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Time Is Tight
My Life, Note by Note
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Time doesn't always move straight forward. I followed my thematic impulses to guide me to connect events from different periods of my life. I wanted you, the reader, to sense the flow of time—not only from the early beginnings to now but jumping forward and circling back when moments were joined more by truth than minutes.
It's a song that returns again and again to choruses that are different and somehow the same. I encourage you to let your mind open and free yourself of constraints. Time is open, and yet time is tight.
I have recalled the events depicted in this book to the best of my recollection. While all the stories are true, some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of the people involved.
Throughout the text, just after the subheadings, are eighth notes followed by numbers that refer to various musical phrases I have composed for this book. Each phrase is a musical representation of a feeling or temperament that matches or resembles the scene that follows, note by note.
Acapulco Gold—like dinner at a fine restaurant some have described it.
On the morning of February 9, 1971, I had a saddlebag full of it, which tumbled down when I pulled the saddle off my horse. On the trail riding Skeeter, my polo pony, I shared the weed with my riding friend, Glyn Turman, who was never without a generous flask of expensive southern whiskey in his saddlebag. Glyn waved goodbye at my gate and trotted off to his ranch, just north of mine in the Malibu Hills.
I put my horse away and hung the saddle and gear in the tack house. Then I laid a blanket on the ground a few yards away to rest and enjoy the beautiful morning on my Acapulco high. The sky was clear, and the crisp morning air felt good to my lungs as I stretched out and recognized an acute sharpness in my perception that I had not experienced before. I felt I could see, hear, taste, smell, and think better.
My mind eased into reflection as I lay on the ground and appreciated how the mountains and surf gave me a sense of peacefulness and safety. My adventurous, curious nature had led me from Memphis to this exotic locale just steps from the Pacific, where I fell into loving the smell of sweaty horses and musty hay. I met new people who stimulated my musical sensitivities—Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Bob Dylan, Stephen Stills, Bill Withers. These Malibu natives were my new family. Life was different here, and I felt deep appreciation for the steady, loving, unwavering support from my parents, teachers, and neighbors in Memphis. I felt secure and stable enough to wander. I loved my new home.
Then the horses started whinnying in the barn. The dogs began barking at the sky.
I became aware of a faint reverberation, way down deep on the other side of the earth. Paranoia set in. I'm not sure this is the best time to experience my first earthquake.
The rumble quickly became a bass drum roll, then expanded and condensed into a violent jolt that shook the ground. The whole ranch seemed to move about a foot. Not getting up with the earth moving around like flapjacks in a pan was a no-brainer, so I stayed put, stoned out of my mind. Only later did I learn it was the great San Fernando earthquake, strongest in California's history, about to do more damage than you could imagine in less time than you could comprehend.
Unaware of the destruction being unfurled around me, I lay frozen on the blanket and took the ride. When the rumbling stopped, I was thankful to be in one piece, still on the earth's crust, and not swallowed up into its belly. I took my time rolling over onto my knees. After taking my time to get back on two feet, I realized the old ranch house was still intact, a veteran of many earthquakes.
Billie Nichols, the agent at Louis Busch's Malibu Realty, was thrilled with our $89,000 offer for Lana Turner's 4.89-acre ranch at the end of Winding Way. With $40,000 down there was no bank involved, and Lana carried the $49,000 balance herself. She made a few surprise visits to collect mortgage payments and survey her investment. The small print in the contract specified Malibu's age-old stigma that no land could be sold to a black.
The deed transferred to me anyway, and I stayed in shape by loading my own hay bales at the Malibu Feed Bin, using bailing pins and heaving the big bales off the dock onto the bed of my '71 F150. When I got home, I loaded and stacked them in the barn, which held thirty tons of hay.
My wardrobe shifted from the fancy clothes I wore with the MGs in Memphis to blue jeans, plaid shirts, cowboy hats, and beige Frye boots that went up to my knees. Everyone who had a ranch was wearing Fryes. They offered some level of protection from the rattlers that haunted Malibu's trails with such abundance. Skeeter was not spooked by the snakes and would just speed up when he saw one of the fat females spread out over the road. Not that I was lucky enough to be on the horse for every encounter. There were many times when I was in the brush and a rattler may have been close, so the boots became part of my daily attire.
