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Booker T: My Music Should Be The Soundtrack To Your Life


I'm Celeste Headlee and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. If you were to paint a picture of today's contemporary music styles, it might be saturated with synthesizers and samplers that make up a, well, a very contemporary sound, very 21st-century. But there are a few musicians out there achieving the sound of today, but with the instruments of yesterday.


HEADLEE: That song is called "Feel Good," and it does make you feel good with that groove. And the distinctive growl you're hearing is the Hammond B3 organ, played by the GRAMMY Award-winning musician Booker T. You might remember him as the leader of Booker T. & the M.G.'s. They were the house band at Stax Records in the 1960s. They backed up Bill Withers and Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett and many, many others.

But they had a number of hits in their own right, like "Green Onions," "Time is Tight." Booker T. has been a solo act for a while now. But on his new album, he returns to Stax Records and some of the soul music that he helped define. The new album is called "Sound the Alarm." And here to tell us more about it, the legendary Hammond B3 master himself, Booker T. Welcome.

BOOKER T. JONES: Well, thank you. Thank you.

HEADLEE: Let's talk first about this return to Stax Records. Isaac Hayes, Otis Redding - as I mentioned, you left there years ago. What does it mean for you to be back recording, in some ways, many of the same types of music you began with?

JONES: Well, the company exists as a home for me that was there when I was very young, 13, 14 years old. There was a song called, "You Don't Miss Your Water (Til Your Well Runs Dry)," by William Bell, and I was a 10th grader. And it was the first time I played organ in a recording studio. And previously, I had played baritone sax for Rufus Thomas and Carla Thomas on a song called "'Cause I Love You."

And leaving the studio, I told him, you know, I can play keyboards also. So they called me back, and yes, I got to play that. At that age, it was then called Satellite Records and the label was Volt. It became Stax later.

HEADLEE: So between then and now, at the time, it was pretty revolutionary. You were the only one that was, kind of, playing the Hammond B3 in rock music as opposed to jazz.

Now you yourself have helped define decades upon decades of us being used to hearing this sound in rock music. So when you return to Stax Records, you're playing your instrument, I guess, in a different way, perhaps?

JONES: Oh, no, very much the same way. I still do the same scales. I still use the same settings as I did then. It's an instrument that hasn't changed in all these years. They just stopped making it in 1974. But I try to get new sounds out of it, of course, but it's very much the same, completely the same.

HEADLEE: Well, let's jump into the music now. This new album, again, called "Sound the Alarm," is a real blend of some different eras. This is one that kind of demonstrates the abilities, the versatility of the Hammond B3 organ. It's "Can't Wait," and it features British singer Estelle on the vocals.


ESTELLE: (Singing) It's a lovely feeling, can't be defeated today. Got my head up high, feeling fine. It's going to go my way. I can't wait to feel the sunshine, share this smile, wave hello, maybe lay low in the park for a while. Will you share with me? Celebrate life today. Hope you'll do the same. Will you share with me? Celebrate life today, 'cause I can't wait. I can't wait. Can't wait. Can't wait.

HEADLEE: So how did you arrive - what a different sound from coming from the organ on that than, say, the track we heard before, "Feel Good." How did you arrive at that sort of floaty, ethereal sound?

JONES: That sound I first used with Booker T. & the M.G.'s when we were recording in New York City. And we were making an album called "Melting Pot," and it's a technique of turning the echo on the organ up and starting the note at the volume pedal at zero and then moving the volume pedal all the way up to full.

And all you hear is the echo of the sound. You don't actually hear the organ playing it. You just hear what the echo, you just hear the remainder of the song.


ESTELLE: (Singing) Will you share with me? Celebrate life today, 'cause I can't wait. I can't, I can't wait. Can't wait. Can't wait. I can't wait. I, I can't wait. Can't wait. I can't wait. Can't wait. It's a new day. It's a new day. It's a new day.

HEADLEE: What is it about contemporary music that you wanted to embrace, and what are some of the things that are happening in music today that you do not want to participate in?

