Monday, May 13, 2013

Booker T. Jones: The Road From Memphis

Even if you don't know anything about Memphis soul, you've heard of Booker T. and the M.G.s -- if only via their monster hit "Green Onions", still a staple on oldies radio. Although that's the only cut that gets on the radio these days, the M.G.s had multiple big instrumental hits in the 60's and 70's: "Time is Tight", "Hang 'Em High", "Hip Hug-Her", "Soul Dressing" and more. Besides which, they were the house band for Memphis' legendary Stax Records label, the home of Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Carla Thomas, Isaac Hayes and many more black artists who left an indelible mark on soul music - and most all of whose records felt the stamp of Booker T. Jones and his Hammond B3.

Although the star of Memphis soul waned, Booker T. never went away. He cut a number of records for A&M in the 70's, launched an M.G.s comeback with Columbia in the 90's, and continues recording; his latest, "The Road From Memphis", contains a return to roots and some auto-biographical songs that are quite welcome and pleasingly organic in this day of highly-computerized music.

Booker's B3 is front-and-center, of course. There's a classic Memphis groove that insinuates itself everywhere. I love the title cut, "Walking Papers," and "Rent Party", a minor-key affair that seems to underscore the fact that this is one party that's not truly a celebration, and "Representing Memphis", a Southern-fried groove featuring a duet between one of my favorite soul shouters, Sharon Jones (of the Dap-Tones), and Matt Berninger, frontman for Cincinnati's The National. And there's also "Down in Memphis", on which Booker T. himself sings about coming up in the poor South and the way it was back then.

This is a good disc, not a great one. But for fans of Memphis Soul Stew there's a lot to like here. Booker rides the classic Stax vibe while bringing the mood into the present -- it's not a nostalgia trip, but it's got enough of that savory, meaty funk to take you back. Good stuff - I'm looking forward to what he does next.

For Further Research
  • Booker T.'s page on the Stax Museum Website
  • The legendary Hammond B3 organ was an integral part of the Sound of the Sixties. It showed up everywhere, from Abbey Road to Electric Lady Studios to the Capitol Tower. Would you believe there's a documentary about it? Check it out here. (I grew up playing a B1 myself.)
  • Live from the Sixties: Booker T. & the M.G.s perform "Green Onions" live in Europe on the 1967 Stax-Volt Tour. Dan Penn on killer lead guitar!
  • Booker T. plays "Down In Memphis" on Daryl Hall's "Live From Daryl's House" with Daryl duetting.

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