Rock and Roll Book Club: Booker T. Jones's 'Time is Tight: My Life, Note by Note'

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Booker T. Jones's memoir 'Time is Tight.'
Booker T. Jones's memoir 'Time is Tight: My Life, Note by Note.' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

"In the studio, Lou Reed and Biz Markie were different as night and day."

There is one man who could have that line in his memoir, and that man is Booker T. Jones. Best known as keyboardist in Booker T. and the MGs, the multi-instrumentalist has been a force behind decades of popular music. He was an integral member of the Stax musical family, he was the producer behind Willie Nelson's Stardust, he even plays on Soul Asylum's "Runaway Train." (Grave Dancers Union, he says, is one of his favorite albums ever. Dave Pirner was a gem to work with.) He's done so much, for so long, that he's glad when audiences ask for "Green Onions." It means they remember his early stuff.

It was, indeed, early. In Time is Tight (buy now), Jones remembers that "Green Onions" was climbing the charts in 1962, as he was busy playing in the college band at Indiana University. He commuted back and forth from Memphis, where the MGs cut an album to capitalize on the single's success, but Jones refused to drop out of school for the touring life. "I didn't want anything to interfere with my obtaining a music education and a college degree like my parents and grandfather wanted," he writes.

That music education was on top of the expertise the young Jones had already amassed; his genius combines a deeply felt sense of groove and rhythm with an incredibly sophisticated intellectual appreciation of the math behind the music. There are passages of Time is Tight that non-musicians will have to skim, simply because Jones isn't afraid to get technical — including in his description of how "Green Onions" came to be.

Jones, drummer Al Jackson Jr., guitarist Steve Cropper, and founding MGs bassist Lewie Steinberg (later replaced by Donald "Duck" Dunn) found themselves with an afternoon's worth of Stax studio time after wrapping up a session with ex-Sun rockabilly artist Billy Lee Riley. On a Hammond M-3 organ (a cheaper version of the B-3, which was then too pricey for Stax to afford), Jones experimented with applying Baroque counterpoint rules to a 12-bar blues progression. The band fell in behind him, and history was made.

Steinberg cried, "That's so funky it smells like onions!" Stax co-founder Estelle Axton thought "Green Onions" would be a bit more marketable. Jackson looked out the window at a British Leyland MG belonging to Stax producer Chips Moman and coined the new group's name on the spot.

The "Booker T." name came from the musician's father, Booker T. Jones Sr., a science teacher who was himself named in honor of educator Booker T. Washington. For Jones's biography, it's best to do a little homework before diving into the memoir. It's titled Time is Tight, after a composition Jones recorded for the score of the 1968 drama Uptight (look up the track, available on the book's companion album Note By Note). Time is anything but tight in the book itself, though: Jones jumps across decades in sections sometimes as brief as a page, proceeding in roughly chronological order but organizing his chapters thematically.

(If you're musically inclined, you can play along with Time is Tight: Jones has written brief instrumental passages that appear in the back of the book, with a numerical key to tell you when to play each passage.)

There are chapters on Jones's early years in Memphis, finding music everywhere he could. He remembers hot summer days on Beale Street in the early '50s, with white police officers casually walking into black eateries and going behind the counters to make and take whatever food they wanted. His early bandmates included Maurice White (later of Earth, Wind & Fire), and he was sitting in with professional bands when he was still delivering newspapers.

It was a no-brainer that he'd become a regular at Satellite Records, which would later become Stax. He played sax on the label's first hit, "Cause I Love You" by Carla and Rufus Thomas. Even after the MGs became breakout stars in their own right, he continued to play with other acts on the label; that's him playing piano on Otis Redding's epochal "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay," and if you name another Stax cut you love, there's a good chance Jones played on it, helped to arrange it, and possibly even co-wrote it.