JONES: Well, you know, I like to think of what's happening with Stax Records and this new album that I just did, "Sound the Alarm," as a continuation of what Stax started in the '60s.

HEADLEE: With soul music?

JONES: Yeah, it was soul music. And, you know, there's been so much history in between. And I think if Stax had been allowed to continue without the interruptions that it had with disco and with hip-hop, that this music that we're hearing now is what would have come about, actually.

HEADLEE: Well, there is a little bit of everything on this album. There's not a bad track on it.

JONES: Oh, thank you.

HEADLEE: The next song I want to talk about is a duet called "Watch You Sleeping." And it actually has you singing, and it's along with Kori Withers, the daughter of the iconic singer Bill Withers, whom you played for back in the 1960s. Let's take a listen.


BOOKER T. JONES AND KORI WITHERS: (Singing) I love to watch you sleeping. I never want to wake you up. I love to watch you sleeping. I never want to wake you up.

KORI WITHERS: (Singing) Your little baby face and the sounds you make, something only I get to see.

JONES: (Singing) And I don't know what you dream about, but I like to think you dream about me.

HEADLEE: So you produced Bill Withers debut album back in the early '70s. Here you're doing this, a duet with his daughter, Kori. Did you talk with Bill before you did the duet?

JONES: Definitely. That is Bill's prize there that I have in the studio. He's my friend, and I don't know if he would've trusted her with anybody else.


JONES: But she's a beautiful girl and absolutely great singer.


JONES AND WITHERS: (Singing) I never want to wake you up. I love to watch you sleeping. I never want to wake you up.

WITHERS: (Singing) But what I really love to do most of all is when the sun goes down at night.

HEADLEE: Do you sing in your head while you're playing?

JONES: I sometimes do that. When I guide myself on the organ, I sing to myself, and sometimes I actually open my mouth and let it come through the microphone. I do, yeah. That's a great question, Celeste. Thank you.

HEADLEE: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with the GRAMMY Award-winning Booker T. about his new album, "Sound the Alarm." You know, I very much quickly mentioned that you helped define soul music. I don't think we can really express how true that is.

You have had a decades-long career while you have backed up people who've come and gone, quickly, over a matter of years. How did you maintain your position, your career, in an industry that's so changeable?

JONES: Oh, that's been a difficult task, actually. The industry changed so much businesswise, and I ended up trying to reeducate myself. About 10, 12 years ago, I actually went to San Francisco State University and enrolled in their digital audio class, because I was behind, you know, I was an analog guy.

I recorded the old way and found myself in studios with accomplished people, and I didn't know was going on. So I had to kind of reinvent myself.

HEADLEE: Was - I mean, there's many musicians of the old school who have really avoided that transition, who have been not happy about offering their music on iTunes or transferring to MP3s. What's your attitude toward that?

JONES: Well, my attitude is I'm happy to be doing it, you know. And I've been able to make a living doing it for a long time. So I'm OK with giving away what I do for free. But I'm fortunate to get paid for it, also. It seems like it's reciprocal. And I'm just happy to be making music and enjoying myself.

HEADLEE: Let's talk about another song on the album called "Your Love is No Love." This is my favorite track on it. To me, this song really harkens back to the best of soul music at Stax Records. It captured it in a way that just very few tracks do. Let's take a listen.


TY TAYLOR: (Singing) Do you ever rise early morning, and the sun lights the tears on your face, and you wonder how you wound up down under? The high from the smile of yesterday. So if you don't want me, why don't you leave me? If you won't have me, why receive me? I know I was gone, but I can't find the road. I have some sympathy. You, you, you, you tear me in two, you do. I'm facing the truth, the truth. 'Cause your love is no love for me.

HEADLEE: Tell me your secret, Booker T., how - you know, there're many people who dabble in soul music. There's many times when soul music gets mixed in with R&B and with hip-hop nowadays. But that's a real soul track.

JONES: Mm-hmm.

HEADLEE: How do you get that?

