Booker T. Jones, Soul’s Ultimate Sideman, Takes the Lead at Last

Given the opportunity to work with artists across genres and styles, Jones thrived. He found the perfect quiet, unmannered funk for Bill Withers’s debut, “Just As I Am,” and reinvented both the Great American Songbook and Willie Nelson’s career as the producer and arranger of “Stardust,” a shock hit record of big band-era standards released in 1978. By simplifying the arrangements and recording in an ultra-laid-back home studio in Laurel Canyon over 10 days, Jones made a Texan singing Tin Pan Alley sound like the quintessence of contemporary L.A. sophistication.

“When I was growing up, my dad only had about five records,” said the National’s Matt Berninger, who hired Jones to produce his upcoming solo record. “I remember Judy Collins, Roberta Flack, Waylon Jennings, and I remember ‘Stardust.’” Berninger wanted someone who could corral nearly 20 guest musicians, and someone who could provide the late-night, timeless atmosphere that “Stardust” conjures. He immediately thought of Jones, whom he had met during a collaboration with Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings in 2013, even though he didn’t realize that Jones was the co-visionary on Nelson’s album at first. It seemed impossible that the same person who created a new genre of Memphis soul in 1962 could also reinvigorate the standard 15 years later, then stay relevant into the 21st century as an elder statesman.

Jones has stayed active producing, recording and playing with younger musicians for decades now, many of whom aren’t obvious fits for his sound. In the early 1980s, Melissa Etheridge was “just a singer in a lesbian bar,” she said, before a Capitol Records executive set her up with a studio session to make a demo. She showed up and found Jones behind the board.

“This was back when you still had guitar solos in songs,” Etheridge said in a phone interview, “but our guitar player didn’t show up. So the engineer grabs a B-3, and Booker adds the most burning, scorching Booker T. organ solo over this rinky-dink demo.”

Patterson Hood, the co-leader of the Drive-By Truckers, heard M.G.s songs in hip-hop as a teenager — they’ve been sampled by Cypress Hill and Heavy D & the Boyz, among many others. About 10 years ago, Jones invited the Truckers to join him for a rare solo album, all instrumental, with Neil Young on third guitar just for good measure. Hood’s heavy-twang rock isn’t a natural fit for the kind of subtle groove-building that Jones specializes in, and after a few unsatisfying takes, Hood and his band mates gathered at the B-3, expecting to be fired. Instead, Jones told them a story about Thanksgiving.

“He described the food, what his auntie was wearing, even the tablecloth and how the food smelled,” Hood said. “It was beautiful, then when he was finished, he said, ‘Play that.’”


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