The sixth annual Rock for Love festival, which raises funds and awareness for the nonprofit Church Health Center, will take over Midtown this week [see full rundown, page 33]. The capper is the return of one of the city's greatest musicians, Booker T. Jones, the organ genius and leader of Booker T. & the MGs.
The California-based Jones has been on a big comeback of late, teaming with Southern rockers the Drive-By Truckers for the 2009 return Potato Hole then collaborating with Roots drummer and producer Amir "?uestlove" Thompson for last year's terrific The Road From Memphis. Ahead of his return, Jones talked to the Flyer about the recent passing of his MGs bandmate Donald "Duck" Dunn, his road back to the studio, a surprising new Memphis collaboration, and other topics.
Flyer: I feel like I need to start by asking you about the passing of Duck Dunn. You were not in Tokyo with Dunn and Steve Cropper when it happened. How did you hear about it?
Booker T. Jones: It was very unfortunate. My daughter called from New York to ask if I was okay, and I didn't know why she was crying. She assumed that I had heard. So that's how I heard about it. I found out [original Booker T. & the MGs drummer] Al Jackson died on television. It hit me right in the stomach. It was unexpected, and Duck was such a big person.
With you and Steve the only members left from the classic lineup, what does this mean for Booker T. & the MGs? Do you see you and Steve playing together in some form?
Oh, we don't have any plans to do anything like that right now. To tell you the truth, it was always difficult for me without Al Jackson. That was a big blow for me in 1975. But, no, right now we don't have any plans.
Potato Hole was your first solo record in about 20 years. What brought you back to the idea of doing your own records?
Well, the industry changed. And I left the Los Angeles area and moved up to [San Francisco], and I languished for a good while. I was still one of the old-school guys, out of the loop with an analog recorder. It wasn't until I got into digital audio that I really started getting back into it. I had to go to school and learn Pro Tools. I took courses at the University of San Francisco and a few other schools about five years ago. Then I started getting into the studio again.
What did your instructors think about having you in their class?
[Laughs.] It was kind of funny. They didn't believe I was me a lot of times. Neither did a lot of the students.
I can't imagine that anyone teaching recording classes ever thought of having someone of your stature in their class.
Well, they were gracious about it. That's just the way it was. I started at such an early age and in a different era of recorded music, with Jim Stewart and Tom Dowd down there, recording on tape. We recorded everything in one room. The industry changed very quickly to the digital world. And if you don't know about that and you walk into the studio, you're in a foreign land. I sold my 24-track recorder and reconfigured everything. The music has always been there for me. But I also didn't have a business outlet that was compatible with me. I had to get new management. I had to get back into it, you know.
You had never done two solo records in as close proximity as with Potato Hole and The Road From Memphis. After Potato Hole, did you know you wanted to get back into another project quickly?
The artist is not totally in control of that. The opportunity came from meeting the Roots through Jimmy Fallon. We did some original music for Jimmy's walk-ons, and that went well. They were a real band. They had no trouble falling in and playing in my syntax.
One of the biggest differences on The Road to Memphis is that you have a few vocal tracks, with lyrics. How did you decide to bring that into the mix?
Well, I'm always interested in doing something new and different, which was one of the reasons I didn't record for so long. I don't like for the records to sound too much like the one before. Like all artists, I like to innovate and come up with new sounds and new ways of doing the melodies.
I've always had vocal ideas, even though I was tagged as an instrumental musician at Stax, for the most part. But when ideas come to me, they're not always just instrumental. Sometimes, they're biographical. Sometimes, they're topical. On The Road From Memphis, I just decided to let those ideas be and not just play the melodies.
Have you been working on a follow-up?
Well, I'm working on a new album. I wouldn't call it a follow-up. Once again, I'm pursuing some new sounds. I met the Avila Brothers in East L.A., and I've been working with them. And also Raphael Saadiq. I'm still coming up with ideas. Hopefully, it'll be done pretty soon.
You've also done some work recently with a new-generation Memphis musician, Valerie June.
Yeah, she's great. I'm associated with this publishing company in Nashville, Bug Music. The guy who runs the company has been setting me up with different people that he thought I would be compatible with. Valerie was one of the people he set me up with, and we really were compatible. I think we wrote four or five songs together in two or three days. We had a great meeting. She's new and old at the same time. Just a great soul.
What can fans expect at the Rock for Love show?
I've got a band I've been playing with [in California] that I'm bringing. A guitarist, bass player, and drummer. I will play some Booker T. & the MGs stuff. "Green Onions" is one of my favorite songs. I still love "Time Is Tight" and "Hip Hug Her." Sometimes, we play some of the older stuff. Quite a bit of the show, though, is stuff I've been involved in either as a writer or a session musician. I try to take it off-the-cuff when I'm onstage.
Booker T. Jones, with Al Kapone
Rock for Love 6
Levitt Shell, Sunday, September 9th
6 p.m., free