Most 17-year-olds do not write, perform and produce hit songs that end up in the Library of Congress and the Grammy Hall of Fame. And even fewer did it with an integrated band in the 1960s in Memphis, Tenn. But Hammond B3 organ player Booker T. Jones did just that with his band Booker T. and the M.G.’s, and he is playing in Austin this week.
Several of the instrumental hits of Booker T. and the M.G.’s are 1960s soul classics still heard and sampled today. The 1962 smash “Green Onions” is ranked No. 181 on Rolling Stone's list of the 500 greatest songs of all time and is the only instrumental on the list. In 1999, “Green Onions” received a Grammy Hall of Fame Award; it was added to the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress in 2012. Not bad for some neighborhood kids in Memphis who served as the house band for powerhouse Stax Records in the 1960s.
“There was an unspoken fraternity there” at Stax, Jones said in a recent telephone interview. “No one else was privy to it.” Jones had several hits with the M.G.’s, such as “Hip Hug Her” and “Time is Tight,” and as the Stax house band, backed up artists such as Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Wilson Pickett, Albert King, Rufus Thomas and countless others. Booker T. and the M.G.’s were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992.
A few days short of his 74th birthday, Jones and his current band will headline two nights at Antone’s Nov. 9 and 10, with local soul band Tomar and the FC’s opening the show.
Jones is no stranger to Austin and Antone’s, and said he has been playing there since the 1970s. “I actually remember Austin as a small town, playing out in a field in 1968 with just a few people,” he said. “My next Austin experience was a completely different animal, (coming back) in 1975 and 1976 with Willie Nelson out there to Pedernales and it was a big city at this time,” he said. “The hangout was Antone’s downtown.”
Jones has spent his time hanging out in clubs, yet his music education was unique for the early 1960s. He learned the music business from his elders in the local Memphis music scene, comparing his experience to Texas drumming legend George Rains teaching a young Gary Clark Jr. the trade in Austin. Yet, Jones said, at the same time he also saved $900 to enroll at the University of Indiana and obtain formal music training.
The training paid off for Jones as he and the M.G.’s — guitarist Steve “the Colonel” Cropper, Donald “Duck” Dunn and Al Jackson Jr. — were at the forefront of soul music, even leading it to new audiences. Booker T. and the M.G.’s played at the groundbreaking Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 and backed up Otis Redding during his legendary set just months before his death.
While Jones had already had a life’s worth of legendary experiences as the 1960s ended, he was about to enter a second stage of his career producing and performing a wide range of artists. After his days at Stax, Jones moved to California, where he met some other transplants.
Jones met Willie Nelson in Malibu in the 1970s, when he saw the Texan jogging on the beach. They discovered they were neighbors in the same apartment building, and became friends and jamming partners. Nelson suggested they return to Austin to record some songs, which later became the classic 1978 album of American standards known as “Stardust.”
It might seem strange for a soul icon to team with country artists, but Jones said he grew up listening to country. “The first record I bought was Kitty Wells,” Jones said. “Stardust” became a huge hit, earning Grammys and landing on the country LP charts for an amazing 10 years.
Jones has also released his own albums and recorded with an entire generation of new bands who grew up listening to his music, including Rancid and the Drive-By Truckers.
This time around, Jones said, he is traveling with his own band. “It’s somewhat of an attempt to recreate the Stax sound on stage,” he explains. “We don’t have the original people. But we have the original instrumentation and original arrangements.”