Clip: New Orleans's James Booker
BOOKER'S MAD MUSE
Sunday, April 23, 2006
Evidence that New Orleans will recover at least spiritually from its
biblical flooding first came when Mardi Gras proceeded on schedule six
months after Katrina's wrath. Now the city's annual music-lovers' bash
-- the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival -- begins Friday and
saturates the city with sound for 10 days.
Running since 1970, the festival presents the cream of Crescent City
acts, this year including the Neville Brothers, Allen Toussaint, Fats
Domino and Ellis Marsalis. Then there are heavy-hitting national, if
rootsy, rock acts such as Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and the Dave
Matthews Band. Around town, the clubs stay extra busy for the
One musician hasn't played the festival since 1983, when he died
prematurely, but he still casts a long shadow over the proceedings.
He's perhaps the only artist who could have sat in with any of the
acts performing, whatever their genre, and made all of them sound
His name is James Carroll Booker III, and he's arguably the greatest
rhythm and blues pianist who ever lived. That might seem like an
exaggeration in a city that's produced giants like Jelly Roll Morton,
Tuts Washington and Professor Longhair, but just about any New Orleans
musician will tell you the same.
"If all the American piano players lined up in a row, each knowing the
others' abilities and talents, all would take a step back to recognize
the greatest of all," Harry Connick Jr. wrote in the liner notes to a
posthumous Booker CD (although you could say Connick is biased because
he took lessons from Booker).
But whether or not they actually sat on a piano bench with him, all
modern New Orleans keyboardists learned from Booker. Dr. John (a.k.a.
Mac Rebennack), 65, who was primarily a guitarist before Booker taught
him how to play organ in the early '60s, said during a panel
discussion about Booker at the 1997 Jazz and Heritage Festival, "I
hear a lot of Booker in a lot of the cats today, whether it's Harry
Connick Jr., whether it's Art Neville, whether it's Allen Toussaint,
whether it's Mac Rebennack, whoever I listen to I hear a lotta Booker.
... Booker was such a genius."
Booker died at 43, basically of systemic failure after decades of drug
addiction and alcoholism. He might also have died of madness. And of
Said Thorny Penfield, 72, a New Orleans writer and Booker confidante,
"He was one of the loneliest, most desperately lonely people I've ever
known in my life."
"Booker," said New Orleans record dealer Jim Russell in a Wavelength
magazine article after the pianist's death, "lived 430 years in 43
He was an African American born in the Deep South. He was homosexual,
and became addicted to booze and smack, serving a year in prison for
heroin possession in 1970. He lost an eye under mysterious, criminal
circumstances, and likely had bipolar disorder. He wasn't always an
easy person to be around.
"He was a trip, a real character, a wild man," said Reggie Scanlan,
who played bass in Booker bands off and on from 1975 to '80, and now
is the bassist for the Radiators. "Sometimes you just wanted to throw
the guy out the window; he could be the most exasperating guy in the
world. I just looked at it like, that's the cost for the lessons I
learned from him."
Those lessons, Scanlan said, "were like gems dropping off his hands
faster than you could pick them up."
I had the privilege of seeing Booker perform three times during the
1982 festival, a year before he died. One of the shows, at a divey bar
with a laundry in the back called the Maple Leaf, proved to be one of
the most incredible musical experiences of my life. Booker was playing
a blues, I can't recall which one, maybe "Black Night." With a left
hand like a piston with a heart and brain in each finger, Booker more
or less hypnotized me. His right hand, fanning runs that didn't seem
humanly possible, engendered a feeling I'd never experienced. I can't
really explain it, but it was as if he cracked open a portal in my
soul and poured all his world of pain and wisdom directly in. I looked
around the room, and people were weeping.
Born in New Orleans to a Baptist minister and a mother who sang in the
church gospel choir, Booker was classically trained starting at age 6,
and was quickly recognized as a prodigy, outpacing his teachers. By
14, he was performing live weekly on radio station WMRY, playing
everything from Beethoven to "Lawdy Miss Clawdy."
Toussaint, 68, one of New Orleans' greatest composers and producers,
was boyhood friends with Booker. "Booker was 12 when I first met him,"
Toussaint said at the 1997 discussion. "I was 13. But when he played
the piano, I thought he was 40. At 12 years old, he could sit down and
play Bach's three-part inventions, not hammering it like a cat but
playing it with all the sophistication that Bach would have been proud
As a teen, Booker was hired as a session player by Dave Bartholomew,
who produced '50s superstar Fats Domino's records. Bartholomew, now
85, recognized an early skill of Booker's: musical mimicry. The
producer had Booker lay down piano parts on a number of Domino tracks,
then Fats simply came in and overdubbed vocals. Later, Booker
exploited this skill even further when he performed on the road as
Huey "Piano" Smith in Huey "Piano" Smith and Clowns ("Rockin'
Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu") because Smith hated to tour.
A hot session commodity, Booker backed scores of top acts throughout
the '60s and early '70s, including Lionel Hampton, Lloyd Price, B.B.
King, Irma Thomas, Earl King, Aretha Franklin, Joe Tex, Ringo Starr,
T. Bone Walker, Jerry Garcia and the Doobie Brothers. But Booker's
manifold personal problems made him progressively unreliable, and by
the mid-'70s he had to fend for himself as a solo act.
Thomas, 65, known as the Soul Queen of New Orleans, did a number of
gigs with Booker in her early days. "He was a strange character, to
say the least," Thomas said over the phone from a home in Gonzales,
La., where she's living temporarily until her flooded New Orleans
house is rebuilt. "He was a genius on the piano. Anything you would
ask him to play, he could play it and play it well. He would play a
classical piece, then play it backwards just as fluently -- without
missing a beat."
