A Founder of American Soul Music: Indiana University Honors Booker T. Jones

Dinner Honoring 2012 Spring Honorary Degree Recipient and Undergraduate Commencement Speaker
Federal Room
Indiana Memorial Union
IU Bloomington
Bloomington, Indiana
May 4, 2012

Welcome and Acknowledgments

It is my great pleasure to welcome you all to this evening of celebration in honor of our very distinguished guest and honorary degree recipient, Booker T. Jones.

Booker T. is universally recognized as one of the true founders of American soul music. He is a four-time Grammy winner, a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, and Indiana University is very privileged to count him as an alumnus.

We are delighted to be joined by a number of the friends and family members of our guest of honor. Would you join me in welcoming Booker T.’s wife, Nanine Jones; his daughters, Olivia and Cicely Jones; his sons, Ted Jones and Michael Long; his brother, Maurice Williams; his grand-niece, Monica Perkins; and his friends, Lester and Lori Thompson.

A Musical Prodigy

Booker T. Jones, was in the 10th grade when he walked into the studios of Satellite Records in South Memphis and was hired to play the baritone saxophone on “Cause I Love You,” a song recorded by Memphis R&B singer Rufus Thomas and his daughter Carla. It was literally Booker T. ’s first day in the building, and the record became Satellite’s first hit. Satellite, of course, became the legendary Stax Records in 1961, and from that Studio on East McLemore Avenue, the young Booker T. Jones would go on not only to play on numerous hit records, but also to shape the sound of American soul music.

It was no great surprise to those who knew him that the record company hired Booker T. at such a young age. He was proficient not only on the saxophone, but also on flute, oboe, clarinet, trombone, drums, guitar, piano, and, of course, the organ—all by the age of ten.

Before long, Booker T. had become Stax’ regular session keyboard player, and was soon joined by three other key session musicians: guitarist Steve Cropper, drummer Al Jackson, Jr., and bass player Lewie Steinberg. During some down time in the summer of 1962, the four began playing around with a riff Booker T. had come up with a few weeks earlier. The results were that “Green Onions,” its B-side, “Behave Yourself,” and “Booker T. and the MGs” were born.

“Green Onions,” of course would become a huge hit, reaching #1 on the Billboard R&B chart and #3 on the pop chart. Moreover, it would go on to become one of the most recognized soul instrumentals of all time. The song continues to appear in films and television programs and in commercials, and has been covered by artists ranging from Henry Mancini to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, to the Blues Brothers.  I should mention that Steve Cropper and Donald “Duck” Dunn, who replaced Lewie Steinberg as the MGs bass player, were also members of the Blues Brothers Band and appeared in the films. Steve Cropper also served as producer on a number of very successful albums, including John Mellencamp’s 1980 album, Nothin’ Matters and What if It Did.  

When he co-wrote “Green Onions,” Booker T. was already a successful professional musician. And he was still in high school. 

The Indiana Years

Booker T. and the MGs became firmly established as the “house band” at Stax Records, where they performed on hundreds of records by such artists as Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Bill Withers, Sam & Dave, and Johnnie Taylor.

With “Green Onions” and a string of subsequent hits, they also enjoyed great success in their own right.

So, when Booker T. decided to attend Indiana University to study composition and music theory, some of his fellow musicians and the Stax executives were quite surprised. Some even tried to dissuade him.

But, Booker T., as you will hear him tell the Class of 2012 tomorrow, knew that he would be a better and more versatile musician—and an even more well-rounded individual—with an education from Indiana University.  

At IU, Booker T. thrived. He made the dean’s list and was a trombonist in the symphony orchestra. 

Ed Marshall, IU’s Vice President for Diversity, Equity, and Multicultural Affairs, who is here this evening, met Booker T. when he pledged Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity as a freshman.  Ed writes: “I fondly recall occasions of retreating after a formal dinner at the Kappa House at the intersection of 17th and Jordan to the living room where a large piano would invite Booker T. and other musically talented fraternity members to engage in impromptu ‘jam sessions.’ During those undergraduate days, Booker T. already was well known throughout the community and nation for his pre-IU success with the MGs and the hit recording of “Green Onions” – a timeless composition that still has significant currency today in the library and medium of music culture.  At the time,” Ed continues, “little did I or any of us who lived in the house at 1469 East 17th Street know that the person on the keyboard in the living room would be the internationally-revered musician and strong ambassador of IU education that he is today.”

Their fellow Kappa, distinguished alumnus Bill Mays, is also here tonight. Bill remembers pledging the fraternity along with Booker T. He says that, while hazing was not officially condoned, he does recall some late forced night runs around the track that were part of initiation into the fraternity. Bill says he knew even then that Booker T. was a musical genius. Although Bill claims that he had two left feet and couldn’t carry a tune, Booker T. managed to take on the challenge of creating a skit in which Bill would sing and “step.” With music based on The Temptations’ My Girl, their number was the hit of the campus. Bill also shared a secret. Some of you may know that Booker T. played the trombone in the Marching Hundred. Bill says that Booker T. confessed that he joined the Marching Hundred simply because the School of Music required outside activities.

The well-known fact that, while he was a student at IU, Booker T. returned to Memphis on weekends and during the summers to record with the MGs has become part of soul and R&B lore.

On his graduation, he had multiple offers to play with professional symphonies, but he turned them down to concentrate on his work with the MGs full time.

A Musical Innovator

Booker T. has truly touched the lives of people all around the world with his extraordinarily versatile musicianship. And he has gained a well-deserved reputation as a musical innovator.

