Booker T. Jones is in a cab from the airport heading into Brooklyn, where he’ll perform a free show tonight under the Brooklyn Bridge as part of the Celebrate Brooklyn festival. In tandem with his band, Booker T. & The M.G.s, the multi-instrumentalist laid down the grooves behind some of the ’60s most revered soul artists, including working as the Stax label’s in-house band during the era of Otis Redding and Albert King. Before he was dropped off at a Smith Street hotel, we checked in with him about his early days hitting the New York night scene with Quincy Jones, being sampled, and working with ?uestlove.
Can you remember the very first time you came to New York?
Yeah, it was when I came here for an interview for, oh my god, a woman’s magazine like Good Housekeeping or something like that, like a conservative woman’s magazine. I stayed right there on Central Park, 56th and Central Park. It was pretty overwhelming. I just came in for that one interview and for a Memphis boy it was pretty overwhelming.
What sort of questions were you asked in the interview?
That was what was amazing! She had no idea where I came from or what it was like to be an African-American playing blues and soul in Memphis. The questions were just… they were so unrelated that I can’t even remember them. We were two fish out of water, believe me. It was for Ladies’ Home Journal, something like that.
How did the article come out?
You know, it wasn’t a magazine that I would have ever seen except at a grocery store! I think they did try to send me the article, but that was 50 years ago.
What were your first impressions of New York then?
New York was pretty sophisticated. We were living on the west side there and I bought a cashmere overcoat—I spent all my money on a cashmere overcoat ’cause it was pretty cold here. They had so many dance halls, which they didn’t have in Memphis. I came back the next time with Quincy Jones and had a better introduction to the city with him because he took me around to some clubs and showed me the Thad Jones band on my second trip around.
Where did Quincy Jones take you?
I think he took me to the Village Vanguard or one of the top jazz clubs. It was a venue the Thad Jones band was playing at, and some place that Quincy would have either played himself or gone to. He was a sophisticated guy. I mean, he was a celebrity and I was a little kid from Memphis, and he had money and clothes and flash and a suite at a very high class hotel and a beautiful wife. It was like a country bumpkin with a New York ambassador! He was producing, he was a big wig here, producing Ray Charles and he had sessions with big bands and was a top of the ladder arranger. So I was riding around with him in limousines. It was a good time!
Did Quincy Jones give you any good advice on your own career?
He was a mentor for me, especially when I got to California. When I got my first movie score, Quincy bought me instruction books and told me how to synch the beats-per-minute to the frames-per-second and gave me invaluable information. He was very generous to me in terms of money and information. I got a job that I didn’t really know how to do, scoring the film Uptight in 1968.
What was the hardest thing about scoring the film?
The hardest thing was they dumped off all these reels of film—I was staying at my sister’s house—and they dropped off a Movieola machine. It wasn’t like now where you can go into a computer and use code. There was two pedals, so I had to push each reel with each foot; one operated the reel with the music and one was the reel with the film. And I had to be sure when I got to the recording studio that the film was in tempo with the music, so I had to figure out how many beats-per-minute so that things would synch and play at the right place!
What was the trickiest part of the movie to put music to?
The end scene, when there’s a character lying on the bridge, ’cause I had to create something that was both emotionally encouraging and foreboding at the same time. That ended up being really tight to pull off.
So when was the first time you played a show in New York?
It was the early fall of 1962. It was at a ballroom and also on the bill were Ruth Brown, Jimmy Reed, and Otis Redding. I remember carrying our instruments over from the hotel to the venue!
What sort of crowd reaction did you get that night?
Well, we were Booker T & The M.G.s and we were brand new—we only had one record out. It was an amazing bill and we were sort of the low guys on the totem pole there, but we got a good reaction. We played first; we also played behind Otis Redding later on.
What do you remember about Otis Redding from those days?
Well Otis was at the bottom when I met him. He was a driver for Johnny Jenkins and The Pinetoppers—he was a gopher, carrying luggage, going for food, he was a valet. But he was a nice person. He asked if he could sing a song and he did and things changed immensely once he opened his mouth to sing. He was dedicated to what he was doing and he loved what he was doing.
Can you recall the first time a hip-hop artist sampled your music?
I don’t know who the first was, but I was unaware of the sampling for a while. I knew of Public Enemy. There was a lot of samples already done of “Melting Pot” by the time I was aware of what was done, and I didn’t know who they was.
What do you think of people who’ve sampled your music?
Some of them I really like. I’ve heard some incredible samples. The most recent is an incredible turnaround of a loop that we had by Kanye and Jay-Z, who did “Otis.” It’s amazing how they turned it around, ’cause I’d have never thought to play it that way. Those guys are really creative with what they’re doing with these samples. It’s so creative.
What do you like most about the song “Otis”?
It’s cool, they turned [the sample] upside of its head. I’d have never thought to have used that part of a phrase again and again like that. It made it such a hard rhythm. Samples definitely have their place in the hands of the right people.
What would a studio session between Kanye West and Booker T be like?
That would be interesting. He would probably want me to play original stuff that he could chop and loop up. He might want me to come up with some original idea, sort of like we did in the ’60s—and he’d probably chop it up again like he did for “Otis”!
You got to work with the drummer ?uestlove recently. What was he like?
He was amazing. He’s a very talented drummer, like a chameleon who can do a lot of different things at once. He put a New Orleans twist on some of the songs and the music came out really easy with a lot of energy. It seemed like he had studied me pretty well in the past—he seemed to have a feeling for my music that was pretty natural.
What can people expect from your show at Celebrate Brooklyn?
I like to do my favorites and most of the time songs that influenced a lot of music from the ’60s. And I like to rearrange my favorite songs like [Eddie Floyd’s] “Knock On Wood.” I like to keep it with music that I’ve been involved in during my career, so I’ll often rearrange songs like a version of “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” where I played bass on that for Bob Dylan, or “(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay” where I played piano for Otis.
And do you still have that cashmere coat you bought on your first trip to New York?
Ha ha. My wife made me throw that coat away a long time ago!
Booker T. Jones performs at Brooklyn Bridge Park with Rich Medina tonight.