The honest truth, Booker T. Jones tells Rolling Stone, is that he never intended to write a book.
Two weeks before his 75th birthday, Jones — keyboardist, songwriter, arranger, producer, and, most famously, leader of foundational Stax Records house band Booker T. and the MG’s — is slowly getting used to adding one more title to his resume: author.
Last week, Jones released Time Is Tight, a stunningly vivid memoir of his life in music, art, and love, first in Memphis and later, California. “This was a labor for me,” he says, “because I’m a musician, not a writer.” But unlike most of his contemporaries, Jones opted not to hire a ghostwriter. When Jones read a memoir by a close friend who had recently died, he was saddened by how their voice had been entirely absent from the book. “That’s when I decided I wasn’t going to use a writer,” he says.
Jones wrote three separate drafts of Time Is Tight, the first of which was a dry, 900-page chronological account of his life, beginning with his slave ancestors. With the help of his editors, he settled on a non-linear, impressionistic narrative structured as a series of vignettes. Jones’ prose is richly evocative, never more so than when describing his musically vibrant upbringing in Memphis. “I was thinking about music, always,” he writes. “Rhythms. Symphonies.” When Jones received his first clarinet, at age nine, he remembers “the dank smell of the case, the black wood, the beautiful dark green felt that caressed each piece.”
Time Is Tight is also a relentlessly honest portrayal of Jones’ often-turbulent tenure at Stax Records that does much to dispel, or at least complicate, the myth of Stax as a harmonious cross-cultural utopia. “My band became the ‘face’ of racial harmony, literally and figuratively,” Jones writes. “That has placed an inordinate amount of pressure on me to reassure the constituencies that it was indeed the case and confirm that the conception is accurate.”
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Jones hasn’t discussed much of his somewhat controversial rendering of Stax Records’ heyday with many of the men and women who were there in the Sixties. “So many of the players are gone,” he says. Has he shared the book with Al Bell, the former head of Stax Records Al Bell who is not always portrayed in a positive light in Jones’ book?
“He’s read it,” Jones says, “but we haven’t talked.”
Last week, Jones sat down for a conversation in his publisher’s office in Manhattan to discuss his book, the myths that have long presided over Stax Records, producing Willie Nelson, and other aspects of his legendary career.
What made you want to write a book?
At first, I was writing just as practice for my songwriting. I had a songwriting book that said, “Write about what you know,” and that ended up being my life. I showed some essays to my wife, and she said, “You should turn this into a book.” So I started looking for my voice, which I didn’t find for years. I started reading other memoirs, and just reading in general: Alice Walker, Faulkner, Tolstoy, scientific books, Mario Livio’s The Golden Ratio. It was only just before this last draft came out when I found Booker T. Jones’ voice.
The sections in your book about your extensive formal musical training at Indiana University were really enlightening. Too often, soul music is portrayed exclusively as raw self-expression, as opposed to a highly practiced, structured form.
At Stax, there was an infusion of the knowledge of composition through me to my partners. The songs got some structure, I think, subconsciously, through me, through the knowledge I acquired through learning and studying music from the past: European music, African music, Eastern music, all the things that I learned at Indiana that I wouldn’t have gotten out of the air. Stax was a mix of that expression, like you said, and some structural Bach and some Mozart.
One of the great paradoxes of the book seems to be how little time you were actually spending in Memphis during the period in the early Sixties when, through your work with Booker T. and the MG’s, you became forever associated with the city.
One of the subtexts of this book is how time is elusive like that. Just a few years can mean a lot in one place, and not so much in another. I was born in Memphis, so I was in the garden, and I was around all these figures and influences and musicians, the great traditions of blues and jazz and country. That was ingrained in me and my parents and everything else. I was breathing that. It makes a big difference.
Sometimes time stretches out. The time that it took to record [Otis Redding’s] “Try a Little Tenderness,” that’s a bigger time than … Let’s not always view time as a linear element. It can have its different qualities. Someone emoting like Otis, when you’re feeling those emotions and you have a rhythm going, and you’re moving, and you’re on a boat together, that’s just completely different from real time. That’s one of the things I learned from writing about those experiences. I’m happy the book is called Time Is Tight.
Perhaps the most moving section in the whole book is where you describe walking into Stax Studios one final time before moving to California to erase the recording of your song “Ole Man Trouble” after the label’s head, Al Bell, told you he didn’t feel comfortable releasing the song.
