What I’ve Been Listening To: Booker T./Note By Note

I guess I really should consider subscribing to a music magazine. The thing is, based on what I’ve seen, these publications mostly write about contemporary stuff that rarely interests me. If anyone has a great recommendation, please let me know. Why am I bringing it up? Because here’s another recently released album I completely missed. And while it only includes two new songs, I was immediately hooked when I started listening to the music a couple of days ago: Note By Note by Booker T. Yep, I’m talking about the man from Stax house band Booker T. & the M.G.’s.

To start with, I think Booker T.’s love of music isn’t only obvious but also truly infectious. That’s why I dig the man! Witnessing him in action playing the keys of his Hammond B3 frequently gives me goosebumps. In case you haven’t watched it yet, check out Booker T.’s demo of the iconic organ I previously covered here. If you’re a music lover and curious about exploring instruments, tell me how you can not feel like wanting to have a friggin’ Hammond and, in case you don’t know how to play keyboards, figuring out yourself how to create these magic sounds or take lessons after watching this – heck, if I could afford it, I would even put a B3 in my living room as a beautiful piece of furniture!

Booker T

By the way, Booker T. has something else I admire: The man is a multi-instrumentalist. Two instruments (guitar, electric bass) was all I could handle to learn many moons ago and, frankly, while I guess I was on okay player when I was at my best, I was far away from mastery! According to Wikipedia, apart from his signature Hammond B3, Booker T. also knows how to play the oboe, saxophone, trombone and double bass. And let’s not forget about the piano, though one could say that’s perhaps less of a surprise, considering the organ, despite the significant differences between those two instruments. In fact, as you can learn from the above noted clip, it was the piano and lessons Booker T. took as a child with his teacher in Memphis, Tenn., which led him to discover the mighty Hammond. Great story, by the way, and one of various anecdotes he tells during the demo. Have I whetted your appetite to watch? 🙂

Released on November 1, Note By Note is a companion album to Booker T.’s memoir Time Is Tight, which was published by Little, Brown and Company and appeared on October 29. According to a press release, Note By Note celebrates and revisits a number of integral musical moments throughout Jones’ life – from playing with Mahalia Jackson at age 12, to his pivotal role as bandleader, performer and songwriter at Stax, to his focus on production through his work with Willie Nelson and Carlos Santana. The tracks largely mirror the chapter titles of the book. The memoir certainly sounds intriguing, and you can check out a review in The New York Times here. In this post, I’d like to focus on the music, so let’s get to it!

Booker T. 2

While I didn’t see any clips on YouTube, luckily, the album is available on Soundcloud. Here’s the excellent opener Cause I Love You, the first single released by Carla Thomas in 1960, a duet with her father Rufus Thomas, who also wrote the lyrics of the song. It also featured her brother Marvell Thomas on keyboards and, yes, you perhaps guessed it, Booker T. A 16-year-old high school student at the time, he played the tune’s opening notes on a borrowed barritone saxophone – his very first studio recording! The single was released by Satellite Records, which eventually became the legendary Stax Records. The cover on this album features Evvie McKinney and Joshua Ledet, two young talented vocalists who sound smoking hot!

While it’s very well known, I simply could not leave out Born Under A Bad Sign, the blues classic first recorded by Albert King at Stax in May 1967, and co-written by Booker T. and William Bell. It’s the only track on the album, featuring Booker T. on lead vocals. That’s a bit of a pity, in my opinion, since he has a quite soulful voice. Check it out! By the way, that nice guitar work comes from Booker T.’s son Ted Jones.

Another tune I have to call out is Precious Lord. Written by the Reverend Thomas A. Dorsey, the gospel tune was recorded by Mahalia Jackson in March 1956 and became her signature song. The original complete title was Take My Hand, Precious Lord. As noted above, Booker T. got to perform with the famous gospel singer as a child – it’s not hard to see how that must have made a lasting impression on a 12-year-old! Check out the album’s powerful version featuring vocalist Sharlotte Gibson. Her voice together with the sparing instrumentation led by Booker T.’s Hammond is just beautiful! It makes me want to do a post to gospel music – so many powerful tunes in that genre!

