Jones on a musical, spiritual road trip
Jones on a musical, spiritual road trip

Three-time Grammy award winner Booker T. Jones hesitates before answering the question: why is the latest album called The Road from Memphis and not The Road to Memphis?

"Hmmm," he ponders. "The Road to Memphis... yes...I did leave there in 1971 and that's the reason. Now I'm heading back there, spiritually and musically."

Musically, The Road from Memphis, like its 2009 predecessor Potato Hole, is a feisty return to the classy Stax instrumentals he created with his Hammond B3 organ and the premier rhythm section, Booker T. and the MG's between the enduring 1962 chestnut Green Onions and the much-sampled 1971 number Melting Pot.

At a time when water-tight rhythm sections in Memphis, Muscle Shoals and New York were the backbone of a massive soul catalogue by the likes of Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin, Booker T. and the MG's went a step further than their rivals. They crafted their own instrumental hits.

Despite the success of songs like Green Onions, Time is Tight and Soul Limbo, the combo were not afforded the freedoms usually giben to hitmakers.

"I had a lot of problems in Memphis," Jones says. "At Stax, we were treated like employees and not musicians and they wouldn't let me sing."

Moving to Los Angeles found him producing (Bill Wither's Just as I Am in 1971, Willie Nelson's Stardust in 1978), indulging in contemporary West Coast rock with a rustic flavour (1974's Evergreen), a couple of MG's reunion albums (1977's Universal Language and 1994's That's the Way it Should Be) and a few sophisticated, romantic albums with producer David Anderle. The musical odyssey from Memphis eventually hit a roadblock and Jones was relegated to selling real estate in California in the mid-80s. Today, it's a different road, a freeway with a rainbow in sight, a journey back to the light. His latest work throbs to a crashing back beat from ?uestlove, guitar from Captain Kirk and bass from Owen Biddle of the Roots.

The combination of hip-hop youth and soul elder rejuvenates the old Memphis sound on The Hive, Walking Papers and Harlem House. At 66, Jones is as dynamic on the Hammond B3 as the day Green Onions was born. On enlisting ?uestlove, Jones, says: "He has the energy I need. He knows the old Memphis hits".

Unlike the all-instrumental and funky Potato Hole backed by the Drive-By Truckers, The Road from Memphis features guest vocals from soul queen Sharon Jones, rock legend Lou Reed and Jim James of Kentucky rockers My Morning Jacket.

Jones offers his smoky voice on Down in Memphis, a lyrical collection of vignettes from his early days in the soul and blues capital. "I was too young to enter the Beale Street clubs but I heard people like Blind Oscar playing piano when I was outside Club Handy," he says. "When I was delivering newspapers in Memphis I heard Phineas Newborn's piano drifting out of this modest house through an old wire door. It inspired me to play keyboards then. And today, I have the sound I want."

The Road from Memphis is out through Anti/Shock.

The West Australian

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