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Booker, James

James Booker

R&b musician, pianist, organist

In a region glutted with flamboyant musicians, James Booker's reputation as both a genius and a flake reached legendary proportions. On-stage he was quite a sight. Wearing a chrome-studded patch over his left eye and donning a funky brocaded military coat or cape, he performed with an improvisational frenzy that made lesser musicians run for cover. A classically trained pianist who was regarded as the equal of such R&B players as Professor Longhair, Tuts Washington, Allen Toussaint, and Jelly Roll Morton, he was a major influence on Dr. John and personally tutored Harry Connick Jr.

Booker best described his free-flowing stride piano style as "Spiders on the Keys." His work with the left-hand was often so dominant that the addition of a bass guitar was superfluous. By contrast, his right hand creations contained seamless classical allusions and jazz-drenched boogie phrases. Yet for all his gifts, the eccentric Booker experienced limited commercial success, and drugs and alcohol blunted his talent before extinguishing his life.

James Carroll Booker III was born on December 17, 1939, in New Orleans, Louisiana. Booker was the son of a Baptist minister—his mother sang in the choir. Booker and his sister Betty Jean were sent to live with a relative in St. Louis while he was still a baby. A child prodigy, he began taking classical instruction on the piano at age six and according to legend began to outpace his instructors on the instrument. At age ten he was severely injured when he was struck by a speeding ambulance and lost his left eye. Years later, Booker would tell his friends that he became hooked on morphine during the recovery process, setting into motion decades of drug dependency. Neither injury nor drugs seemed to affect the youngster's instrumental brilliance. "Booker was 12 when I first met him," Allen Toussaint told SFGate.Com. "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 of."

Inspired by his sister Betty Jean's regular Sunday gospel show on WMRV radio, Booker earned his own Saturday afternoon jazz and blues show titled Booker Boy and the Rhythmaires. Impressed by the broadcasts, Dave Bartholomew signed the young keyboard ace to Imperial Records in 1954. Billed as "Little Booker," he released his first single, "Doing the Hambone." In subsequent years he would team with Arthur Booker (no relation) for a single on Chess and record a solo single for Ace. Although none of these outings were successful, the teen piano whiz learned the ropes as a session player at Cosimo Matassa's studios in New Orleans. As a result, he was able to make a living playing piano behind such established R&B stars as Amos Milburn, Little Junior Parker, and Smiley Lewis. A brilliant mimic of other styles, Booker also subbed for Fats Domino when time constraints forced the rock pioneer to merely overdub vocals for his 1959 hit "I'm Ready" and for several LP tracks. Further, when Huey "Piano" Smith grew weary of touring, he hired Booker to fill in at road gigs and imitate his style.

By 1960 Booker began regularly appearing on Earl King's recording dates, backing the popular bluesman on dozens of his Imperial sides. "Booker was the first person in New Orleans to have an organ," King wrote in the liner notes to Resurrection of the Bayou Maharajah. "After he heard Bill Doggett, he got interested in the organ."

The Hammond organ provided the sound of Booker's only solo chart success. Recorded for Don Robey's Houston-based Peacock label, the cool and jazzy instrumental "Gonzo" crested at number ten on the R&B charts and number 43 on the pop charts. Subsequent singles for Robey stalled out, and soon Booker was back doing session work behind Roy Hamilton, Shirley & Lee, Earl King, Earl Forrest, Joe Tex, and Wilson Picket. According to his lifelong friend Mac Rebennack, Booker would often take advantage of his in-demand status by agreeing to work in the bands of several artists at once and would then grab some advance pay and quickly return home without playing a note for any of them.

Drugs—particularly heroin—were often a part of Booker's life, and he titled his solo recordings accordingly, with such titles as "Cold Turkey," "Smacksie," and even the hit "Gonzo," named after a character in the film The Pusher. Heroin use and drinking often rendered him erratic and undependable. "I was frustrated and shooting dope as a form of rebellion," he said, according to I Hear You Knockin': The Sound of New Orleans Rhythm and Blues. "I was playing music so I could get enough money to buy dope." This pattern continued until 1967, when Booker was sent to Angola State Penitentiary for possession of heroin.

Paroled after serving six months of his sentence, Booker discovered that the Louisiana music scene had waned. Subsequently, he violated parole and moved to New York and later Los Angeles, working as a session man on recordings by Ringo Starr, Maria Muldaur, the Doobie Brothers, Charles Brown, and T-Bone Walker. After being cleared of parole violations in 1975, he returned to New Orleans to resume his own recording career. Now singing as well as playing, he scored an immediate critical success with Junco Partner, his first album for the Island Records subsidiary Hannibal. "Starting out with Booker's instrumental take on Chopin (‘Black Minuet Waltz’) and rolling through Leadbelly's ‘Good Night Irene’ sets the listener up for the best of Booker," wrote Gerrard McTaggert of All Music Guide. "The title song, in Booker's rendition, is a lyrically disturbing work touching on the grip of heroin and cocaine on this talented man's life, summoned by rolling left-hand bass lines and right-hand filigree."

Hired by Dr. John

During the early 1970s, Booker was hired by Mac Rebbenack, a.k.a Dr. John, for his band The Night Trippers. The two had known each other since the 1950s, and Dr. John cited the one-eyed pianist as a major influence on his own style. "He always took time out to teach me things," he recalled in his autobiography Under a Hoodoo Moon. "It was Booker and Lloyd Glenn who taught me how to play piano like the great Harry Van Walls." However, as potent as Booker's keyboard contributions were, Rebbenack fired and rehired him more than any other musician on his payroll. Some of his misdeeds were the result of a misguided brilliant mind, others were personality clashes with bandmates objecting to his openly gay lifestyle. More often than not his ramblings and outbursts were fueled by drugs.

