“Life was meant to be lived in the key of C. It was the simplest, least complex key. It had no sharps or flats and was beautiful and pleasing to the ear…I believed that C was the natural key for the earth, humans, and the universe at large.” Booker T. Jones, Time Is Tight

Booker T. Jones, tall, stately, in a navy suit, patterned tie, and cream-colored fedora, looking at least a decade younger than his 75 years, enters to a standing ovation at Bootleg Theater in Los Angeles on this early November evening. The event is a staged interview set up by Live Talks Los Angeles, organizers of conversations with some of the world’s most creative luminaries, from musicians, artists, and chefs to business innovators. Booker T. is here to discuss his recently published memoir, Time Is Tight: My Life Note by Note and talks about his musical evolution from the late 1950s to the present day, along with his beginnings at Stax Records.

“I was always thinking about music, always. Rhythms, symphonies. The external world crashed into my internal world early in life. Uninvited. Dominating and entitled. It wasn’t always pleasant or even understandable, but the river of sound overflowed and found expression. It was where I lived. No music, no Booker.” – Booker T. Jones, Time Is Tight

Time Is Tight takes readers on the journey of Booker T.’s life from his childhood in Memphis, uncovering his passion and natural musical ability, discovering the Hammond B-3 organ in the home of his piano teacher at age 9; stumbling upon Satellite Records (soon to change its name to Stax) during his paper route as a 14-year, the studio tucked away in an old movie theater with a record store in the front room; becoming a session musician and having his first hit, “Green Onions,” with Booker T. and the MGs as a 17-year old a senior in high school; becoming a music major at University of Indiana the following year so he could learn to translate the sounds created in his head; and discovering Otis Redding and eventually Bill Withers after moving to California in 1968, where a whole other musical world awaited him.

In Memphis, “something was in the water,” Booker T. tells the Los Angeles audience hanging on his every word this night. “It was a rich fertile ground for music, convergence of delta blues and gospel music coming down from the churches, influenced by Chicago, country music, rock and soul, Kentucky, Nashville, jazz coming out of North Memphis big bands, all converging in one area.”

“The first time I laid eyes on the Hammond B-3 organ was at my piano teacher’s house, waiting for a piano lesson. The instrument was in her dining room along with all her other wooden furniture, and it was sort of a mystical hypnotism when I saw it. I was taken by the instrument, just the sight of it. I felt a warmth and a closeness I didn’t understand. Of course, I couldn’t touch it…” His teacher told him that he could “make any sound you want with this instrument. Any sound you can imagine is possible.” Booker explains having to get a paper route to afford the expensive fifteen-dollar Hammond B-3 lessons he craved.

“I was hugely influenced listening to Jimmy Smith and the way he used staccato on the notes with one finger. I heard Earl Grant play on TV. Then there was Bill Doggett, the way he used the chords, five, six-note chords. So I think my style was a combination of styles. My mother played piano- Debussy, Chopin, Bach- big chords on the left hand. I think my style is a combination of things I admired from different players.”

Booker T. Jones @ Bootleg Theater 11/5/19. Photo by Nikki Kreuzer (@Lunabeat) for www.BlurredCulture.com.
Booker T. Jones @ Bootleg Theater 11/5/19. Photo by Nikki Kreuzer (@Lunabeat) for www.BlurredCulture.com.

“Minimalism was dictated on the floor at Stax. Al Jackson (drummer for the MGs) talked opened about it, ‘Let’s not play too much. Let’s keep it simple. Let’s keep it accessible’ on a day to day basis. I just always wanted that plain, straight pure sound- no vibrato- just the pure simple sound of the Hammond for melody.”

Booker T.’s autobiography traces over six decades of his life in a non-chronological fashion, bouncing around from year to year, exploring themes. Each chapter is titled by a song and each subsection proceeded with a musical note and number corresponding to musical phrases that he composed to set the memoir’s mood. At the end of the book, several pages of these phrases are revealed to musically demonstrate the temperament and feeling of what has been written.

During this Live Talks interview Booker T. is well-spoken, intelligent and wise, relating the details of his musical influences as well as the experience of having an integrated multi-racial band in the very segregated early 1960s American South, a topic further explored in his memoir. After the Live Talks conversation and a brief audience Q&A session has concluded he takes time to meet fans and sign copies of his book, briefly chatting with everyone. The overall audience takeaway is one of inspiration and reverence, a state of mind that has been Booker T. Jones’s lifelong mission to inspire.

Booker T. Jones in conversation with Scott Timberg discussing his memoir, Time Is Tight: My Life, Note by Note, The Bootleg Theater, Los Angeles, November 5, 2019, sponsored by Live Talks Los Angeles.

Time is Tight: My Life Note by Note by Booker T. Jones, published by Little, Brown and Company, 2019. 352 pages.

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Tim Is Tight by Booker T. Jones - Book Cover
Tim Is Tight by Booker T. Jones – Book Cover