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Booker T. Jones: Onions, Potatoes, Other Essentials

With his band the MGs, Booker T. Jones created the classic instrumental "Green Onions." But they were also the studio band for Stax Records, making music with soul artists such as Otis Redding, Ray Charles and Wilson Pickett. His new album, with the Drive-By Truckers as his backup band, is called Potato Hole.

36:37

Other segments from the episode on May 1, 2009

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 1, 2009: Review of two new albums “Potato Hole,” and “The Bright Mississippi; ” Interview with Booker T. Jones; Commentary on Language.

Transcript

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New Albums By Booker T. And Allen Toussaint

DAVE DAVIES, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I’m Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily
News, filling in for Terry Gross.

Booker T. Jones and Allen Toussaint helped create the soul soundtrack of the
‘60s and ‘70s. Jones led Booker T. and the MGs, which was not only the house
band for Stax Records, but scored seven Top 40 instrumental hits.

Today, we’ll feature Terry’s 2007 conversation with Booker T. But first, a look
at new solo albums from Booker T. and from Allen Toussaint, who worked as a
songwriter, producer and pianist on a host of recordings, including hits for
Lee Dorsey and the group LaBelle. Critic Milo Miles has this review of both new
recordings.

MILO MILES: Every time a veteran performer releases a new record, he or she
faces a basic challenge. Unless you want to be a mere nostalgia act, how do you
make yourself sound either timeless or contemporary?

If you’re a singer, it’s easier. Choosing apt modern material can do half the
update for you, but pop instrumentalists often fall flat if they try to sound
with-it and tired if they run through the same old thing.

Unlikely as it seems, two venerable keyboardists, Booker T. and Allen
Toussaint, have both met the challenge. On “The Bright Mississippi,” Toussaint
sounds eternal as New Orleans, and on “Potato Hole,” Booker T. pulls his
grooves right into today.

The key with Toussaint is that he’s finally made a solo album that reflects all
the facets of his New Orleans background.

(Soundbite of music)

MILES: In the '60s and '70s, Toussaint made a series of good but uneven albums
that included a lot of what he calls boogie-ing and woogie-ing. And on “The
Bright Mississippi,” his hepcat style makes a welcome curtain call on
Thelonious Monk’s title tune, of all things.

Producer Joe Henry assembled a backing group fluent in jazz and comfortable
with pop vernaculars, including Don Byron on clarinet, Nicholas Payton on
trumpet and Mark Ribot on guitar.

While most numbers on this set come from the jazz canon, they are constantly
articulated with blues and gospel accents and served up with the unmistakable
slow cooking of New Orleans. Whether Toussaint’s reworking Ellington, Sidney
Bechet or Django Reinhardt, he infuses the numbers with his own elegant funk,
particularly evident in his piano work, never so varied and flowing.

(Soundbite of music)

MILES: Toussaint hadn't made a solo album in 10 years, but Booker T. had been
away from the scene for almost 20, which makes it even more surprising that
he’s got the more up-to-date sound on “Potato Hole.” This album shows the
advantage of first listening without knowing who's playing.

How did he make this version of the MGs sound so sprightly and slyly funky?
Turns out the backing band is the Drive-By Truckers, a well-respected, youngish
Southern-rock group. And who's that doing the piercing guitar solos that blend
noise and blues so well? Turns out it's Booker T's old buddy Neil Young on nine
of 10 tracks. He leads the charge here in "Native New Yorker."

(Soundbite of song, “Native New Yorker”)

MILES: There were no guarantees with this collaboration. Neil Young was only
so-so playing with Pearl Jam a while back, and a couple years ago, the Drive-By
Truckers failed to connect well with revived veteran soul singer Bettye
LaVette.

On “Potato Hole,” however, everybody’s instincts work in harmony, right down to
brilliant covers of the deep-South hip-hop of Outkast and Tom Waits’ “Get
Behind the Mule,” the perfect newie-oldie-newie.

(Soundbite of song, “Get Behind the Mule”)

MILES: I've never liked the term comeback because after a while, big players
can never come back to what they were. What performers and fans can do is keep
the faith. If the talent survives and the effort is made and the stars align,
the grateful crowds should be there to listen.