Though I rode Skeeter western, he was a good jumper since some of the young girls who used him did it English style. I had a deal with my neighbor, Egon Merz, an old German who trained Hollywood starlets to ride, that he could borrow my horses in return for riding and tack lessons. "Yess, I trayyned Elizabeth Taylor to ride for National Velvet! I did!" he claimed in his broken English.
Many mornings I heard my horses trot past my bedroom window. They left the ranch early because Egon had sent a pair of young girls to fetch a quarter horse or my Shetland pony. I never minded. The exercise was good for the horses, and Egon always walked and brushed them afterward, not to mention cleaning and replacing all the tack by nightfall.
One day, Egon's daughter, Gina, led us to a trail that sidled past homes in Ramirez Canyon before proceeding under the Pacific Coast Highway into a dark, narrow tunnel that gave access to Malibu Beach. When our horses caught eye of that smooth sand, they couldn't hold back. No pulling on the reins. We let them go, bending our knees, pressing our heels into the stirrups, and hanging on for dear life.
Just like in the movies, trots became gallops, and gallops turned into flying leaps with front hooves meeting back hooves. Skeeter bared his teeth, opened his mouth, and put his head down a little, pumping his neck front to back. Beach houses flew by. Our hats fell off. We gripped the horses' bellies with our thighs. Sweat flew everywhere. The only sounds were four hooves pounding the sand, wind howling, and my pony's lungs whining for air.
The ride home was a victory march. Our horses pulled up and stopped at a huge gully with imposing rocks on a beach too wide to cross. On the left, the gully gave way to a majestic ravine whose water fed the Pacific. I didn't know the beach well enough to recognize where we were. But it didn't matter. The horses knew the way home and picked up speed gradually as we got back to Malibu.
Skeeter was absolutely soaked, so I put a light blanket on his back. He was dripping as I walked him a bit so he didn't cool off too fast before watering. After I brushed him, he galloped off to his stall. Welcome to California!
The year was 1968, and I was embarking on my spiritual journey. In the library of Rabbi Max Vorspan, whose Beverly Hills home I rented while he took his sabbatical, I discovered Ghani yoga, raja yoga, and hatha yoga. I studied graphology, took up astrology, and, before computers showed up and simplified the process, taught myself to do astrological sidereal charts using Greenwich Mean Time. The intricate math was difficult, involving converting birth times geographically from hours and minutes according to a person's birthplace to latitude and longitude. The professional astrologers would do charts, and after I peered at one long enough, the answers to unanswerable questions would "jump off the page." It happened once when a Malibu friend asked me to read his chart. He sat with me and waited. After a while, it told me he had webbed feet. I asked him if it was true. He took off his shoes and showed me his webbed toes. I stopped doing charts for others after that.
Even with all the reading and study, my quest to find meaning and discover my true self was stymied because I didn't know how to meditate. The process was long and tedious, with many side trips that seemed to have no purpose. But eventually, Transcendental Meditation produced results, most importantly by helping me realize the precision my guardian angels had employed when they led me through the door at Satellite/Stax Records.
What a lost soul I would have been without my Memphis music beginnings. What could have taken the place of the security the Stax family provided? And yet, I was unable to resist the temptations to leave. First to Indiana, to study music, and now, trading a solid musical legacy to move to California for the freedom to live on a small horse ranch.
For the longest time, Stax meant nothing to the city of Memphis. Jim Stewart was an insignificant bank teller with the dream of making a fortune publishing country songs. Sorrowfully flawed for the job, he became the nucleus of a musical cooperation of unlikely bedfellows. That slight, frail, country fiddler created a sanctuary, a fortress in enemy territory, where the rules of segregation remained a feeble shadow and where whites and blacks created music together on a daily basis. In that atmosphere of safety, my spirit soared and my heart barely stayed in my chest during recording sessions with Otis Redding and Booker T. & the MGs.
