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Booker T. Jones: A Life in Music

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. A new two-CD box set features Stax highlights and Booker T. is now back on tour.

42:57

Other segments from the episode on March 26, 2007

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 26, 2007: interview with Booker T. Jones; Review of the film "Paul Robeson: Portraits of the Artist."

Transcript

DATE March 26, 2007 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Booker T. Jones talks about how he started his music
career and the new Stax 50th Anniversary Celebration collection
which includes Booker T. & the MGs records
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest is Booker T. Jones, the organ and piano player, songwriter and
producer who led the band Booker T. & the MGs. They had hits in the '60s and
'70s, including "Green Onions," "Hip Hug-Her," "Soul Limbo" and "Time Is
Tight." They were also the house band for the Memphis-based soul label Stax
Records, backing up artists like Rufus and Carla Thomas, Otis Redding, Sam &
Dave, Wilson Pickett, Albert King and The Staple Singers. This year Booker T.
& the MGs won a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammys. The Stax record
catalog was recently acquired by Concord Records, which has just released a
50th anniversary collection of Stax recordings. It includes Booker T. & the
MGs' first and biggest hit, "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. Here's "Green Onions."

(Soundbite from "Green Onions")

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

Mr. BOOKER T. JONES: Thank you, Terry. I'm glad to be here.

GROSS: Will 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 that didn't show
up, so we used the time to record our blues, which we called "Behave
Yourself," and we played it on Hammond M3 organ, and Jim Stewart, the owner,
was the engineer, and 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 need something to record for our B side 'cause 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: So how did "Green Onions," the B side, end up being the hit?

Mr. JONES: One of the disc jockeys, I think, Dick Caine Cole, flipped it
over one day, flipped over the blues and, all of a sudden, "Green Onions" was
on the air and got calls for it, and that eventually became--they started
pressing it again and repressed it, and put "Green Onions" on the A side.

GROSS: Now your Booker T. & the MGs basically became the house band for Stax
Records...

Mr. JONES: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...and you played on 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 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 borrowed 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: OK. Let's hear it.

(Soundbite from "'Cause I Love You")

Mr. RUFUS THOMAS: (Singing) "I done hurt my very best girl. Oh, my! Yeah!
I done hurt my very best girl. Oh, my! Yeah! Going to straighten up, baby.
Stop that cheating and lying."

Ms. CARLA THOMAS: (Singing) "Well, you lied about me, lied about Louie too."

Mr. THOMAS: (Singing) "Oh, no! Oh, no!"

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

Mr. THOMAS: (Singing) "Oh, no! Oh, no!"

Ms. THOMAS: (Singing) "Got me feeling so bad I don't know what to do."

Mr. THOMAS: (Singing) "Let me tell you...(unintelligible). Hurting deep
down inside, baby."

Ms. THOMAS: (Singing) "Baby."

Mr. THOMAS: (Singing) "(Unintelligible)...hold you by my side 'cause I love
you."

Ms. THOMAS: (Singing) "I love..."

Mr. THOMAS: (Singing) "'Cause I love you."

Ms. THOMAS: (Singing) "I love..."

Mr. THOMAS: (Singing) "'Cause I love you."

Ms. THOMAS: (Singing) "'Cause I love..."

Mr. THOMAS: (Singing) "'Cause I love you."

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

Mr. THOMAS: (Singing) "'Cause I love you. And I'll never let you go. Come
on."

Ms. THOMAS: (Singing) "Come on."

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's Rufus and Carla Thomas, the first recording...

Mr. JONES: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...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.

Mr. JONES: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: 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. No, I convinced them to try me out on piano and
eventually organ, and eventually I played 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 of school, 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 11:00 every night.

GROSS: Now how did you hook up with Steve Cropper in the band?

Mr. JONES: Well, I met Steve way before the band started. I met Steve when
I was a younger man going into Satellite record shop just listening to
records. In those days, you know, you could go in and try out a record before
you bought it. You could just stand there and listen to it in listening
stations. Steve was a clerk there. He was working for the record shop, and
he just let me listen for hours, and he'd stand there and wait while I
listened, and I don't know if I bought that many records, but that's how I met
him.

GROSS: Booker T. & the MGs is so associated with the Stax sound, such an
essential part of 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 or whatever he had to do to keep the band going, and
I remember the day he pulled up with--Johnny Jenkins and 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 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, and 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 Monterey Pop Festival and 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--like a record--it's not a record that
sounds like it was made by people who were tired and overworked. Did the mood
change...

Mr. JONES: Well, I'm not sure...

GROSS: ...once you started recording?

Mr. JONES: ...I'm not sure that we 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.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

Mr. JONES: So this might have been--I'm not sure what the sequence was when
we recorded this but, you know, the music always took--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 keyboard on this recording.

(Soundbite from "Dock of the Bay")

Mr. OTIS REDDING: (Singing) "Sitting in the morning sun, I'll be sitting
when the evening come. Watching the ships roll in and I'll watch them roll
away again, yeah. Sitting on the dock of a bay, watching the tide roll away.
Oooh. Just sitting on the dock of a bay wasting time. I left my home in
Georgia, headed for the Frisco Bay. I had nothing to live for, looked like
nothing's going to come my way. So, I'm just sitting on the dock of a bay,
watching the tide roll away. Ooh. Sitting on the dock of a bay wasting time.
Look like nothing's going to change. Everything seems to remain the same. I
can't do what people tell me to. So I guess I'll remain the same. Just
sitting here...(unintelligible)..."

(End of soundbite)

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, and "Dock
of the Bay" is one of the recordings featured on a new Stax 50th Anniversary
Celebration, which among other things includes recordings by Booker T. & the
MGs. 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...

Mr. JONES: Yes.

GROSS: ...on Stax. Did it make you think twice about flying? I mean,
musicians have such a history of plane and car accidents for musicians who
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 OK with flying.

GROSS: My guest is organ and piano player, songwriter and producer Booker T.
Jones. He led the band Booker T. & the MGs, which had several hits in the
'60s and '70s and was also the house band for the Memphis-based soul label
Stax Records.

More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: Let's get back to our interview with pianist, organ player, songwriter
and producer Booker T. Jones of the band Booker T. & the MGs, which was the
house band for Stax Records.

You wrote a song called "Born Under a Bad Sign"...

Mr. JONES: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...that I always thought was a much older song. I mean, it's such a
kind of classic blues song. I figured it was around a whole lot longer. Do
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 to 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 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: Just the feeling of it, you know? It's the real blues, you know,
done by the real people. It was Albert King from east St. Louis, you know,
the left-hand guitar player who was just such a--one of a kind and so electric
and so intense and 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 was
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 from "Born Under a Bad Sign")

Mr. ALBERT KING: (Singing) "Born under a bad sign, been down since I
was...(unintelligible). If it wasn't for bad luck, you know I wouldn't have
no luck at all. Hard luck and trouble been my only friend. I been on my own
ever since I was ten. Born under a bad sign, been down since I
was...(unintelligible). If it wasn't for bad luck, you know I wouldn't have
no luck at all. I been..."

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's Albert King from 1967. The song was cowritten by my guest
pianist and organ player Booker T., who cowrote that song. And, by the way,
that's one of the tracks featured on a new double CD collection called Stax
50th Anniversary Celebration.

Now when you were playing at Stax Records, when you were in Booker T. & the
MGs and you were the house band and making your own records, the South...

Mr. JONES: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ....was still pretty segregated...

Mr. JONES: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...but your band was comprised of African-American and white
musicians.

Mr. JONES: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Did racial tensions from the outside world ever affect the band or did
you feel pretty well-protected from that?

Mr. JONES: Well, we were insulated, you know, as most Southern social
institutions are. We were insulated because 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 into 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 that 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...

Mr. JONES: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...did it cause any...

Mr. JONES: Well, what I mean is...

GROSS: ...tensions within the band? Yeah.

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

GROSS: Right.

Mr. JONES: 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, 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 when you needed to keep it kind of a
secret?

Mr. JONES: Absolutely. The logistics of it 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, and sometimes those two were Steve and
Douglas. The other two would have to check into hotels.

GROSS: Yeah, because two of you were white and two of you were black.

Mr. JONES: Exactly. Exactly. So we always had to have--we were always in
somebody else's territory, no matter where we were...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. JONES: So--but Steve and Doug and all of the white members of Stax began
to love soul food, and 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 a problem with us.

GROSS: Booker T. Jones will be back in the second half of the show. Booker
T. & the MGs are featured on the new Stax 50th Anniversary Celebration double
CD.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

(Announcements)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR.

I'm Terry Gross back with Booker T. Jones. In the '60s and early '60s he led
the band Booker T. & the MGs, which had several hits, including "Green
Onions." They were also the house band for the Memphis-based soul label Stax
Records. This year the band received a Grammy for Lifetime Achievement. A
new Stax 50th Anniversary Celebration double CD has just been released.

We were talking before about how 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...

Mr. JONES: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...after high school while you were still playing at Stax...

Mr. JONES: Mmm.

