Soul legend Booker T. Jones is coming back to Suffolk Theater this Friday, August 29, for what will surely prove to be a night of cool, funky sounds from this master of the Hammond B-3. “Green Onions,” “Hip Hug Her,” “Soul Limbo,”—Booker T, along with his band the MGs, originated so many classic Hammond organ tunes that his name is practically synonymous with the rich sound of that beloved instrument.
The Hammond B-3, an iconic electric organ that made the jump from gospel music and came to saturate soul music in the ’60s and ’70s, has been Booker’s signature instrument from the moment he hit the scene in 1962 with that indelible Booker T and the MGs “Green Onions” riff.
Booker’s work with the Hammond started when he was a child in Memphis. “When I was 8 or 9, my piano teacher Merle Glover had a Hammond B-3 in her living room,” he explains, “so I was fortunate enough to be exposed to it then, and fortunate that she was so good at it.” Hammond organs were quite a bit more expensive than pianos—Booker figures that Glover must have spent every penny she earned on her monthly payments.
Even though he’s most associated with the Hammond organ instrumentals he recorded with the MGs in the ’60s, when Booker takes the stage at the Suffolk Theater he won’t be confined to the organ console.
“I like to play the blues, and they tend to work better on the guitar,” he points out. “The blues tend to be in ‘guitar’ keys, and you can bend the strings.”
In fact, Booker has been a multi-instrumentalist from a very early age, playing bass, reed and brass instruments—believe it or not, he has a degree in trombone performance from Indiana University. An early incarnation of the MGs had him on guitar, and Booker now makes his guitar playing and singing a regular part of his show.
Concerts also provide an opportunity for Booker to showcase his long history of collaborating with songwriters and recording artists across a wide range of genres. Collaboration was the name of the game in the 1960s, when Booker T and the MGs were essentially the house band at the legendary soul label Stax Records in Memphis, backing up everyone from Sam and Dave to Otis Redding to Albert King. While at Stax, Booker co-wrote “Born Under a Bad Sign” for King, a song that was later covered by Eric Clapton’s band Cream. Also at Stax, he co-wrote “I’ve Never Found a Girl (To Love Me Like You Do)” with Eddie Floyd.
“I was mostly in charge of the string arrangement for that track,” recalls Booker. “Stax was really like a job—we had to show up on time and we would get assignments, to compose string charts or write up lead sheets. It was a very pleasant job—and it was about two blocks from where I lived. It was also an opportunity to learn a lot and produce a lot of music.”
This history of collaboration continued beyond Stax and into the present day. In the ’70s, Booker worked with Bob Dylan, playing bass on the track “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”—you might hear a soulful rendering of that song at Suffolk Theater. Also at Suffolk Theater, Booker will certainly touch on recent work he’s done with Neil Young and the Drive By Truckers, and his work with Leon Russell and Elton John.
But it always comes back to the beloved Hammond B-3. Fans of Booker’s Hammond organ classics will not go away without hearing a full accounting of the big ones. Listen especially for “Hang ‘Em High,” an MGs song that allows Booker to reveal the Hammond’s full glory.
“The B-3 is the instrument of choice for me. I’ve been playing it so long I can just shut my eyes and express myself.” And we can shut our eyes and listen.
Booker T performs at Suffolk Theater, 118 East Main Street, Riverhead on Friday, August 29. A local band opens. Tickets are $49.50. Doors, restaurant and bar open at 6:30 p.m.; show begins at 8 p.m. For more info, visit suffolktheater.com or call 631-727-4343.