DAVIES: Milo Miles lives in Boston.
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Booker T. Jones: Onions, Potatoes, Other Essentials

DAVE DAVIES, host:

Terry spoke with Booker T. in 2007, the same year that Booker T. and the MGs
won a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammys. Booker T. and the MGs was the
house band for the Memphis-based soul label Stax Records. They backed up
artists like Otis Redding, Rufus and Carla Thomas, Sam & Dave, Wilson Pickett,
Albert King and the Staple Singers.

And they had their own hits in the ‘60s and ‘70s, including “Soul Limbo,” “Hip
Hug-Her” and “Time is Tight.” They also did covers, like “Mrs. Robinson,” “Hang
‘Em High” and “Ode to Billy Joe.” Their first and biggest hit was “Green
Onions,” recorded in 1962 with Steve Cropper on guitar, Al Jackson, drums, and
Lewie Steinberg, bass. Steinberg was later replaced by Donald Duck Dunn.

Before we hear Terry’s conversation with Booker T., here’s a taste of “Green
Onions.”

(Soundbite of song, “Green Onions”)

TERRY GROSS, host:

Booker T., welcome to FRESH AIR. It’s an honor to have you on our show.

Mr. BOOKER T. JONES (Musician): Thank you, Terry. I’m glad to be here.

GROSS: Would you tell us the story behind the track that we just heard?

Mr. JONES: Well, that happened as something of an accident. We were at the
studio as session musicians to play a session for an artist who didn’t show up.
So we used the time to record our blues, which we called “Behave Yourself,” and
I played on a Hammond M3 organ, and Jim Stuart(ph), the owner, was the
engineer. He really liked it, thought it was great, actually, and wanted to put
it out as a record.

And so we all agreed on that, and Jim told us that we needed something to
record for a B side because we couldn’t have a one-sided record. And one of the
tunes that I’d been playing on piano we tried on Hammond organ, so you know,
the record would have organ on both sides, and that turned out to be “Green
Onions.”

GROSS: Now, you know, Booker T. and the MGs basically became the house band for
Stax Records, and you played a lot of their recordings. How did you become a
member of the Stax house band?

Mr. JONES: Well, I was in 11th grade, and my friend David Porter knew that
Rufus Thomas and his daughter Carla were recording were recording one day. And
I guess they had requested a baritone sax part on a song, and David thought of
me. David drove over to the high school, came up with some type of hall pass
and got me out of class and somehow came up with the band director’s car keys
and keys to the instrument room.

So down we went to get the baritone sax out of the instrument room and into the
parked car and over to Stax Records and through the door, and there I was.

GROSS: Why don’t we hear the recording that you played baritone sax on, which
is your first recording for Stax? You want to introduce it for us?

Mr. JONES: It’s called “Cause I Love You” by Rufus and Carla Thomas.

GROSS: Okay, let’s hear it.

(Soundbite of song, “Cause I Love You”)

Mr. RUFUS THOMAS (Singer): (Singing) I done take the very best girl of mine,
yeah. I done take the very best girl of mine, yeah. Gonna straighten up, baby,
stop that cheatin’ and lyin’.

Ms. CARLA THOMAS (Singer): (Singing) The way you lied about me, you lied about
Louie, too, yeah.

Mr. THOMAS: (Singing) Oh, no. Oh, no.

Ms. THOMAS: (Singing) You lied about me. You lied about Louie, too.

Mr. THOMAS: (Singing) Oh, no. Oh, no.

Ms. THOMAS: (Singing) You got me feelin’ so bad, I don’t know what to do.

Mr. THOMAS: (Singing) Let me tell you woman, way deep down inside, baby.

Ms. THOMAS: (Singing) Baby.

Mr. THOMAS: (Singing) Hold you by my side, ‘cause I love you.

Ms. THOMAS: (Singing) I love you.

Mr. THOMAS: (Singing) ‘Cause I love you.

Ms. THOMAS: (Singing) I love you.

Mr. THOMAS: (Singing) ‘Cause I love you.

Ms. THOMAS: (Singing) ‘Cause I love you.