Although he has played many other instruments, the Hammond B-3 organ is the instrument with which he is most closely associated. Some of you will know that the B-3 features a “Leslie” speaker with a spinning horn and the instrument offered a talented musician like Booker T. a substantially expanded palette of sounds.1

Journalist Marc Myers, founder of a top-ranked daily jazz blog, JazzWax, writes that Booker T. “transformed the Hammond B-3 organ from a gospel instrument featured primarily behind jazz and blues saxophonists to a rock-soul keyboard that influenced several generations of rock and soul musicians. The harder organ attack and riff-driven sound that Booker T. created is still heard today…”2

“We wrote sounds,” Booker T. has said of those days at Stax.3

Booker T., in fact, pioneered many sounds on the organ and those sounds have had—and continue to have—major reverberations throughout the world of music. Isaac Hayes once pointed out that when you heard Booker T. play the organ, you knew it couldn’t be anyone else.4

At Stax, Booker T. and the MGs played on some of the most important records in the history of R&B and soul, including “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay,” “Try a Little Tenderness,” “When Something is Wrong with my Baby,” and “Hold On, I’m Coming”—on which Booker T. actually played the tuba over Donald “Duck” Dunn’s bass line.5

Booker T. and the MGs defined soul music—particularly southern soul, or “Memphis soul”—a bluesy-sounding music, with an all-important “groove”—a sound Geoffrey Stokes described in his book, Rock of Ages, as "spiritually… midway between New Orleans and Detroit."6

With William Bell, Booker T. co-wrote a song that has become a modern blues classic: Albert King’s “Born Under A Bad Sign.” The song has been covered by many other artists, most notably the legendary British rock group, Cream, in their studio “Wheels of Fire” album. The album, Born Under a Bad Sign, on which Booker T. and the MGs accompanied Albert King, is considered to be one of the most influential blues albums of the modern era. Sean McDevitt, an Indiana native and a former editor for Guitar World magazine, wrote in 2007 that Born Under a Bad Sign “…changed the face of American music, modernizing the blues at a time when albums like the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Jimi Hendrix’s Are You Experienced? were galvanizing the face of rock.”7

The Beatles so admired the sounds that were coming out of the Stax studio, that they considered recording there themselves, at about the time that Booker T. finished his studies at IU and returned to Stax full-time. Brian Epstein, the Beatles’ manager, even made a visit to Memphis to assess the possibility, but ultimately decided that security would be too difficult. John Lennon told Steve Cropper that he listened to Booker T. and the MG’s records over and over and that he had always wanted to write an instrumental for the MGs.8 Such was Booker T. Jones’ influence on the band that changed the face of rock and roll. There was also mutual admiration. Booker T. and the MGs would later record McLemore Avenue, an album of wonderful, mostly instrumental covers of songs from the Beatles’ Abbey Road album.

Not only did Booker T. and the MGs blaze new trails with their music, they also blazed trails as one of the first racially integrated bands in R&B. That they achieved such success in the segregated south in the 1960s is a remarkable testament to the unifying power of their music.

Booker T. later made his mark as a producer as well. Among other projects, he produced Bill Withers’ debut album, and he arranged and produced Willie Nelson’s Stardust, an album that met with great critical and commercial success. The title track, of course, was written, in part, at the legendary Book Nook on Indiana Avenue by another IU alumnus who enjoyed success as a professional musician even during his student days:  Bloomington’s Hoagy Carmichael.

Many in the younger generation know Booker T. for his newer, Grammy-winning solo work, his innovative collaborations with bands like Soul Asylum, Drive-By Truckers, and The Roots, his recent work with Neil Young and Bob Dylan, and his recent performances at the Coachella and Bonnaroo festivals.

He is, of course, a truly deserving inductee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Given his reputation as a musical innovator; his virtuosity as a composer, musician, arranger, conductor, and instrumentalist; and the fact that his very successful career has spanned more than fifty years, I think it is safe to say that Booker T. Jones made the right decision in 1962, when he decided to pursue his studies at Indiana University. And we are very glad that he did.

One of the songs on his latest album is called “Representing Memphis.” We are very proud that Booker T. Jones also represents Indiana University, and we look forward to conferring an honorary degree upon one of the founders of soul music and one of the most versatile, innovative, and influential musicians of the last fifty years.

Thank you very much.

Source Notes

  1. Rob Bowman, Soulsville, U.S.A.: The Story of Stax Records, (New York: Schirmer Books, 1997) 115.
  2. Marc Meyers, JazzWax, “Interview: Booker T. Jones,” May 13, 2011. Accessed April 30, 2012, URL: http://www.jazzwax.com/2011/05/interview-booker-t-jones.html
  3. Bowman, 115.
  4. http://www.rollingstone.com/music/lists/100-greatest-artists-of-all-time-19691231/booker-t-and-the-mgs-19691231
  5. Wikipedia, “Booker T. & the M.G.’s” Accessed May 1, 2012, URL: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Booker_T._%26_the_M.G.%27s
  6. Ed Ward, Geoffrey Stokes, Ken Tucker, Rock of Ages: The Rolling Stone History of Rock & Roll, (Rolling Stone Press, 1986).
  7. Sean McDevitt, as quoted in “Harry’s Hundred: No. 91, ‘Born Under a Bad Sign’ by Albert King,” Accessed April 30, 2012, URL: http://exit0zero.wordpress.com/2012/02/05/harrys-hundred-no-91/
  8. Rob Bowman, Soulsville, U.S.A.: The Story of Stax Records, (New York: Schirmer Books, 1997) p. 96-97.