GROSS: ...and while you were gone, Isaac Hayes would play piano or organ? Is
that...

Mr. JONES: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Yes. Isaac filled in for me in the house band,
mm-hmm, 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...'

Mr. JONES: Mmm.

GROSS: `I have what I've always wanted to do, and I'm, you know, making my
own records. I'm in the house band of a growing record company. Who needs
school?'

Mr. JONES: Mmm.

GROSS: 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, you know, I had a classical
background, and I had a curiosity 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 and write 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...

Mr. JONES: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...I wouldn't have guessed that you were into classical music, and I
might not have known that you were as, kind of, studious...

Mr. JONES: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...and serious sounding as you are.

Mr. JONES: Mmm. Mmm. Yeah. Mm-hmm. Yeah. I spent many hours as a boy
listening to my mother play classics. My mother was a classical pianist.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

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 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 that music and
learning how it was put together and studying.

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

Mr. JONES: She loved it.

GROSS: Your mother?

Mr. JONES: She loved it.

GROSS: She--yeah.

Mr. JONES: She loved it.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

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

GROSS: Now, you played a lot of different instruments when you were young. I
mean, tell me if I'm wrong here. You played ukelele, oboe, saxophone...

Mr. JONES: Mmm.

GROSS: ...trombone, piano, organ...

Mr. JONES: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: ...clarinet.

Mr. JONES: Yeah.

GROSS: Did having like a working knowledge of all those instruments help you
as a musician and as a musician who was 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 was a C instrument, and I played
that while I was in fourth grade because I was too young to be in the band and
they wouldn'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 in the fourth grade. And then moving from
that to clarinet, which was 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. &
the MGs records, are used as an argument against classical music? Do you know
what I mean?

Mr. JONES: I didn't know...

GROSS: No, I...

Mr. JONES: ...I didn't know about that...

GROSS: ...I don't mean that people single out your records but often
I'll--you know, often people who like, you know, like funk or soul or, you
know, music that sounds like more bluesy or improvisational will use it as an
argument against what they perceive 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, and if you would ask for
a classical melody from me, I think that would be it. Do you know the song
"Time Is Tight" from...

GROSS: I do. I do.

Mr. JONES: ...the MGs.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

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 a
12-bar blues, you know. It's an odd number of bars. You know, I listen to
people like Jean Sibelius and people who wrote these long flowing melodies and
found, you know, a personal comfort 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 from.

GROSS: Well, I think we should listen to "Time Is Tight," and this is
actually included on the new Stax 50th Anniversary Celebration collection. So
here it is, "Time Is Tight," Booker T. & the MGs.

(Soundbite from "Time Is Tight")

GROSS: That's "Time Is Tight," Booker T. & the MGs from 1969. It's featured
on the new Stax 50th Anniversary Celebration collection. My guest is Booker
T., who played piano and organ on many recordings on Stax Records, the Booker
T. & the MGs recordings and a lot of artists as well.

You left Stax Records in 1969...

Mr. JONES: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...which I think was the same year Stax was sold to Gulf & Western.

Mr. JONES: Mm-hmm.

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

Mr. JONES: I left after Stax was sold to Gulf & 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 the 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 that they changed
made it lose its appeal for me.

GROSS: What were the changes?

Mr. JONES: They changed the outlook. They made us feel as though--well,
they made us meet 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 our
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 we just absolutely had no music, but then to come out of
that we would come up with something great, but Gulf & Western sent memos that
caused us to change our production techniques to the fact that we had three
bands going around the clock, and they wanted a certain number of albums and
at certain time periods and--so the president and the vice president, you
know, the people who were running the company had to bring other producers in
from other cities. They brought in producers from Los Angeles and Detroit,
you know, because they had to meet 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: That must have been hard. I mean, you were part of a unit. You were
part of two units. You were part of a great band...

Mr. JONES: Yeah.

GROSS: ...and a record company that had started a whole sound. I mean, it
had such an identity, and you were...

Mr. JONES: Yes.

GROSS: ...friends with so many of the musicians there so...

Mr. JONES: Yes, yes, yes.

GROSS: ...what was it like to leave on your own and then go to the West
Coast?

Mr. JONES: Well, it caused a lot of bad feelings because I was trying to get
other people to come with me. I was trying to talk to people one by one to
get them to move to California with me, and of course, that didn't sit well at
Stax.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. JONES: I asked basically everybody to leave with me, and nobody did, and
so it broke up the band, and I was not sure about what I was doing. You know,
I was just going with my gut feeling, and so I was arguing on the phone with
Jim Stewart and with my drummer and with everybody. It was very tense for me.
It was not a good time.