Mr. THOMAS: (Singing) ‘Cause I love you.

Ms. THOMAS: (Singing) Yes, I love you.

Mr. THOMAS: (Singing) ‘Cause I love you, and I’ll never let you go. Come on.

Ms. THOMAS: (Singing) Come on…

GROSS: That’s Rufus and Carla Thomas, the first recording that featured Booker
T., but he wasn’t on keyboards. He was on baritone saxophone. And Booker T. is
my guest.

So you stayed, obviously. I mean, you were in 11th grade, you made this
recording, and you ended up becoming part of the house band. How did they – was
it hard to convince you to stay? Did you have to convince them that they needed
you?

Mr. JONES: Oh, I convinced them. I actually had a paper route. That was my job
in the afternoon, and no, I convinced them to try me out on piano and
eventually organ. And I eventually played on an organ on a William Bell song,
which they liked that part, “You Don’t Miss Your Water,” on one of the
sessions. So after I played that part, I had the job.

GROSS: So what was it like going to high school and making records at the same
time?

Mr. JONES: Oh, it was unreal. I was in a rush to get out school and get my
papers thrown and get over to Stax. That was my thrill every day, to get to go
there and play music until, you know 10 or 11 o’clock every night.

DAVIES: Booker T. Jones, speaking with Terry Gross. More after a break. This is
FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: We’re listening to Terry’s 2007 interview with Booker T. Jones. He has
a new album called “Potato Hole.”

GROSS: Booker T. and the MGs is so associated with the Stax sound, such an
essential part as what is described as the Stax sound, but how would you
describe the Stax sound?

Mr. JONES: I would say it’s a simple, earthy sound, you know, just born out of
our blues and country and jazz roots and also gospel. It was a sound that, you
know, we consciously tried to keep simple and with a lot of feeling.

GROSS: Do you remember the first time you met Otis Redding?

Mr. JONES: Yes. Otis was a valet for a band from Georgia, and he was carrying
the clothes, and he was doing the driving and going for the food and coffee and
shining shoes and whatever he had to do to keep the band going. And I remember
the day he pulled up with - Johnny Jenkins & the Pinetoppers was the name of
the group he was working for.

They just basically came in, and he sat around and waited, and they did their
demo for Stax. And after they did their demo, Otis asked if he could sing a
song, which was a little inappropriate. But they – we allowed him. Jim and
Steve Cropper and the rest of us allowed him to sing a song with us, and that
song was “These Arms Of Mine.” And so everyone was moved by that. So at that
moment, he became Otis Redding.

GROSS: So let’s hear one of the records you made with Otis Redding. How about
“Dock of the Bay”? Do you have memories of making this record?

Mr. JONES: Yes, I do have memories of that. That was a particularly special and
hectic time. Otis was getting ready to go out on tour without us, and we had
just returned to Memphis from the Monterrey Pop Festival in Europe, and Otis
was disjointed and hurried and anxious and out of sorts. So he wanted to record
all the time.

He was insisting that we stay, you know, uncommon hours, and we were working
late at night, and people were probably sleeping at the studio, and it seemed
like we were working around the clock.

GROSS: Well, that’s not how it sounds on the record.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: It’s not a record that sounds like it was made by people who were tired
and overworked. Did the mood change once you started recording?

Mr. JONES: Well, I’m not sure that were tired and overworked when we did this
particular one, but the week was one that we recorded, I think, a whole album
in just a few days. So this might have been - I’m not sure what the sequence
was when we recorded this, but you know, the music always took its – it always
created its own energy once we started playing.

So even if you were tired, you know, playing with Otis and playing with each
other, the music just, you know, it just got a life of its own. And so the
tiredness didn’t matter.

GROSS: Well, let’s hear “Dock of the Bay,” Otis Redding and my guest, Booker T.
on keyboards on this recording.

(Soundbite of song, “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay”)

Mr. OTIS REDDING (Singer): (Singing) Sittin' in the mornin' sun, I'll be
sittin' when the evenin' come, watching the ships roll in. Then I watch 'em
roll away again, yeah.