So how about some Otis Redding? Ask and you shall receive! These Arms of Mine was written by Redding and initially released as his first single for Stax in October 1962. The song was also included on his debut album Pain In My Heat that appeared in March 1964. Redding, of course, was one of many Stax recording artists who were backed by Booker T. and the M.G.’s. This cover of the slow-tempo soul tune, which includes a piano part that reminds me a bit of Fats Domino, features Ty Taylor, another great vocalist who hails from New Jersey and is the leader of a soul rock band called Vintage Trouble. 

Next up: Havana Moon, a song written by Chuck Berry and first released in November 1956 as the B-side to his single You Can’t Catch Me. The tune also became the title track of a 1983 studio album by Carlos Santana, who appropriately gave it more of a Latin feel. That recording featured Booker T. The take on Note By Note is much closer to the Santana version than Berry’s original. In fact, Ted Jones’ guitar work is reminiscent of Santana – nicely done!

The last track I’d like to highlight is Maybe I Need Saving, one of the album’s two new tracks; the second one is called Paralyzed. Both were co-written by Ted Jones and feature him on vocals. I could not find information on who else was involved in writing these songs. At first, I was a little surprised about their inclusion on the album. Sure, Ted is Booker’s T.’s son, which is an obvious connection. But initially, I felt the more contemporary sound of these tracks created a bit of a disconnect to the other, older tunes. Yet, after fter having listened a few times, I actually think they are worthy tunes. Maybe I Need Saving has a nice bluesy touch, which once again features great guitar work by Ted, who has impressive guitar chops, and yet another illustration of Booker T.’s beautiful Hammond.

In addition to Ted Jones, Booker T.’s backing musicians on Note By Note include Steve Ferrone on drums (Average White Band, Tom Petty) and his longtime bandmate Melvin Brannon on bass. Booker T. is currently on the road to support the book and the record. Had I known about all of this a week earlier, perhaps I could have seen him at Le Poisson Rouge, a live music venue in New York City’s Greenwich Village – definitely a missed opportunity! Unfortunately, any of his remaining gigs are nowhere close to my location and include Salt Lake City (tonight), Phoenix (Jan. 8 & 9), Tucson (Jan. 10) and Nashville (Jan. 16). The schedule of all outstanding currently scheduled shows is here.

But not all may be lost. Booker T., who less than two weeks ago turned 75, is aging admirably and seems to be in decent health. So there still could be an opportunity for me to see the man – I would definitely love to, and preferably so at a small venue. Maybe he’ll read this and add some dates to his current tour that are within reasonable geographic reach! 🙂

Sources: Wikipedia; Shoe Fire Media press release; New York Times; Booker T. website; Soundcloud

Clips & Pix: Booker T. Jones Demonstrates Hammond B3

When one of the coolest Hammond B3 players on the planet demonstrates the legendary organ and chats about how he got into playing this beautiful instrument, you know you’re in for a treat! To me the above NPR footage of Booker T. Jones hands-down is one of the most mesmerizing music clips I’ve ever watched on YouTube. Observing the man explain how you “crawl” on the Hammond and seeing the joy he still gets out of playing the organ is just priceless. His voice isn’t shabby either! If you’re into soulful music craftsmanship and haven’t seen this yet, I would strongly encourage you to invest the 18 minutes it takes to watch this clip in its entirety.

In fact, if you’ve visited the blog in the past, you may have seen a previous feature I did on the Hammond B3 back in June 2017. That piece included the above clip as well, but it was kind of buried all the way at the end. I was reminded of this great footage last night when I talked to a keyboarder of a jam band. I told him Green Onions would be a cool addition to their set list and in this context mentioned Jones’ great demo and that he had to watch it. Did I mention I can have strong opinions about music? In any case, I felt featuring this clip again and this time doing it more prominently was warranted.

