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James Carroll Booker III (December 17, 1939 – November 8, 1983) was a New Orleans rhythm and blues pianist, organ player and singer, born in New Orleans, Louisiana, United States. Booker's unique style combined rhythm and blues with jazz standards. Musician Dr. John described Booker as “the best black, gay, one-eyed junkie piano genius New Orleans has ever produced.”Read More...
Booker was the son and grandson of Baptist ministers, both of whom played the piano. He spent most of his childhood on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, where his father pastored a church. Booker received a saxophone as a gift from his mother, but he demonstrated a stronger interest in the keyboard. He first played organ in his father's churches.
After returning to New Orleans in his early adolescence, Booker attended the Xavier Academy Preparatory School. He learned some elements of his keyboard style from Tuts Washington and Edward Frank. Booker was highly skilled in classical music and played Bach and Chopin, among other composers. He also mastered and memorized solos by Erroll Garner and Liberace. His performances combined elements of stride, blues, gospel and Latin piano styles.
Booker made his recording debut in 1954 on the Imperial Records label, with "Doin' the Hambone" and "Thinkin' 'Bout My Baby." This led to some session work with Fats Domino, Smiley Lewis, and Lloyd Price.
In 1958, Arthur Rubinstein performed a concert in New Orleans. Afterwards, eighteen-year-old Booker was introduced to the concert pianist and played several tunes for him. Rubinstein was astonished, saying "I could never play that ... never at that tempo." (The Times-Picayune, 1958) During this period, Booker also became known for his flamboyant personality among his peers.
After recording a few other singles, he enrolled as an undergraduate in Southern University's music department. In 1960, Booker's "Gonzo" reached number 43 on the United States (U.S.) record chart of Billboard magazine and number 3 on the R&B record chart. Following "Gonzo", Booker released some moderately successful singles. In the 1960s, he commenced recreational drug use and in 1970 served a brief sentence in Angola Prison for drug possession. At the time, Professor Longhair and Ray Charles were among his important musical influences.
As Booker became more familiar to law enforcement in New Orleans due to his illicit drug use, he formed a relationship with Harry Connick Sr., who was occasionally Booker's legal counsel. Connick Sr. would discuss law with Booker during his visits to the Connick home and made an arrangement with the musician, whereby a prison sentence would be nullified in exchange for piano lessons with Connick Sr.'s son Harry Connick Jr.
In 1973 Booker recorded The Lost Paramount Tapes at Paramount Studios in Hollywood, California, U.S. with members of the Dr. John band, which included John Boudreaux on drums, Jessie Hill on percussion, Alvin Robinson on guitar and vocals, Richard "Didymus" Washington on percussion, David Lastie on sax, and David L. Johnson on bass guitar. The album was produced by former Dr. John band member David L. Johnson and Daniel J. Moore. The master tapes disappeared from the Paramount Recording Studios library, but a copy of the mixes that were made around the time of the recordings was discovered in 1992, which resulted in a CD released on DJM Records.
Booker then played organ in Dr. John's Bonnaroo Revue touring band in 1974, and also appeared as a sideman on albums by Ringo Starr, John Mayall, The Doobie Brothers, Labelle, Maria Muldaur, and Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia throughout this period.
Booker's performance at the 1975 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival earned him a recording contract with Island Records. His album with Island, Junco Partner, was produced by Joe Boyd, who had previously recorded Booker on sessions for the Muldaurs' records. In January 1976, Booker joined the Jerry Garcia Band; however, following two Palo Alto, California concerts that involved Garcia "backing up ... Booker on most numbers," Booker was replaced by Grateful Dead pianist Keith Godchaux.
Booker recorded a number of albums while touring Europe in 1977, including New Orleans Piano Wizard: Live!, which was recorded at his performance at the "Boogie Woogie and Ragtime Piano Contest" in Zurich, Switzerland—the album won the Grand Prix du Disque. He also played at the Nice and Montreux Jazz Festivals in 1978 and recorded a session with the BBC during this time. Fourteen years later, a recording entitled Let's Make A Better World!—made in Leipzig during this period—became the last record to be produced in the former East Germany.
In a 2013 interview, filmmaker Lily Keber, who directed a documentary on Booker, provided her perspective on Booker's warm reception in European nations such as Germany and France:
Well, the racism wasn't there, the homophobia wasn't there—as much. Even the drug use was a little more tolerated. But really I think that Booker felt he was being taken seriously in Europe, and it made him think of himself differently and improved the quality of his music. He needed the energy of the audience to feed off.
Keber further explained that Europeans refer to jazz as "the art of the twentieth century" and suggests that the "classical tradition" that is present in the continent led to a greater understanding of Booker among audiences. Keber states that Booker was "concert-hall worthy" to European jazz lovers.
From 1978 to 1982, Booker was the house pianist at the Maple Leaf Bar in the Carrollton neighborhood of uptown New Orleans. Recordings during this time, made by John Parsons, were released as Spider on the Keys and Resurrection of the Bayou Maharajah. Following his success in Europe, Booker was forced to adjust to a lower level of public recognition, as he performed in cafes and bars. Keber believes this shift was "devastating" to Booker, as he was aware of his own talent.
Booker's last commercial recording, made in 1982, was entitled Classified and, according to producer Scott Billington, was completed in four hours. By this time, Booker's physical and mental condition had deteriorated, even though he was able to attend the Charity Hospital in New Orleans during the 1970s. Furthermore, Booker was subject to the social stigma that affected people who used illicit drugs and who experienced mental health issues during this era of American history.
