DON GONYEA, HOST:
He is in a class of musicians who need only their first name as a calling card. OK, we'll make a slight exception by including his middle initial. I'm talking about Booker T. As a performer or a session musician or producer, decades of iconic songs have his name on them.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AIN'T NO SUNSHINE")
BILL WITHERS: (Singing) Ain't no sunshine when she's gone. It's not a warm when she's away.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOUL MAN")
SAM AND DAVE: (Singing) I'm talking about a soul man. I'm a soul man. And you're a soul...
(SOUNDBITE OF BOOKER T. AND THE MG'S "GREEN ONIONS")
GONYEA: Now Booker T. Jones has written a memoir. It's called "Time Is Tight: My Life Note By Note." In it, he revisits his days at Stax Records in Memphis and the tensions that came from being in an integrated group during the height of Jim Crow - more on that in a minute. When Booker T. Jones stopped by our studio (ph), I began our discussion in Indiana and his days in the Indiana University marching band. He explained how that time influenced his later music.
BOOKER T JONES: The structures that I started to learn at Indiana and the musical rigor started to show up I think in my musical choices in the studio. I started to learn the European contrapuntal rules, and I started to learn how to write music and write for different instruments. And those tendencies and leanings started to show up in the music at Stax and the studio.
GONYEA: You became a much more sophisticated musician.
JONES: When necessary.
GONYEA: When necessary. OK. Explain that.
JONES: Well, Stax was, by choice, different from other music that we were hearing - minimalist and evoking a large amount of emotion in the music. So the music was as basic as it could be.
GONYEA: So let's go back to Memphis. Can you tell us about the first time for you actually working on a real recording session? I understand you were still just a high school kid at the time.
JONES: It was in an algebra class that I probably should've been paying more attention to. And I noticed that my friend, David Porter - I noticed this face at the door. There was a little window there at the door of the classroom. Class had just started. And he entered the room. Booker, run down to the band room and get a saxophone - a baritone saxophone. I'm going to take you over to Satellite Records.
And that was - something that I wanted to do for years was to walk into the door at Satellite Studios. I'd been out in the lobby, listening to records. And - but I had no way of getting in. I knew they were making music in the back. And he led me through that door - a green curtain, actually. And it was actually my dream come true there that morning, unexpectedly.
GONYEA: I'd like to do something with you now. We're going to play one of those songs that has you on keyboards, has you on the Hammond B-3 organ. It's "Time Is Tight," which was one of your big hits in the 1960s. 1968 I believe it came out?
JONES: That's correct.
GONYEA: We're just going to play it in your headphones.
JONES: Sounds good.
GONYEA: And I'd like you to tell us what you hear and what we should be hearing.
(SOUNDBITE OF BOOKER T. AND THE MG'S "TIME IS TIGHT")
JONES: Well, I was floating then, you know? I was - I had the best drummer in the world, the best possible drummer keeping time over there to my right. And I was just flying up in the clouds, playing that melody and a long flowing melody that kind of gave me a sense of peacefulness, to be honest with you.
GONYEA: That organ sound is just so distinct.
JONES: Thank you.
GONYEA: And are we building to the ending here? Tell me what's going on.
JONES: Building to the ending. And on this record, it's an ending. However, it didn't end for me. The song continued for me as a composer. And I wrote a coda (ph) for it. The coda's on the new version. I play the coda on stage.
JONES: So composers are like that. Often, you know, you think you're finished, and you're not finished.
GONYEA: So I wanted to ask you about a couple of key moments during your time at Stax, both of which are covered, powerfully, in this memoir. You worked closely with Otis Redding, who you say you first met when he showed up at the studios as the driver for another band. And that's where you met him.
JONES: Yeah. And he was a big guy. He was strong, so he carried the luggage. And when I saw him, he was loading drums and instruments out onto the sidewalk at 926 McLemore in front of Stax.
GONYEA: So you eventually went on the road with Otis Redding. He's becoming a big national star. And there was this moment at the Monterey Pop Festival...
GONYEA: ...In 1967. Fair to say, he and you and your band, the MGs, brought the house down that day.
JONES: We did. We played in the rain. We played all through the rain doing the whole thing. We were soaking wet when we walked offstage. But it was a great experience.
