Night & Day — Few living musicians are as revered as the legendary Booker T. Jones. Born in Memphis, he was one of the pioneers of Stax records, starting as a session musician and later releasing one of the record labels signature hits, “Green Onions,” with his band Booker T & the M.G’s.
Booker T is a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee and the recipient of a Grammy Award for lifetime achievement.
He comes to town Friday night at the Seneca Niagara Casino’s Bears Den for an 8 p.m. performance.
In anticipation of that show, I had the honor of interviewing Booker T by phone about his extraordinary career. The first question I asked him was about his time at Stax studios and how it compares to modern era recording.
“I was fortunate enough to become involved in one of the first studio families. Because of electronics, you can now have sessions with people from all over. It definitely changes the social aspect of recording music.”
Many of his sessions were legendary, including recording the song “(Sittin’ On) the Dock of the Bay,” by Otis Redding.
“There is no way you can forget that one. My role as keyboardist was to stay focused and not get too carried away in the emotion of the song. I do have a vivid memory of that session.”
Redding died in a plane crash at the age of 26, right before the song became a hit. It was a personal and professional loss for Booker T.
“We were a lot alike; we were good friends and hung out a lot. The greatest loss was as a songwriter but he did do great on cover songs. The songs he wrote were incredible like “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” which he wrote with Jerry Butler and “Respect” (a song that Aretha Franklin later covered). I appreciate having known him.”
Last year, Booker T. lost another friend, longtime bass player for Booker T & the M.G’s Donald “Duck” Dunn.
“He had such a great work ethic. The way he and Steve (Cropper) approached the instrument with such love was incredible. He was an authority when it came to rhythm and blues.”
While he is probably best known for the instrumental song “Green Onions,” Booker T also co-wrote one of the most famous blues songs of all time, “Born Under a Bad Sign,” which has been covered by Cream, Buddy Guy, Jimi Hendrix, and Paul Rodgers.
“My favorite version is Albert King doing it, he really made it come alive. We had a sketch of the song and he really made it his own. He was like Nat King Cole of the blues, with that amazing guitar sound. He played guitar like Hendrix, upside down and on the left side of the body. Most guitarists push down on the strings and he could pull on them.”
We wrapped up our conversation discussing the origins of “Green Onions,” an accidental hit that was intended as the B-side of the song “Behave Yourself.”
“I was actually trying to make up an interesting progression of chords. I was taking music theory in high school. It was my first year of theory I had learned about the I IV V chord progression and began experimenting with it and I came up with the combination. It’s a basic blues rhythm.”
There have been many versions as to where the name of the song originated, but Booker T says it’s pretty simple.
“It came from the bass player, Lewie Steinberg, he said, ‘man that is funky, funky like funky onions.’ Then (drummer) Al Jackson’s sister said you couldn’t call it funky onions and said we should call it ‘Green Onions.’ “Thom Jennings covers the local music scene for Night and Day.