At the end of October 1983, filmmaker Jim Gabour captured Booker's final concert performance for a series on the New Orleans music scene. The series, entitled Music City, was broadcast on Cox Cable and included footage from the Maple Leaf Bar in New Orleans and a six-and-a-half-minute improvisation called "Seagram's Jam."
Booker died on November 8, 1983, while seated in a wheelchair in the emergency room at New Orleans' Charity Hospital, waiting to receive medical attention. The cause of death, as cited in the Orleans Parish Coroner's Death Certificate, was renal failure that was related to his chronic history of heroin and alcohol use.
Booker's death was mourned by music lovers and numerous admirers have emerged in the time since. Connick Jr., Henry Butler, and Dr. John, among others, recorded songs with titles and musical styles referencing Booker. Connick Jr. explained his mentor's piano-playing style in an interview: "Nothing was harder than that. It's insane. It's insanity." and called him "the greatest ever."
Transcriptions by Joshua Paxton (with Tom McDermott and Andy Fielding) of Booker's playing are available in the books The James Booker Collection and New Orleans Piano Legends, both published by the Hal Leonard Corporation. Paxton explained the significance of Booker in a 2013 interview:
From a musician’s perspective or piano player’s perspective, he matters because he figured out how to do things no one had ever done before, at least in a rhythm-and-blues context ... Basically he figured out ways to do a lot of stuff at the same time and make the piano sound like an entire band. It’s Ray Charles on the level of Chopin. It’s all the soul, all the groove, and all the technique in the universe packed into one unbelievable player ... I can now say with certainty that it’s a pianistic experience unlike any other. He invented an entirely new way of playing blues and roots-based music on the piano, and it was mind-blowingly brilliant and beautiful.
Influential New Orleans musician, composer, and producer Allen Toussaint also praised Booker, applying the term "genius" to him:
There are some instances in his playing that are very unusual and highly complex, but the groove is never sacrificed. Within all the romping and stomping in his music, there were complexities in it that, if one tried to emulate it, what you heard and what excited you on the surface was supported by some extreme technical acrobatics finger-wise that made his music extraordinary as far as I’m concerned. And most of all, it always felt wonderful ... He was an extraordinary musician, both soul wise and groove wise ... He was just an amazing musician.
Booker's vocal ability is also a subject that has been covered since his death. New Orleans pianist Tom McDermott, who has also studied the work of Booker, stated that he is "so moved" by Booker's vocals, as "you could feel the desperation in a way that few singers could impart." McDermott believes that Booker skillful combination of vocal virtuosity with a magnificent emotional power superseded the singing of Frank Sinatra.
Patchwork: A Tribute to James Booker is a 2003 release consisting of a compilation of his songs, performed by various pianists. Released in 2007, Manchester '77 consists of a live performance recorded in October 1977 at The Lake Side Hotel, Belle Vue, Manchester, UK, with the Norman Beaker Band in support for two songs. In late 2013, Rounder Records announced the forthcoming release of a double-CD deluxe version of Classified, Booker’s final studio recordings.
A feature-length documentary about Booker Bayou Maharajah: The Tragic Genius of James Booker, directed by Keber, premiered at the SXSW festival on March 14, 2013. Keber raised funds on the Kickstarter website to complete the film, as she needed to cover licensing costs to include all of the "concert footage, home movie, funky photo and unreleased audio" that she uncovered across the U.S. and Europe. Between December 2012 and January 2013, the Kickstarter campaign received US$18,323 from 271 backers—Keber's goal was US$15,000—who responded to the director's motivation: "After so many years of simmering in obscurity, it's time for James Booker to be introduced to the world!"
The film documents Booker's life, from his Baptist upbringing through to his solitary death at the Charity Hospital. In addition to coverage of Booker's significant influence upon Connick and his collaborations with prominent artists, Keber also documents the musician's heroin use and the deterioration in his mental health. In its review of the documentary, the All About Jazz publication refers to Booker as a "jazz genius." As of June 2, 2013, Keber seeks a film distributor for the wider distribution of Bayou Maharajah: The Tragic Genius of James Booker, but the film will continue on the festival circuit until a deal is secured.
Keber's film was shown in May 2013—in the "Golden Rock Documentary" category—at the Little Rock Film Festival that is held annually on the banks of the Arkansas River in Little Rock, Arkansas, U.S. The Oxford American magazine bestowed the 2013 Best Southern Film Award to Keber at the Little Rock festival and praised the film as "one of the most culturally important documentaries made in recent years." Keber explained her introduction to Booker in a subsequent Oxford American interview:
When I played Booker's album, the first thing that I noticed was what bizarre song titles it had—stuff like “Coquette” and “Piano Salad.” I didn't know what “piano salad” meant. I had no idea what to make of the music either. I know how to listen to something like the Neville Brothers or Irma Thomas, but Booker's music I didn't even know how to listen to. It was like a different language.
In June and August 2013, the film was part of the program of the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) and producer Nathaniel Kohn attended as a representative. Kohn participated in a brief interview and explained the importance of the research process:
Research was key to discovering Booker and his music. He died in 1983 and many of the people who knew him are either dead or reaching that certain age when memories start to fade. So we talked to a lot of people and those conversations led to boxes of old photographs and tapes, video and music libraries in the States and in Europe, and the vaults of television stations, record companies, and museums. Over three years of research went into this production.
Keber's documentary was also the Opening Night Film at the Southern Screen Film Festival in Lafayette, Louisiana, US on November 14, 2013. A question and answer (Q&A) session with Keber followed the screening.
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