Before he moved to Marin County in 1994, Booker T. Jones, a 1992 inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, was pretty much out of the music business. The brilliant multi-instrumentalist who forged the sound of Memphis soul with his band, the MGs, scored a classic hit with “Green Onions” and worked in the studio with everyone from Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett to Bill Withers and Bob Dylan had been reduced to selling real estate in the San Fernando Valley.
“The music business just wasn’t there for me in the ’80s,” he recalls. “I had to make a living.”
In better days, he’d worked with San Rafael-based record producer Narada Michael Walden and felt right at home in Marin’s close-knit music community. So when interest rates topped 20 and the bottom fell out of the real estate market, he and his wife, Nan, sold their Southern California home and fled from smoggy L.A. with their three kids, settling into a small apartment on Cove Road in Belvedere.
“I couldn’t get arrested in Southern California, but I managed to get a gig at Sweetwater,” he says, referring to the original Sweetwater in Mill Valley. “So I got my little electric piano out and lugged it down to the club myself and started playing. People came and I got back into it.”
As fate would have it, Neil Young stopped by one night and, before long, Jones was on the road with him. While he’s famous for the Stax sound of his Hammond B-3 organ, he played mostly guitar in Young’s band.
“I made some money with Neil, enough to buy a house in Tiburon,” he remembers. “Then I started getting calls to play sessions in L.A. and San Francisco before the big studios went under. I started writing music again and haven’t sold real estate since.”
In 2007, the business that once nearly shut him out honored him with a Grammy Award for lifetime achievement. And on Saturday night, he returns to the little club that revived his hall of fame career. He and his five-piece band, which includes his 25-year-old son, Ted, on guitar, play the new Sweetwater Music Hall. This time, though, it won’t be a hometown gig. It will be a homecoming.
With their children grown and on their own (daughter Olivia, a UCLA grad, manages her father’s career), the Joneses left Marin in 2010 and lived briefly in West Hollywood to be closer to his record company.
“It didn’t work out,” he says. “My wife hated it. It was still L.A. when we moved back.”
For the past three years, they’ve been happily ensconced in Incline Village, a wealthy mountain enclave on the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe.
“It 6,500 feet, so we had to acclimate,” he says, speaking by phone from his home there. “There’s hiking and snowshoeing. It’s kind of windy right now but the sun is shining. It’s different, but I like it. And we go down to Marin all the time. We made our life there and made a lot of friends. We’ve got a fast little Tesla car now, so we head down Highway 80 and we’re there in three hours.”
Jones will be 71 in November, but he’s far from retired. He’s writing a book, working on a new album and composing a symphony. While he was leading the house band at famed Stax Records in Memphis when he was still a teenager, he used the money he made from “Green Onions” to pay his way through Indiana University, earning a degree in classical orchestration and conducting .
“I’ll never get away from the orchestra,” he says, crediting his university training for developing his ability to write melodies for hits with the MGs like “Time is Tight,” “Hip Hugger,” “Hang ‘em High” and “Melting Pot.” “The orchestra is always going to be in my heart.”
In the show he brings to Sweetwater, he’ll play those tunes as well as songs he wrote, produced or played on for other people, among them Albert King’s “Born Under a Bad Sign,” Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine” and Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door.”
More recently, he won best pop instrumental album Grammys for 2010’s “Potato Hole” with the Drive-Bye Truckers and “The Road to Memphis,” his 2012 collaboration with the Roots.
With credentials like that, he wouldn’t have to play another note or write another song to be in the rock pantheon, but he isn’t one to rest on his laurels. He happily reports that living in the rarefied mountain air of Tahoe’s north shore has not only been good for his health and well-being, it’s also enhanced his creativity. “It’s inspiring,” he says. “I have a clarity and a courage here that I don’t know if I’d have in the city.”
And he’d much rather make the half-hour drive to the Reno airport and the hour-long flight to the studio he uses in L.A. than commute on Southern California’s traffic-strangled freeways.
“We looked at the logistics before we moved to Nevada, and we can actually get to L.A. faster from here than if we had a house in Pasadena,” he says, laughing.
Now that he’s in his 70s, Jones insists that he doesn’t feel all that different from the teenage prodigy who walked into the Stax studios in Memphis more than 50 years ago and proceeded to make rock music history.
“I’ve made it this far, but I’m the same kid who recorded ‘Green Onions’ at 17,” he says. “I’ve made a name for myself, and that’s hard to do. Now I just go on faith. I do this for the love of it and it sustains me. ”