Playing songs backward is part of Booker legend, but enough people
have witnessed it that you know it must be true. Rounder Records'
Scott Billington, who produced a few Booker albums, relays a story the
late guitarist Earl King used to tell.
Booker had attended a concert by Jimmy Smith, one of jazz's great
organists. "Booker was backstage," Billington said. After the show,
"Booker told Smith, 'You know that song you played, you hit a wrong
note in the bridge.' Smith kinda grumbled. Booker said, 'Look, lemme
show you.' Then he played it just as Smith played it with the wrong
note, and then played it the right way. And Jimmy Smith said, 'Dang,
you're right.' Then, just to mess with Jimmy, he played the whole
Booker's own recording career was erratic, but began early. Starting
with "Doing the Hambone" at age 15, he released around eight singles,
one of them, "Gonzo," reaching No. 10 on the national R&B charts in
1960. All Booker singles are collected on the 1996 Night Train
release, "Gonzo: More Than Just the 45s." He didn't record his first
album until "Junco Partner" in 1976, a classic that was reissued by
Rykodisc in 1993 with some prompting by the mega-selling New Age
pianist George Winston, for whom Booker has been an obsession since
Winston first heard him on a record played at Down Home Music in El
Cerrito in 1982. Featuring an unreal version of Leadbelly's "Goodnight
Irene," a Chopin tune tweaked by Booker, a Liberace favorite "I'll Be
Seeing You" and several Booker originals, "Junco Partner" shows off
the pianist's glorious range, brilliance, humor and pathos.
In the liner notes, Winston sets out what he believes are the "seven
separate styles" of Booker's playing. It's a bit technical, but in a
phone interview with The Chronicle, Winston, 57, brought it down to
Earth: "When I first heard him, I said that's how I want to play
"He's a one-man band -- his little finger on his left hand is like the
bass pedal on a Hammond (organ). The top part of his left hand is like
a rhythm guitar or piano part. And his right hand is basically Aretha
Franklin. And then sometimes he'll throw in a Wes Montgomery chord
with his right hand."
Booker also sang, and while his voice was nowhere near the natural
instrument his pianism was, he forged it into a powerful expression of
his feelings. On songs like "Black Night" and "So Swell When You're
Well," his voice and piano playing merged into a single being that
could break your heart. As Toussaint said, "You just wouldn't imagine
a person that sings like that could play Rachmaninoff perfectly."
Since his death, posthumous Booker albums have come out at an
agonizingly slow pace, especially considering that practically all
Booker acquaintances you talk to in New Orleans say they're sitting on
hundreds of hours of unreleased tapes. But in recent years the Night
Train label has vastly increased the well of Booker material by
releasing two double CDs: "United, Our Thing Will Stand," with 27
tunes recorded at Tipitina's, and "A Taste of Honey," 30 songs from
1977. The sound quality is subpar on about half the tunes on the
latter disc, but between the two sets you get an idea of the master's
unreal range, from classical-blues fusions like "Blues Minuet" to the
tin pan alley of "Baby Face" to gospel medleys to spoken rants,
including one where he hilariously expresses his lust for Burt
From time to time nature bestows freakish artistic gifts on
individuals. But without a creative source -- a soul -- to channel
those gifts, the person remains, merely, a freak. James Booker had the
ability to be a virtuoso concert pianist or a jazz master, but he
never strayed too far from the blues, the great mean of New Orleans.
He was an avatar of everything ever kicked up by that glorious, feral,
fated city, from the lowliest Bourbon Street hustler to a musician on
the order of a Louis Armstrong.
Booker had many nicknames -- Gonzo, the Piano Prince of New Orleans,
Little Booker, the Bayou Maharajah, Black Liberace -- but the one that
seemed to fit the best is Mr. Mystery, because the powerful effects of
his playing and singing led naturally to musings on the mysteries of
music. It's a subject he addressed in an interview with Bunny
Matthews, published in Wavelength:
"Music is a mysterious art ... and people that's really good at it ...
they get a little taste of the mysterious ... sometimes mysticism,
too. In fact, all of the time they have mystical, mysterious
attributes, but it's whether or not they're aware of it that's
Booker was aware of it. Whether that awareness shortened his life or
lengthened it is another mystery.
"Junco Partner" (Hannibal/Rykodisc), 1976: James Booker's first and
best studio album.
"New Orleans Piano Wizard: Live!" (Rounder), 1987: Booker recorded
this album at the 1976 Boogie Woogie and Ragtime Piano Contest in
Zurich, Switzerland, which he won. Originally released in 1977, it won
the Grand Prix de Disque de Jazz for best live album.
"King of the New Orleans Keyboard" (Junco Partner), 1984: Superb live
recording from Germany in 1977.
"Resurrection of the Bayou Maharajah" (Rounder), 1993: Posthumous
release of material recorded at the Maple Leaf Bar.
"The Lost Paramount Tapes" (DJM Records), 1995: A jaunty 1973 session
in Los Angeles with a crack New Orleans backup band and Booker on a
spinet tack piano.
"United, Our Thing Will Stand" (Night Train), 2000: Recordings from
Tipitina's, a few with Booker on organ.
For a complete Booker discography, visit wirz.de/music/bookefrm.htm.
NEW ORLEANS JAZZ & HERITAGE FESTIVAL: Friday to next Sunday, and May
5-7 at the Fair Grounds, with enhanced activity in New Orleans clubs
all week. Hundreds of artists, including Dr. John, Bob Dylan, Terence
Blanchard, Etta James, Snooks Eaglin, Eddie Bo, Paul Simon, Bruce
Springsteen, Nicholas Payton. For more information, visit