There’s a preoccupation with place all over Booker T. Jones’ new album, The Road From Memphis. The city exists as an almost-magical hub of life, excitement and potential, filled with millions of individuals of limitless creativity and imagination. Memphis – the city of Booker T’s birth and the epicentre of his amazing career – obviously looms large, but so too does New York, where this album was recorded with The Roots in just a few short sessions.
“I’m fascinated with the energy centres of the world,” Booker tells me, from his new home in Hollywood. “I think I first became aware of it when I realised that all the Greek philosophers and writers were concentrated in one place, and one time; Socrates, Aristotle… Why does that happen? And the same thing happened in San Francisco and in Memphis in the ‘60s… It happened in Philadelphia with Teddy Pendergrass, and Gamble and Huff. And it happened again in Detroit, with Motown. There was just so much creative energy in one place – Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, Mary Wells, Diana Ross – and it fascinates me. I don’t know how to explain it – it seems like there are wells of energy that come up in music in different eras and in different places, and it establishes a style, and the style lives for a long time,” he says. “And it happened to me directly. I was a part of one of those energy centres in Memphis, and it was just fascinating.”
The ‘energy centre’ he’s referring to was the legendary Stax Records, and Booker T. was there from even before the start. As a sixteen-year-old, Booker played saxophone on Rufus & Carla Thomas’ ‘Cause I Love You’ – the first hit for Satellite Records, which was renamed ‘Stax’ within twelve months. Booker was at Stax throughout the 1960s, writing songs for Otis Redding, Mavis Staples and Eddie Floyd, including Albert King’s ‘Born Under A Bad Sign’ – one of the classics of the genre. As well as writing, though, Booker T. & The MGs were Stax’ de facto house band, playing on literally hundreds of hits, including ‘Try A Little Tenderness’, ‘Hold On, I’m Coming’, ‘Soul Man’, ‘Walking The Dog’ and their own enduring classic ‘Green Onions’. As a group, they almost single-handedly defined the sound of soul.
It was hard work, though. Like Motown, Stax had teams of songwriters working all day, every day, under tremendous pressure to produce the next smash hit. “We had a strict schedule of recording from 11-6,” Booker tells me, “but I have to say, thinking back on it, all of that was driven by the passion of the writers. They could have gone and got other jobs, [but] people loved what they were doing, and were just driven to it. Because it doesn’t make any practical sense at all, to try and be a songwriter,” he reasons. “[But Stax] was a great place to cultivate music, and a great environment. You had writers like David Porter and Isaac Hayes right next door, and that was the whole thing; it was a conversation, and the focus all the time was to get better. It was a beautiful environment, and it’s too bad that it couldn’t have continued – but business got in the way.”
That sort of relationship, that sort of dialogue, is a rare commodity, but it seems as though Booker found lively conversationalists in The Roots. Booker arrived in New York a couple of weeks before the recording of The Road From Memphis was due to begin, but both parties were so busy that they didn’t get a chance to meet up until they arrived at the studio. Still, there’s an ease to the partnership that comes across on record – the sort of innate understanding that usually takes years to develop. “I think that was fortunate,” Booker says, somewhat modestly. “They had listened to my music before, and they were fans, and they were comfortable in their own skin. [And their] musicianship is probably as high as I’ve experienced in a band. The Roots really know what they’re doing with music. And it’s not wishful thinking – they actually execute. You better be ready if you’re going to play with those guys.”
But there’s was another, equally important member of the group – and we’re not talking about Lou Reed, Sharon Jones, Jim James from My Morning Jacket or Matt Berninger from The National, all of whom feature on the album. The final piece of the puzzle was New York itself, a city which has always provided Booker with inspiration. “New York has been very strong for me, musically,” he explains. “Every time I’ve gone to New York I’ve got good energy. I remember we recorded Melting Pot  in New York when I was so frustrated. I’d been trying to record in Los Angeles and in Memphis, and everything we did just sounded the same. And I just really needed to bust out and do something different – I thought it was going to drive me crazy. But then [in New York City] we came up with Melting Pot.
“The Bronx is amazing,” he says. “If you look at the amount of talent that has come out of that city, it’s just amazing. Everybody from Woody Allen, to Mark Twain, and so many actors, actresses, singers, writers – so many people come from one area. Why does that happen? How does that happen?” It might be that there’s something in the water – but it’s hardly a coincidence that Booker T. Jones finds extraordinary musicians and unspoken connections everywhere he goes. Perhaps it has more to do with the man himself.