It would be difficult to overstate the significance of Booker T. Jones in American music — and not just the Memphis soul he helped birth and popularize in the 1960s while fronting Booker T. & the M.G.’s, the Stax Records house band that can be heard on timeless recordings by Otis Redding, William Bell, Albert King, Carla Thomas, and Sam & Dave. After relocating to LA in 1969, Jones produced Bill Withers’ sublime 1971 debut “Just as I Am” and, in 1978, Willie Nelson’s landmark album “Stardust.” He’s remained a ubiquitous arranger, producer and multi-instrumental sideman for other artists while releasing numerous solo recordings; Ginger Baker (“a large ball of hair”), Blind Boys of Alabama, Drive-By Truckers, Bob Dylan, Tish Hinojosa, Quincy Jones, Kris Kristofferson, Sinead O’Connor, Leon Russell, Carlos Santana and Neil Young are among the genre-spanning artists animating his memories.
Booker T. & the M.G.’s were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992, and honored with a Grammy Award for lifetime achievement in 2007. Those career highlights are included in Jones’ new memoir, “Time is Tight: My Life, Note By Note,” which he’s discussing Tuesday at the Bootleg Theater in. But the meat of the book is in his discourse about music’s connective and often spiritual force, and the ways in which his relationship with music informed, overwhelmed, healed, and eventually found harmony with his personal relationships.
“Time is Tight” is structured like a musical stream of consciousness because, Jones writes, he wanted readers to understand time’s fluidity, “not only from the early beginnings to now but jumping forward and circling back when moments were joined more by truth than minutes. It’s a song that returns again and again to choruses that are different and somehow the same.” He closes with five pages of musical phrases composed to represent the feelings of various scenes, “note by note.”
It’s a true musician’s approach to storytelling—setting out a theme, pushing it forward, rephrasing. The absence of strictly linear progression presents little impediment; Jones datelines each “note” with a year and location.
Reconstruction of songwriting and recording sessions will likely gratify musicians as well as fans, particularly when Jones shows how academic dedication yielded commercial gold in the studio. “Green Onions,” the signature tune of Booker T. & the M.G.’s, was the funky result of Jones applying contrapuntal rules of baroque classical music learned in high school music theory to a 12-bar blues pattern. He was 17 and starting out at Indiana University Music School when it topped the charts in 1962; he’d already been playing nightclubs for three years. Jones similarly digs into studio jams that became “Hip Hug-Her” and “Time is Tight,” and his thought processes while reworking songs for peers (“B-A-B-Y” for Stax labelmate Carla Thomas; “Don’t Think Twice” for Eric Clapton at a 1992 Bob Dylan tribute).
Historical context adds grit and shadow to surface glamour. Jones’ work ethic and frequently expressed gratitude rise from his childhood in Jim Crow-era Memphis. (“Growing up black in the Deep South ensures your awareness of your inequality. What you cannot do, who you cannot be, how successful you cannot become.”) He hauntingly recalls his wariness at age 11 accompanying his mother on a Greyhound to LA, shortly after the bus line was desegregated:
“We took our seats, a little forward on the right side, and I turned, standing up on my knees, craning to discern some reaction from the other passengers about our choice of seats. … I glanced at the back bench, expecting to see black faces. On most of the ride, I was unsettled, anxious, and out of place—as if I were sitting in the wrong class.”
He also conveys a sense of wonder about his first time hearing the Staple Singers as he delivered newspapers, and his first professional gig, at age 11, accompanying a “church lady” who turned out to be “commanding, soulful” gospel legend Mahalia Jackson: “Beads of sweat poured from her forehead, and I caught a whiff of the familiar combination of perfume, perspiration, and soiled percale. … [Afterward], I sat motionless at the piano, unsure what to do, like an orphan who had found a home. My hand had been taken.”
Jones forthrightly acknowledges “dependencies” on music and women throughout his early career; drama crowds out love in his marriages to Willette “Gigi” Armstrong and Priscilla Coolidge. He’s more lighthearted when reminiscing about meeting third and current wife Nan at his manager’s house in Glendale (they married in 1985), and of how his “love of fast cars came in handy” as he “whipped down the 118 to Verdugo Hills Hospital” the morning daughter Olivia was born — one of several consequential drives recounted, and arguably the happiest.
“Before the age of nine, I told myself, ‘Life was meant to be lived in the key of C.’ It was the simplest, least complex key. It had no sharps or flats and was beautiful and pleasing to the ear. The flute, the oboe, the piano, the guitar, and the trombone were all created in C, and I believed that C was the natural key for the earth, humans, and the universe at large.”
But other instruments transpose to different keys, and life is unavoidably complex. How he navigates that complexity with commitment to musical and community values makes this a more thoughtful than usual artist bio.
An Evening With Booker T. Jones discussing “Time is Tight: My Life, Note by Note” at the Bootleg Theatre, 2220 Beverly, LA, at 8 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 5; $20-$55. Tickets available at eventbrite.com/e/an-evening-with-booker-t-jones-tickets-69576263477. Bookert.com, livetalksla.org