“Back in 1962, we were breaking the law in a big way just by playing music together in Memphis,” storied songwriter Booker T. Jones recalled. “And while it was OK to break the law if you’re in the right place, like at Stax, in general, it was never OK.”
Sixty-two was the year Jones’ interracial band — Booker T. & the M.G.s — scored a number three hit with the instrumental track “Green Onions.” Stax Records was the legendary soul music label that released their debut single. Throughout the ’60s, the group also served as the independent label’s house band, playing on dozens of stone-cold classics, backing Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Wilson Pickett, Rufus Thomas and other major R&B artists.
Together, they changed the direction of popular music with a sound that was funkier and grittier than Motown, its more polished competitor to the north. Stax also broke down racial barriers with its integrated team of songwriters, musicians and staff who worked together during a time when Jim Crow laws still maintained a strong grip on the American South.
Stax was based out of a defunct cinema at 926 East McLemore Avenue in South Memphis, which contained a record store at the front of the house and the company’s studios further back.
“The Satellite Record Shop was in the concessions area at the old theater, and there was a rack of records that people could browse through,” Jones recalled. “The salesperson would play records that customers requested, which is how I heard so many influential songs, and the two clerks were Estelle Axton and Steve Cropper.”
Stax co-owner Axton — who was white, like Cropper — was well-aware that her record label was flouting segregation laws, so she didn’t think twice about hiring a Black teenager for the house band.
“I got the job at Stax in 10th grade,” Jones told me. “I played piano and Hammond organ there, so it became a regular job for me every afternoon after school, and weekends.”
Jones started out on reed instruments at age 7, when he taught himself how to play his neighbor’s oboe. The following year his father bought him a clarinet, which paved the way for him to play alto, tenor and baritone saxophones. Eventually, piano became Jones’ primary instrument, which led to him playing the organ during his church’s Bible class for men on Sunday mornings.
Although Jones is best known for his skills on the Hammond B3 organ, his first gig as a session musician involved playing the baritone sax on Carla and Rufus Thomas’ “Cause I Love You” in 1960. He had befriended Stax staff songwriter David Porter, a senior at Jones’ high school who had heard they needed someone to play on the track.
Jones still vividly remembers the day that Porter showed up at the doorway of his algebra class with a wide-eyed look on his face. Within minutes they were cruising to the recording session in a car borrowed from the school’s band director.
Jones attended Booker T. Washington High School — which, like himself and his father, was named in honor of the famed African-American community leader — and education was a pillar of family life. Booker T. Jones Sr. was a high school math and science teacher who had a former student, Floyd Newman, who introduced Jones Jr. to the Memphis music scene.
“Floyd was the only guy that my dad would trust to take me to the clubs,” Jones said of the late, great Newman, “and he did that for years. I met him at my high school, where he was working as a teacher at the time, and his part-time job was playing baritone sax in the house band at the Flamingo Room. All the Memphis songs of that era would have a baritone sax, and it kind of became a staple instrument. On ‘Walking the Dog’ by Rufus Thomas, that’s Floyd playing, so he was kind of the guy that got that whole thing started.”
Right around the time Jones graduated from high school in June 1962, he was clocking hours at Stax studios when rockabilly legend Billy Lee Riley ended a session early. To kill time, he began messing around on a tune with guitarist Steve Cropper, drummer Al Jackson Jr. and bassist Lewie Steinberg, the core members of the M.G.s (Steinberg was replaced in 1965 with Donald “Duck” Dunn).
“That’s how ‘Green Onions’ happened,” Jones said of the song’s instantly recognizable opening sequence, in which the bass line moves up the scale while the top note of the triad goes down.
Jones said that these interweaving melodic lines were inspired by studying Bach’s fugues and cantatas, which got him wondering if contrapuntal arrangements could be applied to the 12-bar blues.
“We had already cut the A-side of our first single and were looking for a B-side, and I had this little riff that I’d play in a trio that I had, so the song just took off from there,” he said. “I didn’t take it all that seriously at the time, but then some DJs flipped over the single and started playing ‘Green Onions,’ and it became a hit when I started at Indiana University that fall.”
Over the next four years, Booker T. & the M.G.s cranked out singles for Stax while Jones attended college, burning the candle at both ends. He was young and able to go without sleep on the nights he would drive from Bloomington to Memphis, arriving early in the morning for a recording session, and then he’d head back to continue his studies. (The moral: stay in school, even if you score a Billboard hit!)
“Although I had music lessons as a kid,” Jones said of his time at Indiana University, “I now had to learn music theory and I had to be taught how to orchestrate. And at Indiana, I learned music history and I had to perform Bach, you know, all of that. So, that’s why I went through the whole four years of college. I think it made it possible for me to work with a range of people and play different types of music in a way that I wouldn’t have had I not finished.”
Jones became a full-time Stax employee after graduating in the spring of 1967, and that summer his group won over the audience at the Monterey Pop Festival — first, during a set as Booker T. & the M.G.s and then as the backing musicians for Otis Redding, who blew away the crowd as Saturday night’s closing act.
Tragedy struck later that year when a plane carrying Redding and the Bar-Kays, another Stax band, crashed in Lake Monona just outside of Madison, Wisconsin, killing the iconic soul singer and most everyone else onboard.
The Stax family continued to fracture four months later when, on April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.
“We at Stax developed our relationships around the location of the Lorraine Motel, because if we wanted to have a big meeting, because of the laws, we had to go to the Lorraine,” Jones said. “All of Steve Cropper’s collaborations with African-American musicians happened there. They wrote ‘Knock On Wood’ in a rented motel room, ‘The Midnight Hour’ — so many songs were written there.”
The fact that Dr. King was murdered at that location was devastating for Jones, and it accelerated the beginning of the end for the M.G.s, especially after Cropper told reporters that he blamed MLK for stoking racial tensions in Memphis. Up to this point, Stax had been mythologized as an integrated utopia, but racism still quietly structured people’s everyday lives.
“It is a system that is strong and invisible,” Jones said. “It required people to have two faces, I don’t know how else to say it. I think a lot of people had one face at home at the dinner table and another face at work, so who knows how they really felt? So, fast-forward to Booker T. & the M.G.s — a band that the world thinks had this harmonious relationship — but that just could not happen with the kinds of statements that Cropper was making to the press. We were not a solid unit. Maybe musically we were, but otherwise, the truth was that we were not.”
At the start of the new decade, Jones left Stax and moved to California, where he mounted the second act of his musical career. Booker T. & the M.G.s released their final album in 1971, the funk-infused Melting Pot, the same year that he produced and played on Bill Withers’ genre-defying masterpiece Just As I Am, featuring “Ain’t No Sunshine” and “Grandma’s Hands.”
Jones went on to work with an eclectic array of artists over the decades — from Willie Nelson and Neil Young to Questlove and the Drive-By Truckers — breaking down entrenched musical walls along the way.
“Music has no boundaries,” Jones told me. “The only limitations are in our minds.”
Kembrew McLeod highly recommends ‘Melting Pot’, a crown jewel of Booker T. & the M.G.s catalog. This article was originally published in Little Village’s July 2023 issue.