JONES: Well, my path has guided me to people like those people, those people being Vintage Trouble, that being Ty Taylor and his band. I heard them, they opened up for Joss Stone one night, and I heard them. And we ended up going to the studio. And we did that, Celeste, the old way. We just walked into a studio, six o'clock at night, and sat down and wrote that song.

And at two o'clock in the morning, we were playing that song. And that was done the old way, with everybody contributing and just coming up with the feeling and hit and miss, hit and miss, try this, try that. And that, you know, is a song that was done like the songs that I worked with Otis Redding or Eddie Floyd back at Stax. But it comes from the soul. It comes from the heart. And it's telling a story that we all can relate to.


TAYLOR: (Singing) 'Cause your love is no love. You, you, you, you tear me in two, you do. I'm facing the truth, the truth. 'Cause your love is no love for me.

HEADLEE: Well, we don't have time to mention everyone who helped out on this album. But you have singers like Anthony Hamilton and Mayer Hawthorne. You even had the help of producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, who are best known, I think, for their work with Janet Jackson and Usher.

Is it more complicated when you bring a village in to work on an album? Is it easier if you limit the number of people, or is it easier when you bring in a lot of participants?

JONES: Well, in this case, everybody was so specifically right for the job they did. So this was a perfect mixture for me. I wanted to record songs that come from back in the day, and I wanted to have extremely new, experimental, innovative songs. So it took a group of people to do that.

HEADLEE: And you have a balance of very seasoned musicians, with artists who are kind of up-and-coming. And one of those is guitarist Gary Clark, Jr. And he plays with you on a track called "Austin City Blues." Let's take a listen.


HEADLEE: I assume it's some of that twang that makes that "Austin City Blues" instead of Memphis city blues. But what is it in his playing that you heard and liked?

JONES: He digs deep. He just digs deep. I don't know how else to say it. And he's a young man, but he does it the way the original guys did it.


HEADLEE: What do you hope people take away from this album? This is a real difference from the album that you did, say, with The Roots just a few years ago. What are you hoping people take from this one?

JONES: I want them to have something they can live with, something they can go to and get their mind off of whatever, if there's anything bothering them, something they can relax with. And music is for people to feel good, to make you comfortable, to make you happier in your own skin, you know, whether you're driving, whether you're sleeping, whether you're cooking, whether you're just relaxing, I just hope it becomes a companion.

HEADLEE: And can I ask you just a curiosity question? How many organs do you own?

JONES: Oh, I have reduced that down to two.

HEADLEE: How many did you own at your height?

JONES: I, well, maybe four to five. They were all different. Each one's different. Now I rent a lot. But I have a digital organ, and I have a Hammond B3. Before that, I had a Hammond M3, which was a small spinet organ, and I gave that to the Stax Museum in Memphis. It's there.

HEADLEE: But you saved one Hammond B3. Why that one?

JONES: I have to have one close to me, in my house.

HEADLEE: But, I mean, that particular instrument. Why'd you keep that one?

JONES: Oh, they're all different. They're not like people, but they all have different - they sound different. They have different characteristics. They respond differently. And this was just one I happened to find in the valley in Los Angeles, and it's just, I don't know, it's just my organ.

HEADLEE: I assume it doesn't go on tour with you, though?

JONES: No, no, it doesn't travel. They don't travel well.

HEADLEE: So the only way we would be able to hear you hearing your personal Hammond B3 is at your house?

JONES: That's true. That's correct.

HEADLEE: I'm going to think about that. That's going to make me smile for the rest of the day.


HEADLEE: Booker T. Jones is a GRAMMY Award-winning instrumentalist and is best known for his work on the Hammond B3 organ. His new album is called "Sound the Alarm." It's available now. He joined us from NPR West in Culver City, California. Booker T., such an honor. Thank you so much.

JONES: Well, thank you for having me. It was great talking to you.


HEADLEE: And that's our program for today. I'm Celeste Headlee, and this is TELL ME MORE for NPR News. We'll talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.