How good a musician is Booker T? Along with the rest of the MGs, the house band of seminal soul imprint Stax who had several instrumental hits of their own besides backing Stax's powerhouse roster (Rufus Thomas, Albert King, Sam & Dave, Otis Redding...) throughout the '60s, the Memphis-born master of the Hammond B3 organ was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1992 at the relatively young age of 48. The MGs released "Green Onions," possibly the most ubiquitous instrumental of the rock and roll era, in 1962... when Booker T was all of 18 years old. But even such a preternatural talent has people he looks up to, admires and studies. Rocks Off has never met Booker T., and regretfully we've never read Rob Bowman's 1997 book Soulsville USA: The Story of Stax Records (yet), but here are our best guesses for the musical minds who have made Booker T the soul man he is today. Johann Sebastian Bach/Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: After "Green Onions" was already a hit, Booker T. studied classical composition at Indiana University - commuting back to Memphis from Bloomington to record at Stax on the weekends - so Rocks Off is willing to bet he knows his way around a Bach fugue or Mozart sonata. How cool would it be if he pulled one out at Wired Live Saturday night?
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Nat King Cole: Like Booker T, Cole's knack for a melody and easygoing keyboard flow tended to conceal a serious set of chops - Rocks Off has Warren's jukebox to thank for introducing us to Cole's jazzier side - and he would have been ubiquitous on the radio when Booker was growing up in the '40s and '50s. His influence can be heard on Willie Nelson's 1978 album Stardust, which Booker T. produced. In Rocks Off's estimation, Nelson's version of the title track, with the producer on barely perceptible B3 in the background, is the only one that even comes close to Cole's. Jimmy Smith: Speaking of chops, any discussion of B3 mastery pretty much begins and ends with Booker T. and Jimmy Smith, who laid the foundation for the "soul-jazz" genre - later explored by the likes of Herbie Hancock on "Watermelon Man" - with a series of Blue Note albums in the '50s and '60s (awesome cover art, too). In particular, we have a feeling that 1958's Six Versions of the Blues may have especially rubbed off on the young Mr. T. Haha.
Big Jay McNeely: Rocks Off has to give it up to allmusic.com for this one. We peeked at the "Influenced by" section of Booker T.'s AMG homepage and, although we had already guessed Jimmy Smith (the only other person on both lists), we had never heard of McNeely. We're glad we cheated, though. McNeely, AMG's Bob Dahl writes, was an R&B saxophonist who "could peel the paper right off the walls with his sheets of squealing, honking horn riffs." One of McNeely's own influences, apparently, was Houston-raised saxman Illinois Jacquet. Further research awaits... B.B. King: No doubt Booker T. is as big a fan of the King of the Blues' stinging Lucille solos and wounded words as Rocks Off or anyone else. However, our thinking here is that Booker T. may well have been listening during King's years spinning R&B on Memphis' WDIA radio in the late '40s and early '50s. By the way, WDIA is still on the air, now playing a mixture of contemporary R&B (Eric Benet, Latimore, Robin Thicke, etc.) with heritage acts like Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes and the Temptations. Steve Cropper: Ever since they met at Memphis' Satellite Record Shop when Booker T was 16 (Cropper was working there), the guitarist has been Booker's literal right-hand man in the MGs. Most people may know him from his appearance as part of the band in The Blues Brothers, but Cropper has also played on literally hundreds of albums - John Lennon's Rock and Roll, for example - as well as producing Jeff Beck's Beckology and John Mellencamp's (still John Cougar back then) pre-American Fool effort, 1980's Nothin' Matters... and What If It Did. To name a couple... there are many, many more. With J.J. Grey, 7 p.m. Saturday, March 27, at Wired Live, 1503 Chartres, 713-225-1717 or www.wiredlivehouston.com.