Apart from Jones sharing nice anecdotes from the past, including how his piano teacher changed his life, he plays three tunes: Green Onions, Born Under A Bad Sign and Down In MemphisGreen Onions became a signature tune for Booker T. & The M.G.s in 1962 and launched their career as a standalone act. Of course, they were primarily known as the house band of Stax Records where they backed such amazing artists like Wilson Pickett, Otis ReddingCarla Thomas and Albert King on hundreds of recordings.

Born Under A Bad Sign was co-written by Jones and Stax longtime recording artist William Bell for Albert King, who recorded it in 1967. The tune became the title track of King’s second studio album that appeared in August of the same year. Jones closes out his presentation with Down In Memphis, a new song at the time this footage was recorded. The track was included on Jones’ ninth studio album The Road From Memphis released in May 2011. I don’t recall having ever listened to that record, so I should go and check it out!

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube

Soul Men Comin’ To You With Good Lovin’

Sam & Dave were Stax top act along with Otis Redding

With the country teetering from one crisis to the other, the news isn’t great these days, but not all is bleak. When I spotted this recent story from the Memphis Commercial Appeal, it put a smile on my face. Sam & Dave will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 61st Annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles on February 10, 2019. While I don’t ever need a reason to cover great music, this well-deserved honor provides a great angle to celebrate “The Dynamic Duo” that became Stax Records’ top performers in the ’60s, together with Otis Redding.

Sam Moore, born on October 12, 1935 in Miami, and Dave Prater, born on May 9, 1937 in Sycamore, Ga., met at the King of Hearts Club in Miami in 1961 while working on the gospel music circuit. At the time, they had already individually established themselves in the gospel groups The Melionaires and the Sensational Hummingbirds, respectively. They decided to team up but success didn’t come right away.

Sam & Dave In Concert
Sam Moore & Dave Prater

Shortly after meeting at the above Miami club, Moore and Prater got a contract with Roulette Records. They released a series of six singles that went unnoticed. In late 1964, Billboard journalist turned record company partner Jerry Wexler signed them to Atlantic Records. Moore and Prater were excited about the prospect to record at the label’s headquarters in New York or perhaps at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Ala. But, as the above Commercial Appeal story notes, “instead they were given two bus tickets to Memphis, home of Stax Records.”

To further quote from the article, “When Moore and Prater got off the bus, they were shocked at what they found: an integrated collection of musicians working out of a funky old studio on the city’s south side.” And I might add all of that during a time and in a place where racial segregation was still very much a reality despite the enactment of the Civil Rights Act on June 2, 1964.

Sam & Dave at Stax
Sam & Dave at Stax Records ca. 1970 (from left): Sam Moore, Isaac Hayes, Andrew Love, Wayne Jackson, Dave Prater, Jim Stewart and Steve Cropper

Initially, Sam & Dave worked with Stax producer and engineer Jim Stewart and songwriter Steve Cropper, guitarist of Stax dynamite house band Booker T. & The M.G.s. Then they moved to Isaac Hayes and David Porter, who at the time were still relative newcomers to writing and producing music. Sam & Dave’s first two singles didn’t make the charts. But success came with the third release You Don’t Know Like I Know, a no. 7 on the R&B chart.

In April 1966, Sam & Dave released their debut album Hold On, I’m Comin’. And comin’ they did. Both the record and the title track became hugely successful. Over the next three years, Sam & Dave scored eight additional consecutive top 20 R&B chart hits. Then their luck ran out. After a series of unsuccessful singles in 1969 and early 1970, they broke up in June that year.

Sam & Dave_Back at 'Cha

Each went on to record some solo singles that didn’t make an impact, and in August 1971, Sam & Dave decided to reunite, just before their contract with Atlantic expired. While they didn’t have a label, they continued to be a sought after live act. In 1975, they released a new studio album, Back At ‘Cha via United Artists. Produced by Steve Cropper and featuring the M.G.s and The Memphis Horns, the record yielded a top 100 single appropriately titled A Little Bit Of Good (Cures A Whole Lot Of Bad).