The truth is I was never in it for the money. I loved the people and the music. And the people and the music loved me, and we flew together—on a daily basis. The best-kept secret in the Mid-South, right under the nose of the Crump dynasty. On the same plots of earth where our forefathers maimed each other, we experienced exalted moments together. This is not to say Jim Crow didn't poke his head above ground. Like working on "Maggie's Farm," there were periods when the only pay was the rapturous experience gleaned from the music.
Those eight years, and those people—Jim Stewart; his sister, Estelle Axton; Al Jackson Jr.; Lewie Steinberg; Steve Cropper; Duck Dunn; David Porter; William Bell; Sam & Dave; Wilson Pickett; Packy Axton; Andrew Love; Isaac Hayes; Chips Moman; Floyd Newman; Tom Dowd; Ronnie Capone; Rufus Thomas; Carla Thomas; Eddie Floyd; Otis Redding; Albert King; Wayne Jackson; Deanie Parker; and Al Bell—defined my life. In the prism of music, we became reflections of each other, and over time we came to love each other. Even when we fought. And throughout the whole experience, I was always the youngest, working out who I was and what I wanted to do with my life note by note.
His Eye Is on the Sparrow
Al Jackson sauntered into the studio. Big grin. Eyes sparkling. Peering directly at me.
"Whatchu got, Jones?"
That was his way of asking me to show him what music we would be working on that day. I was always ready to accept the duty of being the originator of the song material.
I returned Al's gaze with understanding. They needed me to come up with the essence of the song, so, as he always did, he asked, "Whatchu got, Jones?" That plunged me into my musical mind like a deep-sea diver looking for pearls on the ocean floor.
Sweater sleeves pulled up, Al dampened the sound of his snare by plopping his fat wallet onto the snare drum head and securing it with a few generous strips of masking tape. He then stepped off the riser, walked over to Steve, and took a Winston from Steve's box. Lighting the cigarette, he looked back at me. "You ready?"
Having already made a stop at the coffee machine in the foyer, I placed my fingers in "Green Onions" position on the keyboard. When I walked in, I needed an idea, and if I didn't have anything right away, I'd take another sip of coffee, another drag on a Salem, and then dive in and bring up something to show them. Some musical idea would just pop into my head. Usually a pebble, sometimes a pearl.
That morning, I pulled out the same stops as "Onions" and started twiddling the first three fingers of my right hand between a triad and a seventh chord. Good. Great sound from the speaker. Ended up using only three fingers for the whole pattern. Today's song had to be something soulful, and simple. Turned it up so loud, I almost distorted the little JBL speaker.
Jim Stewart entered the studio. "Hi, Booker." His eyes hinted at a smile. "Let's get started." The swatch of unruly red hair on Jim's forehead wrested my eyes away from his steady gaze. His infrequent smile was open, but it had to be earned.
Jim was the founder of the company and the engineer for the day. His nimble, surreptitious shift from country into black music was reflected in his gait, which he often used to amble into the studio late. Sometimes he forgot how hip he had become and went back to the fast shuffle of a white Memphis banker.
This session, which Jim surprisingly showed up early to, would have been started by Chips Moman (Jim's first studio foreman) or Steve Cropper (after the first couple years), and Jim would have to play catch-up to learn the song, or songs, for the day.
He bent over and moved the mike back a little. The banker's jacket slid off his tiny, swaybacked frame and revealed a neck elongated from years of playing the fiddle.
Lewie, meanwhile, moved his chair closer to my left hand to follow the notes and re-create them as the bass line. "That sounds like something." Steve put his Winston out. Al went back to his kit, straddled the throne, and picked up his sticks—a funky, subtle backbeat.
Lewie Steinberg, who picked lightly and faultlessly at his bass, was the daddy of the group. Steve Cropper paid attention to the rhythm. You could depend on Steve for originality and simplicity. You could rely on Al to keep the tempo better than a metronome; he never let songs run away. With this group, you could count on having a great groove no matter what you played.
