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

Southern Avenue Keep On Delivering Distinct Blend of Powerful Soul, Blues And R&B On New Album

Southern Avenue perhaps couldn’t have chosen a better title for their sophomore album. Released yesterday, Keep On continues to effectively draw from different musical backgrounds of the band’s members. Southern Avenue skillfully blend Stax-style soul with blues, R&B, gospel, funk and rock. The result is powerful music combining familiar with new influences and a sound that has noticeably matured and become more distinct since the band’s eponymous debut from February 2017.

The five-piece band from Memphis, Tenn. has been on my radar screen since I listened to the first album about two years ago. I also witnessed what a great live act Southern Avenue are when I saw them in New York City last August. At the time, I briefly chatted with guitarist Ori Naftaly, who mentioned their new album. My anticipation grew further with the release of the lead single Whiskey Love in early April, followed by the appearance of the second single Savior.

For brief background, Southern Avenue were founded in 2015 when Israeli blues guitarist Ori Naftaly met Memphis vocalist Tierini Jackson and her sister Tikyra Jackson, drummer and backing vocalist. Jeremy Powell on keyboards rounds out the band’s core line-up. Bassist Gage Markey has been a touring member for the past couple of years and also plays on the new record. Southern Avenue took their name from a street that runs from East Memphis to “Soulsville,” the original home of Stax Records. While that’s a clear nod to the band’s admiration for the legendary soul label, they are not a Stax revival act.

Southern Avenue_Keep On Press Photo
Southern Avenue (from left): Tierini Jackson, Jeremy Powell, Gage Markey, Tikyra Jackson and Ori Naftaly

Keep On features some impressive guests. In this context, I first would like to mention the great horn section comprised of saxophonist Art Edmaiston and trumpet player Mark Franklin. They are an important factor for the above noted more mature sound. Edmaiston has played with artists like Levon Helm and Gregg Allman, while Franklin  has supported sessions for the likes of Aretha FranklinB.B. KingSolomon Burke and Booker T. & the M.G.s. Another prominent guest is William Bell, who is perhaps best known for co-writing Born Under a Bad Sign with Booker T. Jones. The tune was first recorded by Albert King in 1967 and popularized by Cream the following year.

Alright, I think it’s time for some music. Here’s the album’s opener and title track. Co-written by Ori Naftaly, Tierini Jackson and producer Johnny Black, the tune is a nice example of how Southern Avenue blend different genres. Naftaly clearly is a blues guitarist at heart and I can hear some Cream in his cool riff. The horns add a dose of soul while Jackson’s strong vocals throw in some R&B.

Since I previously wrote about the first two singles Whiskey Love and Savior, I’m skipping these great tracks here and jump to the nice funky Switchup. Like the title track, the song is co-credited to Naftaly, Jackson and Black.

Next up: Lucky. Co-written by Naftaly and Jackson, this song has a beautiful retro Stax vibe to it. But, as if to emphasize that Southern Avenue don’t want to be a retro Memphis soul band, Naftaly throws in a fairly rock-oriented guitar solo.

Another great number is Jive, a co-write by Naftaly, Black and both Jackson sisters. I dig the tune’s driving beat, which makes you want to get up and dance. The horns and the backing vocals set great accents.

On the upbeat We’ve Got The MusicWilliam Bell joins Tierini Jackson on vocals. Bell also shares writing credits with Naftaly and her. I like the song’s message about the power of music and how it can bridge differences among people: If you don’t look like me/If you don’t talk like me, that’s alright/We’ve got the music/If you don’t know my face/But you’re feeling the sound, it’s okay/We’ve got the music…

The last track I’d like to call out is the album’s closer We’re Gonna Make It. I think music publication No Depression nicely described the tune in their review of Keep On. “This gospel-inflected song opens with a nod to Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come,” and builds a message of love, persistence, and encouragement layer-by-layer. The song takes up where the Staple Singers left off, carrying the torch of hope in a world of darkness and giving us a new anthem for these times.”

“Making this album was an interesting journey,” Ori explained. “Our first album was recorded very fast and released very fast. With this one, we spent a long time planning, and we knew how we wanted it sound. For me, it’s a big progression from the first album.” Added Tierini: “The experience was completely different from making the first one. We learned a lot about each other and a lot about the band.”

One of the cool things about Keep On is that the album was recorded at Sam Phillips Recording. The studio was opened in Memphis in 1960 by no one other than legendary Sun Records founder and producer Sam Phillips, who worked with artists like Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and B.B. King. Wow, one can only imagine what it must have felt like for this young band to record in that studio – the thought of it gives me goosebumps!

Southern Avenue In Concert

“The thing that stood out most to me about Southern Avenue is their dedication to making this record ‘the hard way’,” stated producer Johnny Black. “Even in their selection of studios; by picking Sam Phillips Recording, the band, in essence, forced themselves to record within the same parameters as some of their heroes. And while that process may have taken extra time, it was well worth the effort.” In my humble opinion, I think Black is spot on.

Southern Avenue currently is where they seem to be most of the time – on the road. Their tour schedule is packed between now and mid-November and mostly includes U.S. dates. From late May to mid-June, the band is also playing a series of shows in Europe. I have no doubt Southern Avenue will keep on wowing audiences with their performances that are passionate, authentic and humble at the same time. As a communications professional, I also have to commend the band for their effective use of Facebook to build their fan base. I’m planning to catch them again on July 11 during Jams on the Sand, a free outdoor event in Asbury Park, N.J.

Sources: Wikipedia, Southern Avenue website, William Bell website, No Depression, YouTube

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