The emergence of The Blues Brothers in the late ’70s and their cover of Soul Man brought Sam & Dave back into the limelight. A series of concert appearances and two compilation albums (Soul Study Vol. 1 and Soul Study Vol. 2) followed, before The Dynamic Duo gave their last concert as a pair on new year’s eve in 1981.

Sam Moore at the White House
Sam Moore performing at The White House in July 2013

Following the second and final break-up, Prater hired singer Sam Daniels to perform the Sam part and started touring under the “Sam & Dave” name or as “The New Sam & Dave Revue.” This didn’t go over well with Moore, who tried to block Prater from using the name. On April 9, 1988, Prater was killed in a car accident in Sycamore, Ga.

Since 1981, Moore has continued to tour with other famous soul artists, such as Wilson Pickett, Booker T. & The M.G.s and Carla Thomas. He has also done some recording, for example, You Must Not Be Drinkin’ Enough, together with Don Henley for his 1984 album Building The Perfect Beast. In 1986, he also re-recorded Soul Man with Lou Reed for a motion picture with the same name. In October, Moore turned 83 and still appears to be active. Let’s get to some music!

What better tune to start off this playlist than with Hold On, I’m Comin’, the title track of Sam & Dave’s debut studio album released in April 1966. The song was co-written by Isaac Hayes and David Porter. Initially, I was going to include a clip of the studio recording. Then I came again across this killer live footage. Damn’, if this doesn’t make you get up and dance or at least groove along by snipping your fingers, you’ve probably had too much eggnog or too many Christmas cookies!

In addition to Hayes and Porter, other Stax musicians were involved in writing music for Sam & Dave. One such example is If You Got The Loving, another tune from the debut album, for which Steve Cropper received a co-writing credit, along with Hayes and Porter.

Here’s Soul Man from Sam & Dave’s third studio album Soul Men, which appeared in October 1967. Another Hayes-Porter composition, Soul Man became a no. 1 single on what was then the Billboard Hot Rhythm & Blues Singles chart, nowadays known as the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs. It also peaked at no. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100. Like for many other Stax recordings at the time, the label’s killer house band Booker T. & The M.G.s  provided the instrumentation. It’s acknowledged in the second chorus with the line, I‘m a soul man, play it Steve, a reference to guitarist Steve Cropper.

Next up: Broke Down Piece Of Man, another great tune from the Soul Men album. This song was written by Cropper and Joe Shamwell, a frequent co-writer of Stax music.

In 1968, Sam & Dave released I Thank You, their fourth and final studio album prior their first official breakup. Here’s the title track

I Thank You was the title track from Sam & Dave’s fourth studio album from 1968, the final record prior to their first official breakup. Another great Hayes-Porter co-write, the tune became Sam & Dave’s last top 10 single.

Here’s another hot tune from the record: Wrap It Up, yet another co-write by Hayes and Porter. If the song sounds familiar, yet you haven’t heard this version, you may know it from The Fabulous Thunderbirds, who included a great cover on their January 1986 studio album Tuff Enuff.

I’d like to close this post with two tunes from Sam & Dave’s final studio album released in May 1974. First is the above mentioned A Little Bit Of Good (Cures A Whole Lot Of Bad). The song was co-written by Gary Dalton and Kent Dubarri, who also performed as Dalton & Dubarri and released four records in the ’70s.

Last but not least, here’s Shoo Rah, Shoo Rah, a nice cover of a tune written by Allen Toussaint and first recorded by American soul and R&B singer Betty Wright.

In addition to the upcoming Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, Sam & Dave have received various other accolades. In 1992, they were induced into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. According to Wikipedia, they are also members of the Grammy Hall of Fame, Vocal Group Hall of Fame and the Memphis Music Hall of Fame – gee, frankly, I didn’t know there were so many different halls of fame. Apart from Soul Man, their songs have been covered by many other top music artists, such as Aretha Franklin, The Temptations, Bonnie Raitt and Eric Clapton & B.B. King.

Sources: Wikipedia, Memphis Commercial Appeal, YouTube