February started off on a bad note for Booker T. Jones. The famed keyboard player and longtime frontman for Booker T. and the M.G.’s lost a friend: Maurice White, founder and lead singer for the R&B/pop outfit Earth, Wind & Fire, died in his sleep Feb. 3 at age 74 from the effects of Parkinson’s disease.
Jones and White were longtime friends, going all the way back to their days as classmates at Booker T. Washington High School in Memphis, Tenn. Jones and his old man even helped out White when he needed to pick up some drum equipment. “My father brought his first set of drums home from the store,” says Jones, on the phone from his Lake Tahoe, Nev., home. “He didn’t have a car. He didn’t have a way to get ’em from downtown to his grandmother’s house. So, he put ’em in my father’s old ’39 Ford.”
Jones almost hired White to drum for him for Booker T. and the M.G.’s, but White wanted to move out of Memphis and make his own moves. It ended up working out well for the both of them: White went on to lead Earth, Wind & Fire, while Jones snagged the late, revered drummer Al Jackson Jr. for the M.G.’s. Nevertheless, Jones misses his friend, whom he last saw at the funeral of Isaac Hayes, another Memphis soul great, in 2008.
“It’s really tough,” he says. “This one is the toughest one for me, because we were kids together. I mean, we were playing basketball at my little driveway, with a little hoop that my dad put up, you know. It was surprising. I knew he was sick, but I didn’t know that it was gonna take him like that.”
But even as his friends and colleagues leave this Earth, Jones, who turned 71 last November, continues to make music. His most recent solo album, “Sound the Alarm,” was recorded for Stax Records in 2013, the same label where Booker T. and the M.G.’s not only made hits like “Green Onions,” but also served as the label’s house band. “It was great,” he says about returning to the label. “They were very warm and very gracious. They applauded when I walked in. They kinda stopped everything and had a kind of a welcome reception for me, which was really nice. There wasn’t anybody left over from the old Stax. But all the people at the new Stax were warm and friendly.”
Jones has became such an influential figure in popular music – he and the M.G.’s were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992 – that contemporary artists are eager to work with him. “Alarm” features appearances from Gary Clark Jr., Mayer Hawthorne, Anthony Hamilton and Sheila E. On his 2011 release, “The Road From Memphis,” he’s backed up by hip-hop group/“Tonight Show” house band The Roots. Lou Reed, Sharon Jones and Biz Markie, who joined Jones for a playful rendition of Markie’s classic “Just a Friend,” also made appearances.
“I get in touch with a lot of people, and a lot of people get in touch with me,” explains Jones.
Jones also continues to get out on the road and perform. He’ll be stopping in Carrboro Friday, entertaining folks at the ArtsCenter. He definitely wants to keep doing that as long as he still can.
“I just want to bring good vibes and some goodwill and have people have a good time and relax and enjoy the music,” he says. “I have a lot of appreciation to the people that come, who’ve been supporting me all these years. It’s just something that I enjoy doing. I’m fortunate to be up there doing it.”
Who: Booker T. Jones
When: 8 p.m. Friday
Where: The ArtsCenter, 300-G E. Main St., Carrboro
Info: 919-929-2787 or artscenterlive.org