I was just about to get on my spiritual quest: meditating, figuring out who I was, what I was. What’s going on here? What are my limitations? I wrote the song “Ole Man Trouble” [eventually recorded by Stephen Stills]. It was, “I’m not going to work on Maggie’s Farm anymore,” basically. Al Bell was leading a company that he wanted to build into a giant. That was his thing which is good. I wanted that too. I recorded this song.
I had spent a lot of their money on that song: horns, strings, session time. Al Jackson stayed up late with me recording it. It was a beautiful masterpiece. And I was singing. They didn’t want me to sing. They had a breadbasket at Stax with me and Cropper and [Duck] Dunn and Jackson: we were pretty sequestered as a house band. I thought, “Maybe something different could happen.” But in that meeting with Al, I realized it was not going to happen. When I left his house, I realized that was it. I had already met Leon Russell in California. I had seen Hollywood. I had met Billy Preston, and Billy said, “How much money are you making in Memphis? I said, “I’m making $375 a week.” He said, “I make $50,000 a year.” That kind of thing. It was California. I had breathed some of the air. So I just left. We had recorded “Time Is Tight,” and it was time. It was time. Time to meet my bigger self.
In the book, you go to lengths to complicate some of the myths that have been so firmly in place for so long about the multiracial utopia at Stax Records.
Myths that make money.
When asked about what it was like to work within Booker T. and the MG’s, a multiracial group that the rest of the world believed to be perfectly harmonious, you recently said, “There were many levels of restraint that had to be put in place.” What did you mean by that?
Constant subconscious prioritizing about what the goal is, what the purpose is. We did that for years. That’s what happens a lot. We’re speaking out in the open now, but we weren’t speaking out in the open back then. We were just working towards the higher purpose, which was making music. And the music probably ultimately did more than if we had broken it down and argued about politics or race.
Even though those arguments were very much present.
Exactly. But we were about to make “Green Onions.” So it was: “Green Onions,” or fight about race? Now that time has passed, it’s OK. It’s OK.
You wrote that the idea that there were no problems in the band started to feel like a veneer.
That’s kind of a human phenomenon. When people suggest that you’re perfect, you start to become not perfect. The very fact that they say that: “Booker T. and the MG’s are the picture of racial cooperation,” and then almost the more that started happening, the more it started to become not true. We fell into that trap. It’s almost like the pressure itself that it creates makes it fall apart.
It must have been such a complicated, difficult thing to navigate as a young person, living with this myth that “inside the studio walls of Stax, we didn’t see race.”
And it was beautiful because we got to make all the rules in there. That’s the biggest credit I give to [Stax co-founder] Jim Stewart. No matter what his opinion was, he gave us a free studio with no dictations from the outside. That was a gift to the world, and to us.
Have you ever talked publicly about some of your more complicated, troubled feelings about Stax and Booker T. and the MG’s before writing this book?
I found it hard to say, hard to elaborate on. When I had the time to sit down and put the words together, it was easier to make my thoughts accurate and give them clarity.
There’s a moment in the book where you talk about what you call “the first crack in an interracial group that seemed so tight from the outside looking in.” Al Jackson, the original drummer in the band, had gotten mad at guitarist Steve Cropper.
It was when Al Jackson said to me, “I’m gonna knock that motherfucker out” [in reference to] Cropper. Immediately, the onus was on me. Al told me, so then it became my duty to not let him do that. The dynamic changed, and there we were. And it wasn’t a racial thing; he would have said that if Cropper was black. But it was still a crack.
Do you have vivid memories from producing Willie Nelson’s Stardust in the Seventies?
I do. I remember when I first saw Willie running down the beach in Malibu. I thought, “That guy looks just like Willie Nelson.” Of course it was Willie Nelson. Later on, Willie described how he loved Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. He started talking about the songs he had sung as a boy and played in clubs after his bible-selling days. They were the same songs I had played in Memphis with Willie Mitchell and his band. Then it clicked: “Let’s do these songs.” And mainly, it was “Stardust.” The Hoagy Carmichael song. When I first played through the melody and realized Hoagy Carmichael went to Indiana, I thought, “That’s what I want to do. That’s where I want to go to school.”
Do you still have musical projects you want to accomplish? New things you want to try?
I’ve taken a few lessons on synthesizer, so I still have some synthesizer songs I want to make. I work with Malcolm Cecil a little bit, when he had Stevie Wonder’s old synthesizer that he used, TONTO. Also, I used to play records for kids when I was in high school. I’d have parties at my house. There’s a little bit of a DJ in me.