As tumultuous 2019 thankfully draws to a conclusion here is an upbeat story about a true Americn Icon. The classic song “Green Onions” was a favorite in my youth. It can be heard in movie soundtracks, including “Get Shorty.” Booker T above at the keyboards in London, 1967.. Carla Thomas is on the right. A link to “Green Onions” is attached. Happy listening and Happy New Year 2020.
Wall Street Journal 12.24.2019
The Grammy-winning musician discusses his childhood in Memphis, cutting class for his first recording session and an impromptu performance at a local barbershop.
Booker T. Jones, 75, is a Grammy-winning songwriter, producer and arranger, and former leader of Booker T. & the MGs. He is the author of “Time Is Tight: My Life, Note by Note” (Little, Brown). He spoke with Marc Myers.
I had a pretty decent throwing arm when I was 12. From my bike, I could hurl newspapers so they’d land on porch steps or the porch. My arm let me finish my paper route fast and sign up more customers.
I needed the money. I was paying for weekly clarinet and piano lessons at Elmertha Cole’s house. She lived near our home in Memphis. One day, in Mrs. Cole’s dining room, I saw a Hammond organ for the first time. I was in awe. There were two keyboards, pedals and lots of buttons and drawbars. I decided to add organ lessons by delivering the heavy Sunday paper. My father drove me around from house to house.
I grew up on Edith Street in Memphis. We lived in a one-story, 1,300-square-foot brick house that my dad bought in 1950. My mother, Lurline, was an accomplished classical and gospel pianist. In church, she played a pipe organ. Parishioners begged my father to sing.
I was an only child, so I was protected, looked after and cared for by my family. I knew I was lucky. Half my friends didn’t have fathers at home. Sitting on my dad’s knee was a luxury.
At the start of the 1950s, music was everywhere in Memphis, especially on the radio. Even white stations played music by black artists, which they weren’t supposed to do. Walking around, live music was always three feet away from you in clubs and on the street. My first instrument was a toy drum my mother bought me.
Mama taught me to play piano when I was 9. That year, my father, Booker T. Sr., bought me a clarinet. I didn’t have a record player, so the radio helped me along. I listened a lot to Benny Goodman.
Months after I started taking lessons, my father took me to Cade’s Barbershop. After my haircut, I was asked to play. I picked “Skokiaan,” a song I had heard on a TV show. When I finished, there was silence, which scared me. Then the men smiled and wouldn’t stop clapping.
By the time I was 12, I was being paid to play piano at Sunday afternoon teas for church ladies. For me, music lessons and practicing weren’t chores. My family loved music and so did I.
My first recording session pulled me out of school in 1960. I was in math class when my friend, David, knocked on the door with a fake pass. I grabbed a baritone sax from the band room and we drove off to Satellite Recording Studios. By then, I could play all the reed instruments.
We recorded behind Rufus and Carla Thomas. The following year, Satellite changed its name to Stax. I formed a band to back up artists who recorded there. But we needed a name. Al Jackson, our drummer, looked at an MG parked outside. He suggested Booker T. & the MGs.
In 1962, I was in the studio fooling around with blues chords I had come up with in my 11th grade music-theory class. The MGs fell in behind me, and we recorded a song.
When bassist Lewie Steinberg heard the playback, he said, “Man, that’s so funky, it smells like onions!” Mrs. Axton, Stax’s co-owner, suggested “Green Onions.” The instrumental became a #3 Billboard pop hit.
Today, my wife, Nanine, and I live in Carson Valley, Nev., east of Lake Tahoe. We moved here about a year ago. We have lake and golf-course views.
My wife is my biggest fan. We met on a blind date in 1982. She said, “You have the same name as one of my favorite musicians.”
The little drum my mother bought me is long gone. But I have the sticks. I keep them in my studio for inspiration.
Favorite organ record: Ray Charles’s “One Mint Julep” (1960)
Number of organs at home: Three: a Hammond B3, an M3 and a digital B3 MK2
First L.A. home: A horse ranch in Malibu purchased in 1968
Seller: Actress Lana Turner
Impression: When she stepped out of her limo at the ranch, she was dressed to the nines
Ranch’s neighbor: Bob Dylan