The Okayplayer Interview: Booker T. Jones On the Future Of Soul
Tuesday, Booker T. Jones released his new album Sound The Alarm, his first album since the Roots collaboration The Road From Memphis in 2011–and his first in decades to be recorded for his original label Stax Records. Far from a nostalgic return to the famous Memphis Sound that he helped to establish as Booker T & The MGs, however, Sound The Alarm opens up whole new territories of soul for the this pioneer to explore and enlists a who’s who of soul’s next generation–including Anthony Hamilton, Estelle, Gary Clark, Jr., Mayer Hawthorne, Luke James and Vintage Trouble, not to mention some bona fide second generation soulcats like Kori Withers (Bill Withers‘ daughter) and Booker’s own son Ted Jones–to give the album a youthful urgency to the unmistakable Booker T sound. Looking over the tracklisting, its easy to imagine Booker as a sort of Professor Charles Xavier of soul music, appearing mysteriously in the lives of young people with extraordinary powers to recruit them for his Academy For Gifted Soul Mutants. Speaking by phone, Okayplayer had the chance to talk at length with Booker T–who gave generously of his time and his game–to get the real life story of how he assembled this incredible team of young talent around him; the best of soul music’s next generation–and how they fit into the sound and his vision of this powerful record. Get a taste of the barbecue by streaming the title track (“Sound The Alarm” featuring Mayer Hawthorne, via OKP premiere) while you read, then hit the link to purchase
Okayplayer: Looking at your career from the outside, it seems like the previous album that you did with The Roots was sort of a comeback moment. Does it feel like you’re into a second chapter of your career?
Booker T: There was a hiatus, there was a period when I was languishing, but now I’m awake again, I’m on fire, and the music is burning inside me. I’m actually working with new people and old people as well, I’m still working some with Steve Cropper, I’m still doing that music and a lot of occasions. We just had a concert at the White House, where we did songs with Queen Latifah, I had Eddie Floyd there, that music is still vibrant.
But I feel that Stax lost its way when it was purchased by the big company in New York City, by Gulf & Western–the bigger companies buy the record companies and the lawyers start to take over and look at the money instead of the music. I think that kind of happened with Stax. But me, being one of the original ones, like Cropper and Dunn, Al Jackson–one of the original creators of the company, the music, and the vibe – we were able to continue that, in its true essence, without considerations for how many records we’re making, or how much money it was going to make. So in that sense, its just kind of built into my musical soul, my musical self.
OKP: I was sort of surprised to hear you say “old and new people” because just looking at the tracklisting of the album, it seems like a very young group of people that you’ve surrounded yourself with…
Booker T: The focus is on new R&B. and I seem to have attention from a new group of soul artists and fans that have focused on me, like Mayer Hawthorne–who was introduced to be by Daryl Hall–and Anthony Hamilton, who are people I’ve made friends with over the recent years. And Estelle and the Avila Brothers. So that’s a circle of friends that’s come around and the music has come with it. It’s influenced my writing, and of course the recording.
OKP: Can you tell us the stories of how you linked up or recruited some of the collaborators on this album?
Booker T: Of course, well it’s great, it’s exciting for me – it’s a combination of people, like I said that I’ve made as friends since I was standing in line. I won 3 Grammys these past few years, and each time I won one of those Grammys I was standing in line in front of Anthony Hamilton. I looked around after the show, and Anthony’d be standing there, and it happened a third time. And so I said, We have to stop meeting like this! And you know it turned out Anthony had wrote a song for me, for my album. It’s just a way I’ve been following my life path, and it’s just been leading me to new young players. For instance, I met Gary Clark, Jr. at Cupertino, when I was doing a benefit for Apple up there–which was basically a demo of my album–and he was playing downstairs. But I keep talking about the old – if you listen to what I did with Gary, and with my son [Ted Jones] that music comes right out of what I was doing in the 60s, almost pre-Stax. It’s mixed right in there. It’s a new blues/R&B mix, like the stuff I did with my son Ted. And Ted is only 22, but we spend a lot of time together listening to guitar players–and you know I mistook [his playing] once for Joe Bonamassa, who I played with over in England.
OKP: In the recording of the music, were you ever riffing on or covering things the way that the some of the MGs compositions would adapt material that was out there into an organ cover?
Booker T: Some more so, and some less. On “Father Son Blues,” there’s no variation at all on that song, from what I played at a club in Memphis in say, 1960. No variation at all. This is all influenced by Bobby Blue Bland blues from Texas, or B.B. King blues. This is how I made my 6 or 7 bucks a night, playing all night. On a song like, “Can’t Wait,” [featuring Estelle] I’m thinking, I want this score to be different. I want it to sound different. I want it to feel different. I want her voice to be soaring. This is like Stax, if she had some to Memphis and recorded with the group there after all these years have passed. It’s the whole gamut.
OKP: I’m curious about Sheila E.‘s involvement. What was that connection like, have you guys known each other for awhile?
Booker T: It was great. Well I had a connection with her family, because of her uncle Coke Escovedo, who I met when I was playing with Carlos Santana, we toured together. And there’s a whole, huge family and legacy and style that was sort of started by Mongo Santamaria and Tito Puente, people who kind of congregated around the Oakland area where I lived for a long time. Of course, my association with Carlos Santana through me right into that, playing with Tito and Ria…and all those guys, the band was just dynamic. Her family, those guys brought me into that, in the 70s when I moved from Memphis out to California. Those were some of the first people I met. And she’s one of them, and she plays like one of them, she is one of them. And just to have her and her electricity, it gives it that authenticity to that. Well I only got one song of that genre on my album which is “66 Impala,” and I got Poncho Sanchez to play on it. But its something that I’ve always loved, it’s always influenced us in the 60s when we were doing the MGs, you know, and I was a big Tito Puente fan and of course Mongo Santamaria when he came out with “Watermelon Man.” We were never the same after that record. So that’s what Sheila did, and her family, and they still do it. You know, we talked about – at the studio it was great, talking about the old times. And she felt close to me because I knew her family so well.
OKP: How about Estelle, how did that link up? (cont’d on next page…)