Q&A: The Legendary Booker T Discusses Returning to London, Who He Works with, and New Music

Posted on Thursday June 30th in

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Legendary organist, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, producer, and arranger Booker T. Jones comes to Brooklyn Bowl London on 7-8 July, and he spoke to Knockdown Alley about the musicians he’s worked with, coming back to London, and what to expect at his shows next week.

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When did you first start performing in London? And how has international touring changed since you began doing it? Our first London show was in 1967 at the Hammersmith Odeon. International touring has become much more widespread as audiences in more countries have become aware of the music.
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In the past few years, you’ve recorded and toured with Drive-By Truckers, the Roots, Gary Clark Jr., and Mayer Hawthorne. At this point in your career, how do you choose which musicians to work with? My path has led me to an advantageous and diverse array of musical colleagues. For example, David Hood — bass chair at Muscle Shoals Sound in Sheffield, Ala., — just happens to be Drive-By Truckers’ Patterson Hood’s dad, so Patterson grew up listening to my music. When I jammed in Austin, Texas, with former Trucker Jason Isbell, he suggested I check out the band for my album Potato Hole. The Roots grew up in Philadelphia listening to the Meters from New Orleans, who, like the Muscle Shoals group, were often mistaken for my band, the MGs. I met Gary Clark Jr. at Apple in Cupertino, Calif. I mistakenly thought he was an unknown and gave him my number if he needed any help in the business. It turned out he had cut his teeth in the same clubs in Austin with George Raines and Clifford Antone and played with others that I had hung out with, and we found out we had a great deal more in common musically. Mutual friend Daryl Hall introduced me to Mayer Hawthorne at a jam for one of Daryl’s TV shows up at his house on his farm in New York.

As a member of the Stax Records house band, and on your own as a legendary soul musician, you’ve played with some towering figures in music, like Otis Redding, Willie Nelson, Bill Withers, Ray Charles, and Neil Young, just to name a few. Are there any newer up-and-comers you’d like to collaborate with? I have a very natural musical rapport with my son Ted (guitar). We have been playing together for a little over two years now, and I’ve discovered there is a cognitive dialogue between us that many times bypasses the needs for words. This is a new experience for me and something I was unaware could exist in the early stages.

After not putting out a new album in 20 years, you released three between 2009 and 2013. Is there anything new in the pipeline? And do you ever play new songs onstage before recording them? The challenge in 1962 was to create something original and to enjoy the process. Today, that is still the challenge, so I am creating new ways to use the old sounds and rhythms — and enjoying the process.  I hope to release new music very soon now. I haven’t made it a practice to play unrecorded music onstage, but that’s not a bad idea.
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What are you most looking forward to in returning to London? And is there anywhere you always go whenever you visit? It’s great to see people who have been coming to my shows for years. And now they are bringing their children.

You’ve got so much material to choose from when performing live. What can we expect at your two shows here in July? Will you be highlighting your most recent work? Doing a career retrospective? I’m looking forward to showing the Brooklyn Bowl patrons where I come from musically and where I am right now.  I feel fortunate to have participated in creating music that is still played around the world, and I really enjoy trying to recreate it live. I love to play the MGs songs, “Green Onions,” “Soul Limbo,” “Time Is Tight,” and “Hip-Hug Her.” I enjoy performing songs that I wrote or was involved with recording the original versions, like “Born Under a Bad Sign,” “Hang ’Em High,” or “When Something Is Wrong with My Baby” by Sam & Dave. I love getting into the music that influenced me, such as Muddy Waters “Mannish Boy” or Jimi Hendrix’s “Hey Joe,” or Otis Redding’s “Respect.”

What’s the best way to describe a live Booker T show? It’s a recreation of the energy and the performance that inspired the original recording of each song on the set list. No show is like any other.
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