Back in the 1980s, living in California, Booker T Jones was having so much trouble getting work as a musician that he and his wife took classes to become real-estate agents. Booker T Jones. That one. The one from Booker T and the MGs. The one who produced Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine” and Willie Nelson’s Stardust. Whose Hammond B3 was a signature sound of ’60s R&B. Whose simple little 12-bar riff, titled “Green Onions”, still stands, 57 years later, as one of popular music’s moments of absolute perfection.
The tale about the real estate business is one of the surprises in Time Is Tight: My Life in Music, a new autobiography in which Booker T takes us on a pretty extraordinary journey. He tells the story — without the aid of a ghostwriter — in short chapters, sometimes shuffling the time sequence in a way that suggests he might have taken Bob Dylan’s Chronicles Vol 1 as an example. The mosaic effect is never intrusive: it works on the level of a man musing about his past and making connections that skip back and forth across time.
There’s an evocative portrait of his childhood as a multi-instrumental prodigy in Memphis, which included playing piano with Mahalia Jackson in church at the age of 12, making his first session at Stax Records on baritone saxophone behind Carla Thomas at 16 and playing organ behind William Bell on “You Don’t Miss Your Water” at 17. “Green Onions” arrived when he was 18, propelling him and his three fellow band members — Steve Cropper, Lewie Steinberg and Al Jackson Jr — to national prominence. But by then he could not be deflected from his plan to study music at the University of Indiana, which meant a 400-mile round trip to play sessions at weekends. It also put a dent in whatever touring plans the MGs might have had.
Tensions between Jones and the other band members simmer throughout the narrative, reaching one or two flashpoints as they go through various reunions and re-estrangements over the decades. The author seems to shy away from providing his deepest thoughts on his colleagues (including Duck Dunn, brought in by Cropper to replace Steinberg in 1964), and he provides no new information on the mysterious 1975 murder of Jackson, to whom he was close. There is a telling moment when, after spending a joyful time in Paris meeting beautiful women and writing the soundtrack to Jules Dassin’s 1968 movie Uptight, he re-records the theme tune, “Time Is Tight”, with the MGs for a single release. When it comes out, he discovers — “much to my dismay” — that the names of the other three have been added to the composer credits, as if this were just another session.
Jones has an enquiring mind and seemed to work out very early on that the deck was stacked against musicians when it came to royalties and song-publishing. He was on a salary at Stax, which paid minute royalties for the recordings and took complete ownership of his (very valuable) publishing rights. When the label was sold to the Gulf & Western corporation in 1969, prefacing its eventual collapse, he took it as his cue to move to Los Angeles, where he encountered a very different crowd from the one he had known in Memphis.
Before long he was befriending Leon Russell, playing bass-guitar on Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” and living with Priscilla Coolidge, the sister of Rita, whose solo hits he produced. The nightmare of his eventual 10-year marriage to the hard-partying, wrist-slashing Priscilla is recounted in detail, balanced by the subsequent description of his blissful family life with Nan Warhurst, who became his third wife in 1985 (and gave her name to a track on Potato Hole, his great instrumental album of 2009).
There are some passages of effective prose: “The hills of Malibu could be every bit as lonely as a cell-like room in Manhattan. At night, the hills became quiet and seemed to close in so tight on you that you’d swear you were going crazy. Just like the noise in New York. Especially if you were alone, or with the wrong person.” Perhaps the most dramatic moment of the whole book comes when Nan’s mother corners him at their wedding to tell him how disappointed she is that her daughter has married across the line of colour: “The unthinkable had happened in her family and she stood shaking, glaring into my eyes. No one noticed or knew what was going on.” If the last few pages contain sentimental passages on how well his kids have turned out, we can cut him some slack there.
As well as the absorbing descriptions of working with Nelson, Otis Redding, Neil Young and many others, and of playing for the Obamas at the White House, long-term admirers will enjoy the analysis of how a few of the MGs’ best known pieces were created, particularly in terms of their chord structures. Anyone who is currently listening to the recently released first volume of their collected singles and B-sides will find their enjoyment enhanced by reading his accounts of the making of “Green Onions” (its voicing inspired, it turns out, by Booker’s early lessons in Bachian counterpoint), “Soul Dressing”, “Booker-Loo” and others, including Albert King’s “Born Under a Bad Sign” and Eddie Floyd’s extraordinary “Big Bird” (“We had moved into the Age of Aquarius”), as well as by that of later pieces such as “Hang ’em High” and “Melting Pot”.
Booker T Jones is one of my musical heroes, and an hour spent in his company in 2009, for a Guardian interview, left me with the impression of a deeply thoughtful and naturally open-minded man. His autobiography tells me a great deal I didn’t know and makes me respect him even more.
* Booker T Jones’s Time Is Tight: My Life in Music is published in the USA by Little, Brown and in the UK by Omnibus Press. The Complete Stax Singles Vol 1 (1962-67) is out now on the Stax/Real Gone label.