GROSS: Do you think you made the right decision?

Mr. JONES: Absolutely.

GROSS: My guest is organ and piano player, songwriter and producer Booker T.
Jones. Booker T. & the MGs are featured on the new double CD Stax 50th
Anniversary Celebration.

He'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guest is Booker T. Jones. In the '60s and early '70s, he led the
band Booker T. & the MGs, which had several hits and was the house band for
the Memphis-based soul label Stax Records. When we left off, we were talking
about leaving Stax and Memphis for California.

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

Mr. JONES: Well, I--my life was uncertain for a while, but then I found
friends in California that 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 found friends who were also somewhat
nonconformist who rescued me. 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 Ingelwood who had
songs that he really loved. His name was Bill Withers and...

GROSS: Bill Withers was building airplane toilets?

Mr. JONES: Absolutely. Absolutely. And Clarence called up and sent Bill
out to my ranch in Malibu, and Bill came up with...(unintelligible)...out
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 I had friends...

GROSS: So you actually helped discover him.

Mr. JONES: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: I didn't realize that. OK.

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

GROSS: That was A&M Records.

Mr. JONES: Mm-hmm. Yes. So we had a relationship, so I worked with them
for a few years and ended up 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 I was able to survive.

GROSS: And you produced Willie Nelson's, you know, now-classic "Stardust"
album.

Mr. JONES: Yes. Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. That was one of the reasons why I think I
made the right decision was because I was able to work in some different
genres that I wouldn't have been able to do at Stax Records.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. JONES: 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 would have been able to do jazz there.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. And your tastes are so wide-ranging you wanted to
work...

Mr. JONES: Yes, yes.

GROSS: ...in a wide-ranging way.

Mr. JONES: Yes. That's one of my greatest disadvantages, liking so many
different kinds of music.

GROSS: Can I ask you about your name?

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

GROSS: And how did you end up, like, dropping the Jones from the professional
part of your name because it was like Booker T. & the MGs, and everybody
knows you as like Booker T.?

Mr. JONES: Well, yeah. The band needed a name when we recorded "Green
Onions," so Al Jackson, the drummer, you know, `What do we call it?' And he
said, `Well, Booker T. and the'--and they just came up with MGs.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. JONES: There was a little, this guy, this engineer on the song, Chips
Moman, was driving a little British label sports car. It's called an MG. I
don't know if you've ever seen those?

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. JONES: And he had it parked outside. He used to do tricks with it and
everything in the snow, you know. And so they looked out the window. Booker
T. and the MGs.

GROSS: I want to play another record that you're featured on that's included
on the Stax 50th Anniversary Celebration.

Mr. JONES: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And this is a song featuring Mable John, and it's called "Your Good
Thing Is About to End." You're featured on piano on this.

Mr. JONES: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: I think a lot--I think Mable John isn't that well-known right now. Do
you want to say something about her and about this recording?

Mr. JONES: Yeah, she's--I'm still in touch with her also. She's a special
person. Do you remember sister--Willie John, Little Willie John. That was
her brother.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. JONES: But, yeah, she's just such a down-to-earth great homey singer.
Mable was such a great influence at Stax on everybody. She was really one of
the most loved people in the family.

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

Mr. JONES: Thank you for having me, Terry.

(Soundbite from "Your Good Thing Is About to End")

Ms. MABLE JOHN: (Singing) "I don't have to beg you to hold me 'cause
somebody else will do. You don't have to love me when I want it 'cause
somebody else will. Sometimes friends say you don't need it when all the time
they're trying to get it. Look out your good thing is about to come to an
end. Your real good thing is about to come to an end. All those nights I
watched the four walls. I didn't have to watch 'em all alone When other men
said they wanted me, I didn't have to tell them I was your very own. You've
had all the love I've got. Even ice melts to water and gets hot. Look out
your good thing is about to come to an end. Your real good thing is about to
end."

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: Booker T. & the MGs backing Mable John, featured on the new Stax 50th
Anniversary Celebration double CD.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Critic Lloyd Schwartz describes Criterion four-DVD set
on work of Paul Robeson
TERRY GROSS, host:

Paul Robeson was one of America's most powerful and versatile performers:
concert singer, classical actor and movie star. But his career was badly
damaged when he ran into trouble with the American government for his leftist
political views. Criterion has just issued a four-DVD set that includes six
of his 11 films and a wealth of documentary material. Classical music critic
Lloyd Schwartz has a review.