I'm sittin' on the dock of the bay watching the tide roll away. Ooo, I'm just
sittin' on the dock of the bay, wastin' time.

I left my home in Georgia, headed for the 'Frisco bay ‘cause I've had nothing
to live for. Look like nothin's gonna come my way. So I'm just gonna sit on the
dock of the bay watching the tide roll away. Ooo, I'm sittin' on the dock of
the bay, wastin' time.

Look like nothing's gonna change. Everything still remains the same. I can't do
what 10 people tell me to do. So I guess I'll remain the same.

Sittin' here resting my bones…

GROSS: That’s Otis Redding, and my guest, Booker T., played piano and organ on
many of the recordings on Stax Records, like the one we just heard. Were you
close with Otis Redding?

Mr. JONES: Yes – unfortunately, yes.

GROSS: Unfortunately because he died in a plane crash.

Mr. JONES: Yes. He was a very close friend of mine, yes.

GROSS: And on that same plane were several members of the Bar-Kays, a band that
also recorded on Stax.

Mr. JONES: Yes.

GROSS: Did it make you think twice about flying? I mean, musicians, there’s
such a history of plane and car accidents for musicians who are so - spend so
much time on the road.

Mr. JONES: Well, yes, Terry, it did make me think twice about flying in the
smaller planes and the single, double-engine twin planes. I still trust the
jets, and I still trust destiny. So I’m okay with flying.

DAVIES: Booker T. Jones, speaking with Terry Gross. We’ll be back in the second
half of the show. I’m Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Dave Davies filling in for Terry Gross. We’re
listening to Terry’s 2007 interview with Booker T. Jones. In the ‘60s and ‘70s
his group Booker T. and the MGs had several hits, including “Green Onions,” and
they were the house band for Stax Records. Booker T. has a new album called
“Potato Hole.”

GROSS: You wrote a song called “Born Under a Bad Sign” that I always felt was a
much older song. I mean it’s such a kind of classic blue song. I figured it was
around a whole lot longer. You want to tell us the story behind writing this
song?

Mr. JONES: Yes. The company had acquired Albert King as an artist and I was
assigned to be his producer, and so we needed music for him. And at that time
my partner was William Bell, my writing partner, and he came over the house
late one night - it was actually the night before the session - and you know,
we need something for Albert King. And William wrote the words and I wrote the
music in my den that night. And that was one of the – one of my greatest
moments in the studio, as far as being thrilled with a piece of music. I was
very, very happy with the way that turned out.

GROSS: What made you so happy about it? What do you particularly like about it?

Mr. JONES: The feeling of it. You know, it’s the real blues, you know, done by,
done by the real people. It was Albert King from East St. Louis, you know, the
left handed guitar player who was just such - one of a kind and so electric and
so intense and so – so serious about his music and so involved with the lyrics
and with the song. You know, he just lost himself in the music and he’s such,
such a one of a kind character. And we had written a song for him and we were
doing it, it was coming off, and it was, you know, I was there personally in
the middle of it, so it was just exhilarating, you know? It’s kind of hard to
describe.

GROSS: Well, why don’t we hear it - this is Albert King recorded in 1967, and
my guest is Booker T., who’s featured on this track.

(Soundbite of song, “Born Under A Bad Sign”)

Mr. ALBERT KING (Singing): Born under a bad sign, I been down since I begin to
crawl, If it wasn’t for bad luck, you know I wouldn’t have no luck at all, Hard
luck and trouble is my only friend, I been on my own ever since I was 10, Born
under a bad sign, I been down since I begin to crawl, If it wasn’t for bad
luck, you know I wouldn’t have no luck at all, I can’t read, haven’t learned
how to write…

GROSS: That’s Albert King from 1967. The song was co-written by my guest,
pianist and organ player Booker T., who co-wrote that song. Now, when you were
playing in at Stax Record, when you were in Booker T. and the MGs and you were
the house band and making your own records, the South was still pretty
segregated, but your band was comprised of African-American and white
musicians. Did tensions from – did racial tensions from the outside world ever
affect the band or did you feel pretty well protected by that, from that?