"You guys got anything yet?" asked Jim, peering through the glass, listening.
Steve threw me a glance. Nothing worth working on yet, he said with his eyes. I dug deeper until I finally struck gold with a melody not unlike the ones I concocted on a nightly basis down at the Flamingo. Hours later, after nonstop experimenting and rearranging, Al, Steve, Lewie, and Jim were smiling as we came to the end of the little ditty.
Another day's work at Stax.
At the end of the day, I navigated my way to Jim's desk to pick up the diminutive but always valid check. We seemed to have a good rapport, Jim and I. He respected my musical abilities, my work ethic. But Jim still wrote the musicians' checks fast and somewhat begrudgingly, as if it were dirty work to be done quickly. He often looked off as he handed you the money or had Linda (Andrews, the secretary) do the honors.
Jim was there to acquire ownership of the publishing rights to the songs he recorded. From the beginning, he understood there was small chance of getting rich operating a record company. If he could get country or (later) R & B songs played that were licensed to his company, royalties were paid without deductions from the radio stations. To boot, the annuity lasted for twenty-six years, with a free renewal for another twenty-six years under US law.
This information was hidden from me. I was unaware of the concept of any profit associated with the writing of a song or that any proceeds were paid to people who wrote songs. At Satellite, I could get upward of five dollars per day to create original music, which I gladly did.
As I finished second grade, going on seven years old, one of a few public spaces available to blacks in South Memphis was Lincoln Park, which also happened to be the site of my first kite contest. Before participating, I had fashioned a kite from newspaper and balsa wood sticks. It was held together with glue and had a bright blue tail made from Christmas wrapping ribbon. That early June afternoon, a light wind quickly and gently lifted my kite up close to the puffed-up, milky clouds that were waiting in the warm blue sky. It joined the flock of other kites erratically swaying next to each other.
I was so excited for the contest. There was food out on tables, booths with crafts, games, lots of people, and a large band playing on a covered stage. At the time, I had advanced from flying kites purchased at the drugstore to flying ones I had built in a large field behind my friend O. D. Adams's house over on Orleans Street.
Months of effort went into making my kite for that afternoon, but in an instant, none of that mattered. Serendipitously I wandered over to the stage where Al Jackson's band was playing. The blend created by the string bass and Al's kick drum hit repeatedly in my chest, like the dreams I'd had of music late at night in my bed. I was swept away in wonder at the sound of brass instruments dancing with wood instruments. My kite-making friends stayed behind, holding tightly to their strings, not noticing I let mine go. My kite wafted and glided upward while I also floated, just in the direction of the music, my feet skipping. After all that work, the newspaper kite was whirling, escaping, vanishing from sight.
The first big band I had ever heard live overwhelmed me with excitement.
The leader of the band was a slim, well-dressed older man. There were five saxophones in the front row and trumpets and trombones behind them. There was an upright bass, a piano, and a guitar. And there were drums with a very young man behind the set.
I didn't have much to say about the kite contest to my parents when I got home, just that I had heard a band playing in the park.
My parents already knew of my passion for music and, from the time I was very young, supported my endeavors in the discipline. Our small Edith Street house was built in 1945 and was only thirteen hundred square feet. The piano was in the living room, not far from my parents' bedroom. They never complained when I played into the night.
My success as a keyboardist comes from my attempts to emulate and duplicate my mother's style. She was a loving person and bequeathed to me many portions of her musical makeup. She birthed all of me, physically and musically.
The way she played the piano sunk into my being. I was born listening to her. When she sang at church, the room quieted as she gave renditions of gospel pearls and classic arias.
I got a double dose. People at church also requested my father, Booker T. Jones Sr., to sing "His Eye Is on the Sparrow" a cappella. There were no dry eyes when he finished. His sterling tenor voice, with its vibrato and sincere delivery, ensured that.
