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Interview with Booker T

13 SEP 2011 | Posted By: SineadStubbins

Interview with Booker T

Booker T
Booker T
Booker T
Booker T and the MGs
Booker T and the MGs
Booker T and the MGs
Booker T and the MGs
Booker T and the MGs
Booker T and the MGs
Stax Records
It’s no exaggeration to say that there would be no such thing as Memphis soul without Booker T. Along with his band the MGs, Booker helped revolutionize the Southern music scene in the ‘60s playing as the house band of the famous Stax Records, with the likes of Otis Redding, Bill Withers and Wilson Pickett.

They also made some pretty iconic music in their own right, including their first mammoth hit ‘Green Onions’ when Booker was still in high school.

Fifty years later, Booker T has released a new album The Road From Memphis, on which he collaborates with The Roots, Sharon Jones, My Morning Jacket and Lou Reed just to name a few. We caught up with him ahead of his Australia wide tour this September.

Sinead Stubbins:
Hey Booker!
Booker T: Well, hey Sinead.

SS: First I want to ask you about your new album The Road from Memphis, what inspired it? Why now?
BT: It's probably one of the best albums I've made in my career, it's a return to a place that I once was years ago. I had good luck in so many areas, like working with one of the best bands in today's music scene, The Roots. They were very familiar with my style and who I was, and they're just excellent musicians. This album was done the old way with everybody in the same room, just a 360 degree return to my roots, the way I had made music in Memphis Tennessee. I got great contributions from other artists, so it’s a very cool album for me.

SS: So how did the collaboration with The Roots come about? Were you familiar with them beforehand?
BT: Not on a personal level. I had heard some of their work and I knew they existed in Philadelphia. My ears did perk up a little bit when I heard they had been hired by Jimmy Fallon for his TV show, and it turns out my good fortune had me sit in on the show and play with them in New York. It was very natural and Jimmy loved the music, so I asked them to play on my album.

SS: I can imagine they would have been pretty in awe of you, you’re pretty legendary.
BT: Well they didn’t let me know it!

SS: They were totally playing it cool.
BT: (laughs) Playing it cooool. They’re stars and as I say, so well qualified to play my style of music. There was no one else who could do it better.

SS: I can imagine that heaps of musicians would have been breaking down your door to get on this album—
BT: Awww, thank you.

SS: How did you go about choosing who you wanted?
BT: Well it came from the six months I spent writing the songs and tailoring it to people who would get it. I was very fortunate with the song for Lou Reed that he considered to do it, and he gelled on it. He was a fan and we had met very briefly in New York City...

He has a song called ‘Booker T’ doesn’t he?
BT: He does! I’ve been courting My Morning Jacket for a number of years because I love their sound. And Sharon Jones is someone who straight up reminded me of Otis Redding, because of her energy. We jammed in Brooklyn one day and she was just dynamite. She reminded me of my days in the sixties. We got the old fashioned fat sound! It was all luck.

I think you’re being pretty modest...
BT: Well I had two producers, one of them was ?uestlove, and he was just amazing. In addition to being an amazing drummer, his help with the sound and organisation of it.

SS: You say that it was important to work with musicians that “got it”, what’s “it”?
BT: Kind of what I’m about and the feeling of it. I think a lot of the fans get it, but they can’t reproduce it. This band was so unique in that they got it, and were a hip hop band. You know, it’s 2011 I can’t work with a band that was prominent in the 90’s or 80’s, I gotta have a hip hop band!

SS: You worked with your daughter Olivia on the album, what was that like?
BT: She was right in my house, right under my nose! I never knew she was interested in music; she was shy and never told me. She had a huge music collection, but I never knew she was creative until I saw her writing lyrics to a song. I asked if she’d help write vocals for the tracks, it was a big task, because I was asking her to write for Lou Reed and he doesn’t do anyone else’s lyrics! But she captured the mood of the song perfectly. Maybe there’s something in that whole DNA genes thing!

SS: For sure! There are so many bands that cite Booker T and the MGs as one of their influences—The Beatles and John Lennon in particular said he wished he had written MGs instrumental. At the time did you have any idea that you were creating something so dynamic?
BT: Absolutely not! I was feeling so lucky just to be in recording studio with the promise of being paid, to make music that I loved—I was the luckiest guy in town! (chuckles) No I never thought I would be talking about it fifty years later.