Mr. JONES: Well, we were insulated, you know, as most Southern social
institutions are. We were insulated because we – we had our little door there
that we locked behind us at Stax and nobody knew what was going on in there or
who we were. So we weren’t affected until we became pretty famous. Around ‘67
or ’68, after Dr. King came to the city and Dr. King was murdered in a place
that was very close to us - he was murdered at the Lorraine Hotel, and that was
our meeting place and that was a place where we ate very often - so that
affected us. But in general we didn’t have big racial issues there.

GROSS: When you say the assassination affected you, did it - I mean I imagine
everybody in the band was pretty upset about it. Did it – did it cause any
tensions within the band? Yeah.

Mr. JONES: What I mean – what I mean it brought – it brought outside attention
to us and what we were doing there.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. JONES: The fact – the fact that we were interracial. I like to call it a
not too well kept secret that we were interracial. I think, you know, when we
were playing music that nobody really cared that we were interracial. I think
they cared more about the music. I think whites and blacks both didn’t pay too
much attention to the racial aspect of it.

GROSS: Did you feel there were times you needed to keep it kind of a secret?

Mr. JONES: Absolutely. The logistics rather demanded it. You know, we couldn’t
travel when we started without having two of us go get food, and sometimes
those two were myself and Al, or sometimes those two were Steve and Duck. The
other two would have to check into hotels and…

GROSS: Right, because two of you were white, two of you were black.

Mr. JONES: Exactly, exactly, so we always had to have – we were always on
somebody else’s territory, no matter where we were. So – but Steve and Duck and
all the white members of Stax began to love soul food and they – I think they
preferred to hang out at our restaurants, you know? So we just really didn’t
have a problem as long as the rest of the world didn’t have problem with us.

DAVIES: Booker T. Jones speaking with Terry Gross. More after a break. This is
FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: We’re listening to Terry’s 2007 interview with Booker T. Jones. He has
a new album called “Potato Hole.”

GROSS: We were talking before about how when – when you started at Stax Records
you were in high school and you continued high school and then in fact you went
to college and studied music. After high school, while you were still playing
at Stax and while you were gone, Isaac Hayes would play piano or organ? Is
that…

Mr. JONES: Uh-huh, uh-huh. Yes, Isaac filled in for me in the house band and
played organ and piano on lots of great records.

GROSS: Now, so many people, if they were in your position, would say, well, to
heck with college or even high school; I have what I’ve always wanted to do,
I’m, you know, making my own records, I’m in the house band of a – of a growing
record company who needs school. What kept you going to high school and
college, in spite of the success that you were having?

Mr. JONES: Well, I had not yet met my own standards. I wasn’t yet writing the
music that I was hearing in my mind, and – and you know, I had a classical
background and I had the curiosity for – for all of the European greats that
had written so much wonderful classical music, and I needed to know how to
arrange for the orchestra. I needed to know how to conduct. And I needed to
know how to arrange the right music for my job at Stax also. So I just had to
continue my education in order to try to improve myself as a musician.

GROSS: You know, had I just been listening to your records, I wouldn’t have
guessed that you were into classical music, and I might not have known that you
were as kind of studious and serious sounding as you are.

Mr. JONES: Yes. Uh-huh. Yeah, I spent many hours as a boy listening to my
mother play classics. My mother was a classical pianist.

GROSS: Uh-huh.

Mr. JONES: And then when I was at Indiana, you know, they had a great, great
library underneath the music building, which was free and open to anyone 24
hours a day. So I spent many hours under there, you know, listening to the old
masters, you know, everything from Bach to Stravinsky to Chopin and learning
about music and learning how it was put together and studying.

GROSS: How did she feel about the music you were playing at Stax, your mother?

Mr. JONES: She loved it.

GROSS: She’s good.

Mr. JONES: She loved it. She loved it.

GROSS: Uh-huh.

Mr. JONES: She loved it. Yeah, she was at the time my greatest fan. She kept a
scrapbook and she loved it. Boy, I was fortunate. Both my parents were fans.

GROSS: You played a lot of different instruments when you were young, I mean,
tell me if I’m wrong here. You played ukulele, oboe, saxophone, trombone,
piano, organ, clarinet.