While I was only three or four when Mama sold her old upright piano, the missing instrument left a gaping hole in my heart. Even if I didn't know how to play then, I'd still get up on the bench and use two fingers to make harmony. Mom and Dad made up for it by buying me musical toys and later real instruments. I was so happy with those. One afternoon, a woman reporter from a Chicago magazine came to our house and sat in the living room, interviewing Mama. "Was Booker always musically inclined, Mrs. Jones?" she asked.
"I never thought of Booker doing anything else," Mama replied.
Piano notwithstanding, it was always the drum, or drums, that harbored an inescapable fascination for me, even before I saw Al Jackson Jr. the afternoon of the kite contest.
When I was a little boy, Mama used to take me to the downtown department stores: Bry's, Goldsmith's, Lowenstein's, and the Black and White Store. Of all the magical things we saw, what captured my attention the most was a toy drum at the five-and-dime store on Main. A delicate wooden thing, with the heads covered in a coarse paper mesh cloth, the drum sounded real. At home, it seemed like seconds before I busted the head, but I got to beat on it and to hear that sound and to hold those sticks.
I played my sticks anywhere I could—on a pillow, on the carpet, the top of a paper cup, anything that would bounce back even slightly. And then it became the sticks themselves that held the fascination for me. Rhythm after rhythm beat out on Mama's beautiful hardwood floor. It did damage the floor, and I got yelled at, but that hardwood responded so perfectly to my wrist movements. I began to play flams and paradiddles before I knew what they were.
Of course, when Dad took me to night football games, I watched Washington High School Drum and Bugle Corps perform.
My life was changed forever when I was nine years old and my father surprised me with a brand-new clarinet. The dank smell of the case, the black wood, the beautiful dark green felt that caressed each piece, and the excess glue on some of the pads made a sight I will never forget. Not until I laid eyes on a Hammond B-3 organ was I ever so moved and hypnotized as when my father put that instrument in my hands. Everyone should experience such love and rhapsody at least once in their life.
Mr. McClellan, who was the band director at Leath School, a small school where my dad once taught, was a close friend and neighbor who lived up the street. One Saturday morning, my dad called him and asked if he would give me a short, impromptu lesson.
We went up to Mr. McClellan's house, he came out, and on his steep driveway, he showed me how to hold my clarinet and where to put my fingers to cover up the holes. Mr. McClellan was a short, stout, balding, and likeable man, who—in spite of inadvertently spitting all over me when he spoke—changed my life in just a few benevolent seconds.
We stood there in his driveway, me still holding the clarinet before I let go of the instrument to put it back in its case. It would be the starting position for my hands over that clarinet and many other woodwind instruments, including the oboe, with my fingers glued in place over the holes, like he showed me. Even while walking, I kept my hands in starting position. I cannot thank Mr. McClellan enough. Dad had sacrificed and made a down payment and signed papers for years of monthly payments to buy a clarinet for me.
One Saturday morning when I was nine years old, my dad told me under a bright, warm sun, "Go back in the house and get your clarinet. We're going to get a haircut." I had a slight twinge of anxiety. I'd been to Cade's before. Why am I taking my clarinet this time? What song will I play? Will I remember the notes? Dad was proud of me and wanted to show me off. He didn't doubt that I would do OK.
Set back from the street in a building of storefronts that included a beer garden as well as Samuel T. Lusk's watch repair shop, Cade's was so much more than a barbershop. There was a lot of camaraderie and good talk on any subject, and overflowing on the shelves under the big storefront windows were mounds of musty old magazines with curled edges. Overcoats were piled high on a coat rack, and laughter and political posturing were easy to find. Oddly, I loved the tired, pungent odor of the hair tonic in the red and green bottles that had expired months ago on the barbers' stations behind the chairs. It gave the place a unique, recurring reference point from other types of establishments.
Mr. Cade himself was a dark, slight man with a quiet nature. He always had a pleasant disposition while cutting my dad's hair and giving him a shave. I looked forward to perusing the many Life and Look magazines at the shop and playing the occasional game of checkers with any one of the men who would indulge me. Mr. Cade's son, Kenneth, older than me, was a member of the Washington High School band, playing clarinet, and I looked up to him. I think this fact was one of the things that helped influence my dad to buy my clarinet. God knows he couldn't afford it.
