‘Time Is Tight’: Booker T. Jones on Mahalia Jackson, Matt Berninger and New Memoir

Dean Budnick on January 7, 2020
‘Time Is Tight’: Booker T. Jones on Mahalia Jackson, Matt Berninger and New Memoir

Time Is Tight is the story of my life and, hopefully, it will inspire both accomplished musicians and non-accomplished musicians to go for it,” says acclaimed songwriter and producer Booker T. Jones of his new memoir. “It demonstrates the way I was inspired by musicians, my own evolution as a musician and just how good things can be.” In Time Is Tight, Booker T. & The M.G.’s namesake looks back on his days as a Memphis elementary school student, tracing his development on a variety of instruments—not just his signature Hammond B-3 organ—and then chronicles his contributions at Stax Records and his work with artists such as Otis Redding, Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson. Jones’ new album, Note by Note, serves as an illustrative companion piece to the book, featuring a career-spanning songs that mirror many of the Time Is Tight’s chapter titles.

You were just 12 years old when you accompanied Mahalia Jackson at a Sunday afternoon tea. How did that come about?

Mahalia Jackson, like Thomas Dorsey, was a gospel giant from Chicago. And all the black churches emulated the Chicago and Detroit churches, so the music and the singers became renowned. She ended up being booked for a tea that people were really looking forward to. The teas were a big deal on Park Avenue [in Memphis], taking place on Sunday afternoons, probably about 3 p.m. She was gonna sing “Precious Lord” for a group of women. However, something happened to her accompanist—I’m not sure if it was a miscommunication—but she didn’t have anybody to play with her. So somebody told her assistant about me and I ended up with that job, which was kind of like saying, “Write a song for Albert King; he’s coming to town tomorrow.” [Laughs.]

Which is something you did as well. As you point out in the book, you found Albert King to be a gentle man, despite his reputation to the contrary.

He was frustrated because the business was not good to blues players back then and he needed to pay the bills. I think he was totally justified in any tantrums that he threw.
One of many things that I learned in Time Is Tight is just how many instruments you play. Can you talk about one or two of your favorite performances on an instrument other than the Hammond B-3? The most pivotal for me in my early career was “‘Cause I Love You” by Carla and Rufus Thomas. I’m playing an E-flat baritone saxophone. I was 15 and it was almost too big for me. I practiced on that thing in the band room because I loved the sound of it. Ray Charles’ man Hank Crawford was a baritone sax player and I was inspired by him. And then once Ray got to New York, Leroy Cooper played baritone sax. All these great musicians had played for Ray Charles, so I wanted to play baritone sax, too. There’s a version of the song on my new album, Note by Note, and Wes Smith, who currently tours with me, plays sax on it.

I also played B-flat trombone from ninth grade all through college. I played my senior recital at Indiana [University] on that instrument. I had spent so much time in my younger years on the reeds and I realized I hadn’t played any brass. So I tried tuba and I tried euphonium, but trombone was the one that spoke to me. I also played trombone at Indiana in the jazz band with Randy Brecker. And I played trombone for the Bar-Kays and for Joe Tex—that’s me playing trombone on “Skinny Legs and All.” I actually don’t have one now and I feel a void without it. I sent mine to New Orleans after Katrina.

The National’s Matt Berninger appears on Note by Note, and you’re also producing his solo record. How did you first cross paths?

He came and sang for me years ago in New York when I was working with Sharon Jones on my The Road From Memphis album. Matt and Sharon did a duet on “Representing Memphis,” the song my daughter [Liv] wrote. Then he just stayed in touch and said, “Hey, would you be interested in working with me?” He’s got a lot of great musician friends. We’re just about finished with the album.

Speaking of musician friends, your album prior to The Road From Memphis was Potato Hole , on which you worked with Drive-By Truckers. Is there a chance you might revisit that collaboration?

That all came together because of David Hood. He was the bass player for Muscle Shoals and, when I met Patterson [Hood], he told me: “Oh, my dad played your records all the time in the house.” So we became like family when we got together down in Athens, Ga. We’re still in touch; we still talk all the time. Patterson and I have a couple of new songs that we’re working on.

What led you to revisit the songs that appear on Note by Note ?

My editor at Little, Brown suggested the idea of a musical companion. So the chapters of the book became the songs that I recorded. It starts with “‘Cause I Love You” and tries to bring things full circle. My son Ted also played a big role in all of the songs. He’s been playing with me now for almost five years and we have a real musical rapport. So it’s an album for the book and also for my life.