Mr. JONES: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

GROSS: Did having like a working knowledge of all those instruments help you as
a musician and as a musician who is so often, you know, accompanying singers?

Mr. JONES: Yeah, I think it did. I think it helped me get the structure of
music in my mind, starting with oboe, which is a C instrument, and I played
that when I was in fourth grade because I was too young to be in the band and
they won’t let me in. But no one else would play oboe, so I took that up and
that’s how I got in the band and fourth grade. And then moving from that to
clarinet, which is a B-flat instrument, and then from that to piano, which is
another C instrument, helped me get, you know, the structure of music in my
mind.

GROSS: Does it bother you when really funky records, like the Booker T. and the
MGs records, are used as an argument against classical music? Do you know what
I mean?

Mr. JONES: I didn’t know - I didn’t know about that.

GROSS: No, I don’t mean that people single out your records, but often, you
know, often people who like, you know, like funk or soul or, you know, music
that sounds more like bluesy or improvisational will use it as an argument
against what they perceived to be like stuffy old European formal music.

Mr. JONES: Well, you know, the melody to “Time is Tight” was written, I wrote
that in Paris, on the banks of the river Seine. If you were to ask for a
classical melody from me, I think that would be it. Do you know the song “Time
is Tight,” Booker T. and the MGs?

GROSS: I do, I do. Uh-huh.

Mr. JONES: Well, if you listen to the melody, listen to the simplicity of it,
and I think that was born out of my classical roots, actually. It’s not – it’s
not a twelve bar blues, you know. It’s an odd number bars, and you know, I
listen to people like Jean Sibelius and - people who wrote these long flowing
melodies and found, you know, found a personal comfort in – in that type of
thing. And a lot of people tell me that they just love - that song makes them
feel relaxed and comfortable. And so, you know, there’s a lot to be said for
classical music, I think, that people don’t know where the influences come
form.

GROSS: Well, I think we should listen to “Time is Tight.” So here it is. “Time
is Tight,” Booker T. and the MGs.

(Soundbite of song, “Time is Tight”)

GROSS: That’s “Time is Tight,” Booker T. and the MGs from 1969. It’s featured
on the new Stax 50th anniversary celebration collection. My guest is Booker T.,
who played a piano, an organ on many recordings on Stax Records, the Booker T.
and the MGs recordings, and a lot of artists as well. You left Stax Records in
1969.

Mr. JONES: Uh-huh.

GROSS: Which I think is the same year Stax was sold to Gulf and Western.

Mr. JONES: Uh-huh.

GROSS: Did that have any reason - was that part of the reason why you left?

Mr. JONES: I left after Stax was sold to Gulf and Western.

GROSS: Because it was sold or…

Mr. JONES: Well, not because it was sold, but because it changed, because the
owners had control and the owners were able to dictate how this company was
run, and so they did that. They had every right to do that. They had big
companies and they knew what they were doing. They had Paramount Pictures and
they were a very successful company and they decided that they wanted to change
things in Memphis, and so they did. And the things they changed made it lose
its appeal for me.

GROSS: Well, what were the changes?

Mr. JONES: They changed the outlook. They – they made us feel as though, well –
they made us – made a quota as far as how much music we produced. That was the
first thing that really affected me, because we were always able to have down,
you know, dry periods when we just couldn’t come up with anything and when it
just wasn’t happening. And so everybody would get tense and, you know, we would
argue and – and we just absolutely had no music. But then, to come out of that,
we would come up with something great.

But Gulf and Western sent memos that caused us to change our production
techniques to the – to the fact that we had three bands going around the clock
and – and they wanted a certain number of albums in a certain time period. And
so, the president and the vice president, you know, the people who were running
the company had to bring out the producers in from the other cities. They
brought in producers from Los Angeles and Detroit, you know, because they had
to make these quotas and it became a different company.

GROSS: So when you left, did you leave on your own?

Mr. JONES: Yes, I did. I left all by myself. Nobody came with me.

GROSS: What was your life – life like when you moved to Los Angeles?

Mr. JONES: Well I – I – my life was uncertain for a while. But then I found
friends in California, they rescued me. And - so I was able to survive out
there – out here, rather.

