Booker T. Jones — of Booker T. and the MG's fame — feels lucky to have been born in Memphis. His new album, The Road From Memphis, explains why. Though he left the city more than 40 years ago, Jones has never pulled up his roots. In fact, by happy coincidence, it is the Roots (house band for Late Night With Jimmy Fallon) who accompany him on the record.
Booker T.'s road from Memphis has taken him from Beale Street, where he worked in jazz and R&B clubs beginning at the astonishing age of 13, all the way to Hollywood.
Along the way, he played on countless hits by the likes of Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding and Eddie Floyd as leader of Stax Records' house band. There, he developed the compelling B3 Hammond organ vamps that brought to life classic Booker T. and the MG's hits like "Green Onions" and "Time Is Tight."
But it took four decades away from Tennessee before he felt the time was right for a tribute to the hometown he still visits for occasional family reunions. He's also returned for concerts, one of which featured the students of the Stax Music Academy, a school for talented young musicians in the rough Memphis neighborhood where he grew up. That neighborhood, in recognition of Booker T. and his colleagues at Stax' R&B hit factory, is now often called "Soulsville."
"Memphis has come into its own," Jones says over the phone from his home in Los Angeles. "But the Memphians I knew when I was there always put themselves and the city down in comparison to Nashville, Atlanta and New Orleans. But Memphis made a huge contribution to music. I'm 67 years old this year, and I'm just now realizing how fortunate I am to have been born in Memphis."
The city comes to life most vibrantly on the album in "Down in Memphis," which features a rare Booker T. vocal performance. The song contains references to Rufus Thomas, the soul singer and TV comedian who provided Jones with his first Stax gig.