GONYEA: One of the most famous moments from that particular performance is when you guys performed the song "Tenderness" (ph). Let's hear some of that.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
OTIS REDDING: (Singing) Now it might be a little bit sentimental, but she has her grief and care, yeah, yeah, yeah.
GONYEA: Has anybody ever sung that song so well?
JONES: Not to my knowledge, not to my knowledge.
GONYEA: Your eyes kind of close a little as you're listening to it today.
JONES: Yes, yes. I had a lot of thoughts going through listening to that. What we heard was the result of changes we made as a result of our touring, a previous touring. We played that song on a tour. And the original is quite different, quite a bit slower at that point. And I remember Otis raising the tempo of the song quite a bit from the original because he wanted to have more excitement onstage.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
REDDING: (Singing) Tenderness, yeah. (Unintelligible). All you got to do is know how to love her. You got to hold her, squeeze her, never leave her, get to her. Got to, got to try a little tenderness, yeah, yeah. Lord have mercy now.
GONYEA: After Otis Redding's death, a new single came out. You played keyboards on it. "(Sittin' On) The Dock Of The Bay."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "(SITTIN' ON) THE DOCK OF THE BAY")
REDDING: (Singing) Sitting in the morning sun. I'll be sitting when the evening comes.
JONES: It's just amazing to me that I'm sitting here 50 years later listening to that song. I never had any idea that it would survive this length of time. It's so gratifying.
GONYEA: And it sounds as fresh in terms of its sound and its meaning.
JONES: Yeah, there's a lot in the song that I didn't know then that I realized now. And that - Otis is emoting, and he wrote the song. And it's the truth about how he was feeling inside. It's tough for me because he was my friend. We had spent many times together sitting alone in a room, and there were many things that he told me. But there were also many things that he just didn't tell me. And one was that his stardom - as the stardom grew, he started to - he was alone. He felt lonely. And I'm realizing that now. There was just, you know, ways that stardom took away some of his access to people.
GONYEA: So then, just months later, literally, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. is killed in Memphis. And it happens at the Lorraine Motel, which was a place that was kind of a home away from the office for all of you at Stax.
JONES: Well, Don, if we'd had a kitchen at Stax - we didn't have a kitchen. We didn't have a conference room. We didn't have a restaurant. We didn't have any recreational facilities, so we always went in the middle of the day for our recreation to the Lorraine. That's where we had our launches. They had a swimming pool. And I remember Steve Cropper and Eddie Floyd had the room down at the end of the hall - I think it was 206 - booked all the time. I can't remember any hit song that they wrote that they didn't write at the Lorraine. It was a home away from home for us.
So if Dr. King had been shot in our kitchen at Stax, it would've been the same. Do you get what I'm saying?
GONYEA: Oh, yeah.
JONES: It would've been the same.
GONYEA: Yeah. And what about within your world at Stax and even within your band? Was there a sense that maybe we don't really understand each other?
JONES: Well, you know what? I think the largest indicator of that is the fact that we never ever the four of us discussed it, not ever once. So that really was a tragedy. I addressed that in the book. And I - it's something that is so sensitive because we did have a family. We did have a love between us, and we did have a wonderful relationship for many years between the blacks and whites that was just understood and that was familial. It was - we were a family, and we loved one another.
But to say that we were a family, that gives the freedom to say there were dysfunctional aspects. You don't have any family with love or without love that isn't, in some way, dysfunctional. Same with the Stax and same with Booker T. and the MGs. That would've been the case had we'd been all-white or all-black. We were a mixed family, though.
GONYEA: What has working on this memoir and rerecording some of these old songs, revisiting them done for you at this point in your life?
GONYEA: It's been a pleasant undertaking. Revisiting the music makes me realize how fortunate I've been and how much fun I've had and how much fun I still can have if things keep going. I love all the music. It's just great to look back. I've had a very privileged life.
GONYEA: Booker T. Jones. Booker T., thank you for joining us here in the studio.
JONES: Thank you, Don. Thank you for having me.
GONYEA: Booker T. Jones. His memoir "Time Is Tight: My Life Note By Note" is out now. Thanks.
JONES: Thanks. Good talking to you, buddy.
(SOUNDBITE OF BOOKER T. AND THE MG'S "GREEN ONIONS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.