GROSS: And how did your musical life change?

Mr. JONES: Well, as I said I – I found friends who were also somewhat
nonconformists, who - who rescued me. I – I met Clarence Avant who at the time
was one of the leading entrepreneurs, African-American entrepreneurs in the
music industry and he had a start up label that he was working with in
California. And he had this guy that was building airplane toilets in Inglewood
who had songs that he really loved. His name is Bill Withers and…

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Bill Withers was building airplane toilets?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JONES: Absolutely, absolutely. And Clarence – Clarence called up and sent
Bill up to my ranch in Malibu and Bill came up (unintelligible) there with a
little tablet full of papers and an old beat up guitar and started to sing
songs. And he had some great songs in there. So I was able to work with him and
then…

GROSS: So you actually helped discover him.

Mr. JONES: Yeah.

GROSS: I didn’t realize that. Okay.

Mr. JONES: I had friends that introduced me to Herb Alpert and Terry Moss, and
they were – they were starting a record label and…

GROSS: That was A&M records.

Mr. JONES: Uh huh, yeah. So, we had a relationship. So, I worked with him for a
few years and into that producing and arranging albums on Rita Coolidge and
various people on their label. And I actually ended up doing solo albums on A&M
Records during that time and – and I was able to survive.

GROSS: And you produced Willie Nelson’s, you know, now classic “Stardust”
album.

Mr. JONES: Yes. Uh-huh. Yes, that – that was one of the reasons why I think I
made right decision - was – was because I was able to work in some different
genres that I wouldn’t have been able to do at Stax Records. Stax wanted to
keep it pretty much Memphis soul, which was fine, but Stax was not ever going
to be, I don’t think, a pop label or a country label. So I don’t think I would
have been able to take Willie Nelson there or Earl Klugh. I don’t think we
could have been able to jazz there.

GROSS: And your tastes are so wide ranging, you want – you…

Mr. JONES: Yes.

GROSS: …wanted – you wanted to work in a – in a wide ranging way.

Mr. JONES: Yes, it’s one of my greatest disadvantages, liking so many – so many
different kinds of music.

GROSS: Can I ask you about your name?

Mr. JONES: I’m named after my father who was Booker T. Jones Sr. and he was
named after Booker T. Washington. And the name was Booker Taliaferro.
Taliaferro is the middle name.

GROSS: And how did you end up like dropping the Jones from the professional
part of your name because it’s like Booker T in the MGs? And nobody knows you
as Booker T.

Mr. JONES: Well yeah, the – the band needed a name when we recorded “Green
Onions.” So Al Jackson, the drummer, you know, I was, you know, what’ll put –
what’ll we call it. He said, well, Booker T and the – and he just came up with
the MGs. There was a little… This guy, this engineer on the song Chips Moman
was driving a little British Leyland sports car, it’s called an MG. I don’t
know if you’ve ever seen those. And he had to park outside. He used to do
tricks with it and everything in the snow, you know. And so they looked out the
window, the Booker T and the MGs.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: It’s being great to talk with you. Thank you so much for talking with
us.

Mr. JONES: Well, thank you for having me Terry.

DAVIES: Booker T and Terry Gross recorded in 2007. Booker T’s new album is
called “Potato Hole.” Coming up linguist Geoff Nunberg defends the passive
voice. This is FRESH AIR.
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Passionate About The Passive Voice

DAVE DAVIES, host:

50 years after its publication, Strunk & White’s “Elements of Style” still
influences our thinking about language, particularly our disapproval of the
passive voice. But our linguist Geoff Nunberg thinks the passive has gotten a
bad rap.

Professor GEOFF NUNBERG (Linguistic, UC Berkeley School of Information): For
its 50th anniversary edition, Strunk & White’s “Elements of Style” has been
given the full biblical treatment - in a shiny black hard cover with a title
stamped in gold. But there was nothing less like a Bible when the book first
appeared in 1959. It was more like a tract, an ostentatiously slender little
volume that mixed sensible advice with idiosyncratic fetishes about punctuation
and usage. The book had a quirky charm and its style was a model of pith. But
by all rights, it should have gone out of print around 1965, if only so that
its devotees could have the pleasure of hunting it down in the bargain bins of
second hand book stores. Some critics have been hard on the book. In a recent
article on the Chronicle of Higher Education, the linguist Geoff Pullum called
it over opinionated and under informed, and said that it had degraded American
student’s grasp of English grammar.