Jones is trenchant about his experiences in the largely segregated music industry. The fact that Stax was a crucial melting pot for white and black musicians to play together didn't magically erase the sometimes brutal realities of life in the United States for a black man in the 20th century. Booker T. and the MGs were one of the era's best-known integrated bands, and Jones writes that he's often asked to speak to that experience — often by interlocutors who clearly hope he'll rhapsodize about how music brought the band together.

In the book, Jones reflects that's true insofar as touring and recording did create a camaraderie, and insofar as the results on record were undeniable, but he also notes that the era's racial divisions played out within the Stax walls and within his band. His relationship with Cropper, in particular, has been sometimes fraught.

The guitarist's ego earned him plenty of enemies, and while Jones sometimes played peacemaker between Jackson and Cropper, the keyboardist wasn't too inclined to cut Cropper a break when the white man gave an interview after MLK's death saying that "the black people were perfectly happy with what was going on in Memphis" until King showed up and "set it off for the world, basically. What a shame."

This from the only member of Booker T. and the MGs who was allowed to participate in the band's music publishing — and conveniently didn't mention that to his bandmates. Meanwhile, Jones was getting death threats. Even as late as Bill Clinton's inaugural ball in 1993, Cropper had the temerity to tell a reporter, "If there had never been a Steve Cropper, there never would have been a Booker T."

If you only know Booker T. from the Stax era, though, you'll learn a lot from Time is Tight. Seemingly every major musician of the rock era shows up somewhere in these pages. Jones played bass on Bob Dylan's Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, and ended up being the guy behind the keyboard as Sinéad O'Connor stood frozen on the Madison Square Garden stage for Dylan's 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration. (Generous to a fault, Jones blames himself for pushing O'Connor too hard and upsetting her.)

He played on the 1976 version of A Star is Born, and remembers Kris Kristofferson laughing at the outsize royalty check the lead actor received. (Jones suggested Kristofferson upgrade from his rented Chevy Impala, but to no avail.) He hung out in the Laurel Canyon scene and recorded with Stephen Stills. He's producing Serpentine Fire, the forthcoming solo debut from Matt Berninger of The National.

Is there anything Booker T. Jones can't do? Maybe not build a geodesic dome home — though we'll never know, because the one he designed for his California property didn't meet the local building code. (He opted for a more traditional structure, but still built it himself.) Along the line he had two tumultuous marriages (including one to singer Priscilla Coolidge) before finding lasting love with his current wife Nan.

Jones has been duly honored for his contributions: he's in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he earned a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and he reserves a special place of honor for a trophy given to him by members of the Memphis school bands after "Green Onions" became a hit. When Jones played a blues showcase in Washington, then President Barack Obama requested "Green Onions" instead of "Hail to the Chief" as his entrance music.

In honor of Black History Month, it seems apt to close with Jones's own words on his African-American experience.

Thank God, thank God, for my brown, African American skin and all that came with it. How can I tell you the pride I feel — the good fortune to come from the place I do? And as a result, to be who I am. All the oppression, the racial prejudice, the inequalities and inequities, the lack of privilege and opportunity — the lashes my forebears endured on their backs, the rapes my grandmothers endured, even the fears my children suppressed, don't dampen the feeling of privilege I harbor as a person of my race.

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Upcoming Rock and Roll Book Club picks

Tune in to The Current at 8:30 a.m. (Central) every Wednesday morning to hear Jay Gabler and Jill Riley talk about a new book. Also, find Jay's reviews online.

Feb. 19: London, Reign Over Me: How England's Capital Built Classic Rock by Stephen Tow (buy now)

Feb. 26: God Save the Queens: The Essential History of Women in Hip-Hop by Kathy Iandoli (buy now)

March 4: Closing Time: Saloons, Taverns, Dives, and Watering Holes of the Twin Cities by Bill Lindeke and Andy Sturdevant (buy now)

March 11: Cool Town: How Athens, Georgia Launched Alternative Music and Changed American Culture by Grace Elizabeth Hale (buy now)

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