SS: You must be able to recognise your influence now, huh?
BT: I tell you what, I can remember hearing ‘Green Onions’ for the first time, on a little black radio in my room in Memphis and I thought “Ohh, that’s kinda special!”. And I still like to hear ‘Green Onions’ playing on the radio. But I didn’t know it was that special.

Back to your early days of playing at Stax Records, you were just a teenager and Memphis Soul was just sort of emerging, what was it like?
BT: I was so pushed for time, because I recorded ‘Green Onions’ when I was in 12th Grade and I had already filled out my enrolments for Indiana University. It was not even meant to be a recording session; we were just showing up as the side men for a session. All of sudden we have a record out and people like it. But I continued with my college plans. I didn’t have a lot of time for reflection. I was young and dumb, I didn’t know!

SS: Doesn’t sound like it. So apart from creating iconic music yourself, as the house band you played on famous records such as ‘Try a Little Tenderness’ with Otis Redding. Did you ever get the feeling like “whoa, this is going to be huge?”
BT: I can remember playing it and thinking “This is great! OK, OK don’t get overwhelmed, don’t mess up! Don’t play any bad notes!” I was trying to focus myself, you know? I told myself “yes this is happening, but keep your cool...” For me it was just about keeping focus and enjoying the moment, because if I’d started to think I probably would have played a bad note!

SS: Do you remember when you decided to be a musician?
BT: That’s a good question... I wanted to be a doctor, but I didn’t get great grades in chemistry and I thought “Oh maybe not”. Then when I was very young I got paid 7 dollars to play for an afternoon teas, and then I got paid 7 dollars to play at a fraternity party at a Christian Brothers school in Memphis. I had 14 dollars that week and that was a lot of money! I started buying my clothes, and I thought I would at least keep music going for that. Nah, I think I would have done it had I not been paid.

SS: So why put it all on hold and go to college?
BT: Well you see Sinead, I knew I wasn’t the musician that people thought I was. I was a pretty good faker.

SS: What do you mean?
BT: I was hearing music, symphonies in my mind at 16 that I just could not play. I knew I needed training and to figure out how to get this mind coordinated with these fingers. And that’s exactly what I got at Indiana. People thought I was much better than I was.

SS: (splutter of disbelief)
BT: It’s true! I knew I was faking. If you use sales as a comparison that’s not fair, but if you listen to the albums you can hear it grow. With ‘Try a Little Tenderness’ I had had training, so the piano part was much more sophisticated. You see what I mean?

SS: Yeah, you’ve never been complacent, you always want to learn.
BT: Exactly, right now I’m kind of excited about it all, because yeah, it’s an amazing thing to be doing with your time. It’s exciting to try and get better. Giving people something they appreciate is really nice.

SS: As a band you were also groundbreaking in being one of the first racially mixed music groups in the ‘60s...
BT: It was very unusual and much unexpected, by us and the audience, but it was the way it happened. Those were our guys and we were those guys. We just became a cross section of music, we were white and black and it was just natural. It was unnatural then though. Duck Dunne knew more about soul music then any African American I’d ever talked to, he knew every James Brown record. There he was with red hair going to a Memphis high school. It was very natural.

SS: Why did you end the relationship with Stax in the ‘70s?
BT: I actually walked out, it was very sad. I didn’t want to but there were circumstances beyond my control, the business took over and we weren’t about business when we started. We wanted to sell records, but it wasn’t my primary goal. It was the case of business getting in the way of art. I was 24 years old and I was too young to sign contracts and be sequestered like that. I wanted to play jazz, I wanted to play country, gospel, I wanted to do things I couldn’t do in Memphis. So I got on a plane and left.

SS: Business getting in the way of art is still a problem.
BT: Yes, because the very thing that’s keeping us alive is killing us. The internet is the best thing that could have happened to music, but it killed the old business model. You have access, but there’s no way to finance new young bands and record companies don’t have the money to do what they did with me, giving me a weekly salary to live. Life throws you curveballs like that.

SS: How do you feel about sampling? Recently Jay-Z and Kanye West used a sizable portion of ‘Try a Little Tenderness’ on a song.
BT: It’s bringing my music to a new generation. That part of the business is still legitimate, they pay and we were included in the royalties. It’s fair and it’s also been a tribute that they wanted to use the music, it’s flattering.

SS: You’ve won three Grammys, and are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, do awards motivate you?
BT: I would be doing the same thing had I not one the awards, but I feel really gratified that I’ve been recognised, it’s a good nice warm feeling. It makes me feel like I have a place here.
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