Despite his erratic nature, Booker worked constantly, and whether he toured Europe or played Tipitina's nightclub in New Orleans, his talent continued to draw fans. Most notably, Tom Waits, Rickie Lee Jones, and director Louis Malle openly admired his gifts. Malle wanted the pianist to supply the soundtrack work for the film Pretty Baby. However, after six months on Malle's payroll, the only thing Booker delivered was a version of Jelly Roll Morton's "Winin' Boy Blues."

Yet when he was sober and focused, Booker had the power to amaze his fellow musicians. "It was just a job keeping up and being ready for anything," Reggie Scanlon told New Orleans Beat Street Magazine, "the way he could link things that were so disparate. . and it always made sense. … his fingers would just float all over the keyboards, but he had this total command of his hands. He was just so buoyant."

By all accounts, Booker also stayed sharp when he was asked to tutor Harry Connick Jr., the son of a local politician. "If all the American piano players lined up in a row, each knowing the others' abilities and talents," Connick was quoted as saying in SFGate.com, "all would take a step back to recognize the greatest of all."

For the Record …

Born James Carroll Booker III on December 17, 1939, in New Orleans, Louisiana; died November 8, 1983, in New Orleans, Louisiana; son of James Booker II (a former dancer and Baptist minister).

New Orleans-based R&B pianist, singer, session musician, and entertainer; recorded first singles billed as "Little Booker" for Imperial Records, 1954-55; did session work behind New Orleans musicians including Lloyd Price, Amos Milburn, Earl King, Smiley Lewis, and many more; recorded hit R&B instrumental "Gonzo" for Peacock Records, 1960; convicted of heroin possession, served six months of two-year sentence in Angola Penitentiary, 1967-68; contributed to soundtrack of Louis Malle's film Pretty Baby, 1978; Member of Dr. John's band The Night Trippers, early to late 1970s; recorded first solo album, 1976; played on recording sessions for Ringo Starr, B.B. King, the Doobie Brothers, Maria Muldaur and others, early to late 1970s; tutored Harry Connick Jr., mid-1970s.

Addresses: Record Companies—Rounder Records, 1 Camp St., Cambridge, MA 02140. http://www.rounder.com. Night Train International, Tuff City Music Group, 250 West 49th St., Suite 705, New York, NY 10019, phone: 212-586-0899, fax: 212-586-1081, website: http://www.tuffcity.com.

Booker's last opportunity to build a body of recorded work came with Rounder Records in 1982. The Massachusetts-based company had issued albums of his live shows during the 1970s, but producer/A&R man Scott Billington didn't meet him until much later. "When I first saw James," he told Mix Online, "he was working at the Maple Leaf Bar. … He was erratic. Some nights he would blow your mind, and on other nights he would barely play—stagger around or taunt the audience. He had a lot of problems that he tried to smother with substance abuse. Mostly, I think he was a very lonely guy." Billington spent a lot of Rounder's money trying to wade through Booker's ill health and stress-inducing demands to produce what would be the pianist's last studio album but later confessed, "I wouldn't say that he ever made a definitive recording, but I'm glad to have made Classified."

During his final days, Booker, wracked with ill health, tried to clean up his life by taking on a day job as a file clerk, but was eventually fired for drinking. Still taking weekly gigs at the Maple Leaf Bar, he began blowing off shows until he simply stopped showing up altogether. According to a 2002 article in Blues Notes, "Booker took a deadly dose of low grade cocaine and passed out." Driven to Charity Hospital, he died in their waiting room. He was only 43 years old. "The sad part was that he was born with such a tremendous gift," friend Lee Madere told New Orleans Beat Street. "Booker just couldn't stop the lifestyle he'd been living for so long. It's how he lived and how he died."

Selected discography

Junco Partner, Hannibal, 1976.

The Piano Prince of New Orleans, Aves, 1976.

King of the New Orleans Keyboard, Junco/Partner, 1976.

Blues and Ragtime from New Orleans, Aves, 1976.

New Orleans Piano Wizard Live!, Rounder, 1977.

Classified, Rounder, 1982.

King of the New Orleans Keyboard, Vol. 1, JSP, 1984.

King of the New Orleans Keyboard, Vol. 2, JSP, 1985.

Resurrection of the Bayou Maharajah [live], Rounder, 1993.

Spiders on the Keys [live], Rounder, 1993.

Gonzo: More Than All the 45's, Night Train, 1996.

Lost Paramount Tapes, DJM, 1997.

Live at Montreux, Montreux Sounds, 1997.

A Taste of Honey: Live in New Orleans 1977, Night Train, 2000.

United, Our Thing Will Stand, Night Train, 2004.

Manchester '77 [live], Document, 2007.

Sources

Books

Holtje, Steve, and Nancy Ann Lee, MusicHound Jazz: The Essential Album Guide, Visible Ink, 1998.

Rebennack, Mac (Dr. John), with Jack Rummel, Under a Hoodoo Moon: The Life of Dr. John the Night Tripper, St. Martin's Press, 1994.

Online

"Booker's Mad Muse," SFGate.com,http://www.sfgate.com (September 25, 2007).

"James Booker," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (September 25, 2007).

"James Booker, article reprint from Blues Notes," Cascade Blues Association,http://www.cascadeblues.org/History/JamesBooker.htm (September 25, 2007).

"The Life and Times of James Booker," New Orleans Beat Street Magazine,http://www.andreschulz.com/web/images/beat-streat-01-2004.pdf (September 25, 2007).

"Maharajahs in the Mist," Blues Access,http://www.bluesaccess.com/No_/rooster.html (September 25, 2007).

"Scott Billington Revisists New Orleans," Mix,http://www.mixonline.com (September 25, 2007).

—Ken Burke

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