphis."
But when Booker T left Memphis,
he left to a larger world of music and social change, he helped to create.
Today, Potato Hole suggests, he has no intention of resting on his laurels.
He is currently hard at work on new songs and moving toward more solo studio
work. So as he comes to Poway this January he brings with him a legacy
filled with a taste of nostalgia, history and as always that Hammond B3
organ and his own unique brand of passionate soul music.