The Memphis music legend discusses Stax Records, “Green Onions” and more
Legendary musician Booker T. Jones – the pioneer of R&B keyboard-playing with his distinct Hammond B-3 organ – set the standard for the instrument with his iconic tune “Green Onions.” The titular track appeared on his own Booker T. & the M.G.’s 1962 album.
From playing baritone saxophone at age 16 on the hit song “Cause I Love You” by Carla and Rufus (Thomas), to becoming a staff musician for Stax Records, to forming his own Booker T. & the M.G.’s while still in high school, Jones discusses his illustrious five-plus decade music career with Rock and Roll Globe.
“Green Onions” is the song that basically started the Memphis soul sound. That deep, rich Hammond organ melody is instantly recognizable. How did you go about creating this tune?
I was taking theory lessons because I had saved up $900 to go to Indiana University to study music. But they told me I couldn’t get in unless I passed the theory jury. So, I started in 11th grade taking theory in high school. And you know, they teach you the basics. They want two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight notes. And the third note was always a major in basic music theory. But I changed the third one to a minor by accident one day in class. That’s how the second quarter of “Green Onions” came in because it sounds kind of cool; kind of loopy and kind of off-key. I played it on the organ instead of piano because we played the blues before on organ. I don’t know if I’ll ever get tired of it. I liked it the first time I heard it on the radio. I was like, ‘Oh my God, they’re playing my song.’ And I still get that same sensation.
I read somewhere that you said “Green Onions” has defined your life. Is the song still a big part of you?
It is, but it also happened at a crucial time in my life. I was 17, I was a senior in high school and like I said, I had that $900. I had already sent it to Indiana to the registrars at Bloomington. So instead of going all over with the MG’s, I had a decision whether to go to college or not, and I decided to go to college. So, it was a crucial crook in my life. It was a turn that I made because of that song. I stayed with the MG’s, but I drove back and forth for four years from Bloomington to Memphis every weekend. And that’s how I played at Stax.
How did you become a staff musician for Stax Records?
[Stax] were a fledgling label. They were called Satellite Records at the time. They were trying to get it started and that was their first hit. Someone in the session that morning had an idea to put the baritone sax on there, and their baritone sax player was a school teacher. Before they knew it, he was (back) in class. So, my friend David Porter came and got me out of my Algebra class because he knew I played baritone sax and took me over there. And I was happy to leave class. I played on the song and then I told them I could play piano, and then they started calling me to play piano after school.”
Booker T. & the M.G.’s also featured prominent musicians including guitarist Steve Cropper, bassist Lewie Steinberg (later replaced by Donald “Duck” Dunn) and drummer Al Jackson, Jr. How did all of you meet?
We all came from the clubs. There were separate clubs at first, and it just happened that Cropper and Stewart were moving back to the west side of Memphis from the east side of Memphis. They were trying to record in an old garage or something out there because this theater became available that was just a couple of blocks from my house and they got it for cheap. Normally, most whites were moving out of downtown Memphis to east Memphis, but there they were.
By the time the band recorded its 1971 full-length album Melting Pot, the guys had become a solid unit. Unfortunately, it was the last album to feature that classic Booker T. & the M.G.’s lineup. How did this LP shape up in the studio?
Before we made that album, I was unhappy with the direction the band was taking. It sounded like all of our songs were beginning to sound the same and I really wanted something different. So, it was a struggle. We went to Memphis, we went to Hollywood, and finally we ended up in New York. Those guys just started playing a different rhythm from anything that we had ever recorded before. And that was the song ‘Melting Pot.’ And that’s what sparked that album. It was just a great, great groove. I just started playing over it, and we got out of our doldrums.
At age 74, you sound like you’re in great shape and you’re still enjoying yourself. What’s your outlook on playing and performing in the upcoming years?
I’ve always considered myself lucky to play music, whether I made money at it or not. It’s just what I love to do, I’m very fortunate. I just love music. And now I have fans that I know who keep coming to the shows and have been coming for years. It’s almost a social thing now and they are telling me, ‘don’t stop, don’t stop.’ There’s no need to stop just because I’m 74.