Mr. Macklin was the barber who took care of my hair—Mr. Mac, we called him. He used his strong hands to give my bald head a vigorous massage with aftershave lotion each time my haircut was done. Then he'd unsnap the pin securing the towel and slap and smack my bald head all over with aromatic tonic and talcum powder. "There you go, boy," he said, with another firm smack, and I was free to catch yet another cold with my bald head.
The shop quieted as I began the first notes. The tune I picked was a very popular song I had heard on a TV show, Skokian, which I taught myself on my new clarinet. It was the first time I played for an audience—the men recognized the tune instantly. After I played the last note, there was silence.
I was thrown off by this. Did they enjoy the song? Did I miss some notes? One by one they started to smile and applaud. They kept clapping. So long that I felt uncomfortable. I didn't know what to do. I made a nervous bow and rushed over to the window to put my clarinet back in its case and sat down close to my beaming father.
- One of the Oakland Press's Best Music Books of the Fall
- "Booker T. Jones composed some of the finest music of the last century, and now he's given us one of the finest music books of this one."—Wall Street Journal
- "Wonderfully perceptive, generous, and open-hearted memoir."—New York Journal of Books
- "Vivid and thoughtful."—Memphis Flyer
- "A fun, revealing look into [Jones's] life and creative process."—News & Record
- "Booker T. is a great producer, a great musician, and a great friend. Those three 'greats' together pretty much let you know how I feel about Booker. He and I worked together on many projects, all were fun-just like this book, which is as joyful to read as Booker's music is to listen to."—Willie Nelson
- "Booker T. will forever be known as the Booker T. from Booker T. and the MGs. But this book reveals so much more of the man."—Bob Dylan
- "Booker is simply one of the tenderest-hearted people I've ever met and I'm so honored to have ever been in his company. This beautiful memoir is a near perfect reflection of the man I would walk a million miles for: engaging, unforgettable, and deeply creative."—SinéadO'Connor
- "Booker, we love you and your genius ability to touch people's hearts with your organ, your music, and now your writing."—Narada Michael Walden
- "The contributions by Booker T. Jones to American Popular Music are immeasurable. In Time is Tight, Booker digs deep into his soul, revealing much about the extraordinary music he has made over nearly six decades with artists as diverse as Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Bill Withers, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Willie Nelson and, of course, Booker T. and the MG's. In between stories of musical greatness, the readers learns much about Booker's personal life and, in the process, the depth of his humanity. Intelligent and articulate to a fault, Time is Tight is one of the finest autobiographies that I have ever read."—Rob Bowman
- "I have come to view Booker T and the MGs (the Mixed Group) as one of the backbones of American popular music, and if you listen to how Booker T Jones works that Hammond B3 organ on those classic songs, you realize he is playing his life, note for note. That's how it is in his memoir, Time Is Tight: With every page he strikes a heartfelt chord as he candidly reveals his life before and during his years at Stax Records, an era of racism and segregation that defined the city of Memphis, Tennessee and America. This book brings to light the honesty, grit, and integrity he displayed in his musical brilliance for more than six decades, a soundtrack of pure genius that transcends the human soul. I dare you to put this book down once you start reading it."—AlBell, former owner Stax Records, former President of The Motown Records Group
"Time Is Tight is a whirlwind tour through Booker's incredible journey from his humble beginnings in Memphis through his tenure backing up the likes of Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Albert King and Carla Thomas to his blossoming as an acclaimed producer and songwriter. Told with heart and soul and interspersed with loving memories of his wonderful family and talented cohorts. The story is also rife with the turbulent times he has lived through from the King assassination, the fall of Stax and Al Jackson's murder. Through it all, Booker narrates with his intelligence and wit as we travel back and forth through these amazing life and times. Absolutely one of the most engaging and engrossing memoirs I have ever read."
—Patterson Hood, writer, musician, and member of Drive by Truckers
- On Sale
- Oct 29, 2019
- Page Count
- 352 pages
- Little, Brown and Company