“MUSIC IS just way down deep in my soul. I can’t separate it from who I am. There is always musical activity in my mind. I always have fresh ideas and I hope it never stops. It’s a pleasure to be a musician.”
So says the legendary Booker T, leader of Booker T & The MGs, and aniconic figure in soul music. He’s coming to the Róisín Dubh for the Galway Arts Festival to play classic hits like ‘Green Onions’ as well as tracks from his acclaimed new album Potato Hole.
Booker T Jones was born in 1944 in Memphis, Tennessee, into a family that loved music. As far as he is concerned he first heard and was moved by music while still in his mother’s womb.
“My mom and dad were the first influences,” Booker T tells me over the phone from Edmonton, Canada. “My mom played classical and gospel music on the piano. She loved ‘Clare De Lune’ and Listz and my grandmother loved music. I heard music from the time I was conceived and I played melodies on the piano at home with two fingers as soon as I could reach it. Later I played a ukulele. When I was in the fourth grade my dad bought me a clarinet and later I learned the oboe and got in the school band.”
Religion and church life were also formative influences and laid the ground for Booker T’s love of playing the organ and keyboard based instruments.
“I’m a spiritual person,” he says. “I come from the South and from a church going family. I played organ in church and piano in the men’s Bible class. Religion is a grounding factor for me and it makes lots of music possible for me. It’s a great facilitator.”
Black music has always been one of the most potent and influential arts forms from the US. In the 1950s there was an explosion of black music that would lay the grounds for almost everything we understand to be pop and rock today. Chicago was producing electric blues, Motown was taking off in Detroit, while in Tennessee, Stax Records would become the home of Southern soul and r’n’b, and on it’s books were Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Albert King, Isaac Hayes, and Booker T & the MGs.
In 1960, Booker T began working at Stax as a staff musician. Together with guitarist Steve Cropper, drummer Al Jackson, Lewis Steinberg and later Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn on bass, he formed Booker T & the MGs. The band backed many of the label’s biggest stars and Booker T was there the day a soul legend was discovered.
“My first impression of Otis Redding was that he was very gentle,” he recalls. “He was the valet at Stax. He would drive people or go out and get the food. He was unassuming but one day he asked to sing a song. He sat next to me at the piano and sang ‘These Arms Of Mine’ and that changed everything.”
Booker T’s sabbatical from Stax to study musicology at Indiana University gave the late, great Isaac Hayes his big break.
“Isaac was something of a Nat ‘King’ Cole imitator at first,” says Booker T. “He was popular around town at first but didn’t do his own thing until I left to study at Indiana University and took over my place. Then he became creative and inventive. He was really unique.”
Booker T & the MGs became hot property in their own right, especially after the soul-blues instrumental ‘Green Onions’, with its irresistible groove, became a hit in 1962. When Booker T plays Galway, he knows he will not be let leave the stage without playing it. Just as well he never tires of the tune.
“At some point in the show I always play ‘Green Onions’,” he laughs. “I really like the original recording best. It was so funky! It was a B-side to ‘Behave Yourself’ and we were trying to figure out a name for it. Al Jackson said ‘Let’s call it funky onions’ and Lewis Steinberg, who played bass on the track, said to Al Jackson, ‘Let’s change it from ‘Funky Onions’ to ‘Green Onions’.”
‘Green Onions’ has been a hugely influential piece of music. It’s I - IV - IIIb - (IV ) chord progression has turned up in many other songs, notably Stevie Wonder’s ‘Higher Ground’. Why has that chord progression been so influential among other musicians?
“I think it’s all mostly esoteric,” says Booker T. “It’s 12 bars and for the human race it’s a special number. There’s 12 months in the year, 12 colours, 12 bar blues. There’s something about setting music to 12 bars that’s very special and that’s why it turned out in ‘Green Onions’ and ‘Higher Ground’.”
In the 1960s the South was still racially segregated and infested by anti-black sentiment. Stax, however, was at the vanguard of change. The company was founded by two white men, promoted and supported black artists, and in Booker T & the MGs had a racially integrated band - a full decade before Sly and The Family Stone, who are often credited with being the earliest such group.
“I guess that’s true,” says Booker T. “I never considered it. Stax Studios was located in a transitional neighbourhood. The whites were moving out and the blacks moving in. We never had to think about being a multi-racial band until we had to check into hotels or had people - both black and white - come up to us and say ‘You can’t play with those guys’.
“It turned out that we were playing mostly black clubs or mostly white clubs. Things were not as integrated as they are now and the clubs would not be as integrated until years later, but our audience was completely integrated.”
Booker T plays the Róisín Dubh on Tuesday July 21 at 8pm. For tickets contact the Festival Box Office, Merchants Road, 091 - 566577. Tickets are also available through www.galwayartsfestival.com