(Soundbite from "Ol' Man River")

Mr. PAUL ROBESON: (Singing) "Ol' man river. Dat ol' man river. He mus know
sumpin' but don't say nuthin'. He jes' keeps rollin'. He keeps on rollin'
along. He don' plant taters. He don't plant cotton. An' dem dat plants 'em
is soon forgotten. But ol' man river, he jes keeps rollin' along. Ah gets
weary..."

(End of soundbite)

Mr. LLOYD SCHWARTZ: Paul Robeson had a notable career, even with the odds
stacked against him as an African-American performing between the 1920s and
1950s. But he was also courageously, some might say foolishly, outspoken in
his social and political opinions. He finished law school before he became an
actor. Anti-racist, anti-fascist, pro-labor, a relentless activist for human
rights, when he spoke out against Americans before forced to sign declarations
that they were not members of the Communist Party, the US government revoked
his passport, which essentially ended his international career.

But what a career it had been. He was the first black actor to play
Shakespeare's greatest black character, "Othello," with a white company. And
that production had the longest Broadway run of any Shakespeare play. Eugene
O'Neill hand picked him to play the complex title role in a revival of his
melodrama "The Emperor Jones." And in the film version he became the first
black actor to have star billing in a major production.

In "Show Boat," Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein wrote "Ol' Man River" for
him, and it became his theme song. He talked Hammerstein into substituting
the word "darkies" for the even more offensive racial epithet in the original
1927 lyric. Later, as Sidney Poitier describes in one of the documentaries in
the new Criterion box, Robeson changed another line in the song in an even
more radical way.

(Soundbite of documentary)

Mr. SIDNEY POITIER: In Spain another change in the words of "Ol' Man River."
"I'm tired of living and scared of dying" became "We must keep fighting until
we're dying."

Mr. ROBESON: (Singing) "Ah keeps laughing instead of cryin'. We must keep
fightin' until we're dyin'. And ol' man river..."

Mr. POITIER: "Ol' Man River" was beginning to turn from a song of lament to
a song of political protest.

Mr. ROBESON: (Singing) "He jes keeps rollin' along."

(End of soundbite)

Mr. SCHWARTZ: Robeson had an extraordinary vivid bass voice, resonant with a
full spectrum of color, eloquent in a remarkable range of music from
spirituals to oratorios. He was a godsend for sound film. In "The Proud
Valley," made in England in 1940, he plays David Goliath, a vagabond American
sailor in Wales who is invited to join a coal miners chorale group when the
members hear him in the street singing an aria from Mendelssohn's "Elijah."

(Soundbite of "The Proud Valley")

Mr. ROBESON: (Singing) "Oh, God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, this day let
it be known that though art God."

Unidentified Man #1: Here, steady, mate. Steady.

Mr. ROBESON: (Singing) "And that I am they servant. Lord, God of Abraham,
hear, oh, hear me, Lord, and answer me."

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) "Oh, hear me, Lord, and answer me."

Mr. ROBESON: (Singing) "Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel"

Mr. ROBESON and Choral Group: (Singing) "Oh, hear, oh, hear me and answer
me. (Unintelligible) Lord, God of Abraham."

(Soundbite of footsteps running)

Unidentified Man #3: Hey, was that you?

Mr. ROBESON: Yeah. Was it all right?

(End of soundbite)

Mr. SCHWARTZ: Robeson's character eventually sacrifices his life to save
another's in a mining disaster.

Imposing in size, he cuts a commanding figure, perfect for both heros and, as
in "The Emperor Jones," anti-heros. He's a compelling actor because he's so
seductively mercurial. In the black director Oscar Micheaux's silent film
"Body and Soul," Robeson actually plays two opposite characters: the sweet
natured good guy and a villainous preacher.

On the new Criterion set, my big discovery is a haunting silent film from 1930
called "Borderline," the only surviving film directed by the British film
theorist and editor Kenneth Macpherson. In it, Robeson's wife, Eslanda, plays
his wife, who is ending an interracial affair with a white man. The American
images poet H.D., Hilda Doolittle, gives a terrifyingly intense performance as
the murderously jealous and bigoted wife of the other man. Hypnotic
flashbacks and flash forwards, in montages influenced by the great Russian
director Sergey Eisenstein blur the boundary between what's actually happening
and what's in the characters' minds. As the generously forgiving husband and
friend, this is Robeson's subtlest, most sophisticated and most touching
characterization. Even without his voice, Robeson was an unforgettable
presence.

GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz is classical music editor of the Boston Phoenix. He
reviewed "Paul Robeson: Portraits of the Artist," a four-DVD set released by
Criterion.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. ROBESON: (Singing) "We are climbing Jacob's ladder. We are climbing
Jacob's ladder."

(End of soundbite)
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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