But you can’t fault Strunk & White if their whims and prejudices have been
canonized and sucked up into a cloud of free floating linguistic folklore. It’s
just a sign of how muddled and reflexive our received linguistic wisdom has
become. Take the way we vilify the passive voice as weak and wussy. Strunk &
White disposed of this matter in 200 words and they actually weren’t that
doctrinaire about it.

But it’s become an article of grammatical faith which teachers and usage guides
defend with judiciously chosen examples. Compare, I kicked a can and a can was
kicked by me. Can’t you hear how the first is more vigorous, more muscular,
more butch? But then there are plenty of passives that loose their own oomph
when they’re made into actives. Imagine some Strunk & White fan revising all
the titles in the popular musical catalogues, so that we’re left with The
Animals’ “Please Don’t Let Anybody Misunderstand Me” and the Eurhythmics’ “This
Is What They Make Sweet Dreams Out Of.” Not to mention Elvis’s “Someone Or
Something Has Shaken Me All Up.”

But the popular rap on the passive isn’t just that it’s limp, but that it’s
deceptive, a way to avoid taking responsibility for your actions. The text book
example is mistakes were made which CNN’s Bill Schneider described as the past
exonerative. That charge is due, not to Strunk & White, but to George Orwell’s
“Politics and the English language,” another quirky usage essay that’s been
absorbed into the culture of wallpaper. The Orwellian overtones of the passive
have become so strong that a lot of people use the term for any sentence that
sounds evasive, whatever its grammatical structure happens to be.

On CNN.com, a self-styled language expert name Paul Payack chastises Obama for
using the passive in the sentence, there will be setbacks. In The New Republic,
Jason Zengerle hears the passive voice in a prediction that Axelrod will become
a lightning rod for public concern. And in a New Yorker piece, not long ago,
Nancy Franklin ridiculed Bernard Madoff for using the passive voice when he
said - when I began the Ponzi scheme, I believed it would end shortly. That
statement may have been disingenuous, but it didn’t have any passives in it.
But the point was missed not just by Franklin but by the platoon of checkers
and editors who famously vet every sentence before it can appear in the
magazine.

If nobody can identify a passive sentence in E. B. White’s own New Yorker, may
be its time to abandon the term. On the language log blog, the linguist Mark
Liberman was prompted to announce its end with phythonesque finality. Passive
voice has ceased to be, it is expired, kicked the bucket, and shuffled off this
mortal coil, it is an ex-grammatical term.

And certainly a lot of the confusion has to do with the term passive voice
itself. The style guides are always saying things like: as the name implies,
the passive makes writing sound weak and ineffectual. But the grammatical term
passive doesn’t have anything to do with passivity or unassertiveness. The
Latin word Passivus is related to the word pati or suffer, the same route that
shows up in the noun patient and in the Passion of Christ. The passive is just
the construction we use to focus on the one who undergoes or endures the action
of the verb. And if using the passive can sometimes be culpable, there are also
times when it’s morally imperative.

The writer Julia Kristeva once said that learning the passive is one of the
things that makes us human. It’s the device that enables us to put ourselves in
the place of the people who wind up as the direct objects in history. The done-
to rather than the doers. You think of all the nouns we derive from the passive
forms of verbs, the abused, the oppressed, the persecuted, the dispossessed.
And the passive voice is particularly useful to have around in a time when
people are being laid off, tossed out of their homes, dropped from their
medical plans and generally worked over.

There is a familiar cadence to those strings of passives. If the syntax Orwell
used when he talked about history’s victims, defenseless villages are bombarded
from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle
machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets, nothing limp
about that.

DAVIES: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist and the author of the new book “The Years
Of Talking Dangerously.” For Terry Gross, I’m Dave Davies.
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Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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