Keeping the Blues Alive / Blues News  / Booker T. Jones – Born Under a Bad Sign

Booker T. Jones: NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert

About Booker T. Jones

Booker T. Jones came into the music scene in 1962. This NPR clip shows that he is both humble about his ability and happy to entertain. Jones was musically a child prodigy and started out in music playing the oboe, saxophone, trombone, double bass and piano.  On any given Sunday, you could also find him playing organ at his church.

When asked to play one of his compositions, Booker T. played a tune that he recorded with Booker T. and the MGs. He was only a seventeen years old and a senior at Booker T. Washington High School in Memphis.  The smooth tone Jones coaxes from the Hammond B-3 is unmistakable and even played without a full band.  The track is “Green Onions.”

How he ended up playing the organ

When asked about how he started playing the piano, “Jones said he began with piano lessons at ten years old.”  His father had brought in a clarinet and he described it as a life altering moment. He wanted to learn more and started on the piano.  His teacher, Selma Cole, happened to have an organ in her dining room, he thought it was just a china cabinet. 

He asked about it several times and she said, “Oh, you don’t want to know what that is.”   She said that he would not be able to afford $15 organ lessons and piano lessons at the same time.  He got a job delivering papers to raise the funds needed.  The day she finally opened up the organ and he saw the rows of keys, he had another ‘grabber’ moment.  She played him a snippet of Bach and he was fascinated with the warmth he heard in the organ’s tone.

He learned how to crawl

He credits Mrs. Cole with teaching him to crawl.  He explains that instruments like the piano or guitar, the strings are plucked and will continue to vibrate until they are muted.  On the other hand, the organ will only sound a note while the key is held down.  So one has to hold a note with one finger while using the other fingers to play other notes.  Crawling gives songs performed on an organ the smooth, flowing feel that one doesn’t always hear with a stringed instrument.

Born Under a Bad Sign

Jones played Born Under a Bad Sign next.  Jones and his writing partner at Stax records, William Bell, originally wrote the song for guitarist Albert King.  Eric Clapton and Cream’s version is more universally known than King’s, but Jones’ haunting organ brings a different feel to the song.   He noted that Bad Sign was “written in my front room for Albert King, a lefthanded guitar player.”  

His career at Stax Records

Booker T. Jones at one point in his life had a career at Stax Records. He also didn’t mention his work with the MGs that included Al Jackson (drums), Steve Cropper (guitar), Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn (bass), and other stellar members of the ‘Stax Records’ fabled house band.  

He also didn’t get to talk about his first recording sessions where he played baritone sax and guitar (he is one of those multi-instrumentalists who seems to be able to play just about any instrument, even the oboe which is one of the more difficult reed instruments to master).  

His first hit (Green Onions) may have been an instrumental, but Jones is also a very capable vocalist.  Which is heard on his later releases, The Road to Memphis (2011) and Sound the Alarm (2013).  Sound the Alarm features guest appearances by Gary Clark, Jr., Estelle, and a host of others.  It also marks his return to Stax Records where he got his start.  

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CREDITS: NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert