Many New Orleans pianists are better known — Dr. John, Allen Toussaint, Harry Connick Jr., Professor Longhair, Fats Domino and Art Neville — but those closest to the scene insist that James Booker was the greatest of them all. The tall, spindly, goateed singer-pianist with a star-emblazoned eyepatch gave lessons to Dr. John and Connick, played Domino’s piano parts on some recordings, and toured in bands with Neville and Dr. John. He could do everything they could do, but none of them could do everything he could do.
“There is a word that is thrown around so loosely for certain people who have done well in life,” Toussaint told Offbeat Magazine in 2013, “if they do very well in life, they call them geniuses, but let me say that if the word is applicable to anyone, the person who comes to mind is James Booker. Total genius. Some instances in his playing are very unusual and highly complex, but the groove is never sacrificed.”
When Booker died of a cocaine overdose in 1983, he was a largely forgotten man outside Orleans Parish; his funeral was sparsely attended, and only two studio recordings had been released during his lifetime. Since his death, however, his legend has steadily grown, buoyed by the 1995 release of his third studio album, The Lost Paramount Tapes, the 2013 release of Lily Keber’s excellent documentary film, Bayou Maharajah: The Tragic Genius Of James Booker and the slow-but-steady release of eight live albums and counting. This fall will see the first vinyl LP release of The Lost Paramount Tapes.
“To me the live stuff isn’t as good,” argues David Johnson, bassist and co-producer on the Paramount sessions, “because he was just getting pick-up bands to play with him. What makes our sessions different is that Booker, drummer John Boudreaux and I had been playing a weekly gig in Van Nuys for six months, so we were really tight. We added some guys I’d played with in Dr. John’s band, and they were New Orleans musicians who knew that music inside out. And this was in 1973, back when Booker was still in pretty good shape. That’s why we used a photo without the eyepatch on the cover, because when he made that record, he still had two eyes.”
Johnson points to the album’s second track, “Feel So Bad,” as a good example of how the band and Booker gelled. The Chuck Willis blues is given a New Orleans syncopation, with Boudreaux and percussionist “Didimus” Washington pushing and pulling at the beat in tandem with Booker’s stride piano figure in the left hand, while his brisk, skittering flourishes in the right hand took off on their own independent flight.
“I gave Mac Rebennack [Dr. John] a cassette of the album,” Johnson recalls, “and he told me he played the cassette for his band as an example of how New Orleans music should be played. Mac said that ‘Feel So Bad’ had the funkiest 12/8 feel he’d ever heard. I asked Booker what made him different from other New Orleans pianists, and he told me he was classically trained and those other guys weren’t. Booker could play Rachmaninoff and then play Fats Domino. On ‘Feel So Bad,’ those right-hand runs, so quick and so accurate, could never be played by a rock and roll pianist, but they came so easily to Booker because he had that technique.”
“His left hand was informed by New Orleans street bands and second line,” adds Scott Billington, producer of Booker’s final studio album, Classified, “but his right hand was more complicated than that. He’d studied classical music as a child in Baie St. Louis; he had played all those Chopin etudes. He could read; he had the curved fingers, an advanced sense of harmony like Bach. So he could take a jazz standard like ‘Angel Eyes’ on Classified and give it a rich, dark harmonic reading. He could have been a great classical pianist, a great jazz pianist, but he was from New Orleans, and that’s the music he wanted to play. Put them all together and you had a superhuman pianist.”
In other words, if Van Cliburn or Art Tatum had become the house pianist at the Dew Drop Inn on LaSalle Street during the New Orleans R&B boom of the ’50s and ’60s, he might have sounded a lot like James Booker. So why wasn’t he better known? Well, American culture in the ’60s and ’70s wasn’t equipped to give a blues pianist playing in New Orleans nightclubs the same respect they gave a classical pianist playing Carnegie Hall or a jazz pianist at Birdland. But Booker didn’t even achieve the fame of an Allen Toussaint or Professor Longhair. How do we account for that?
Booker had a habit of undermining his own prospects. When he was 12 years old, he was hit by an ambulance and dragged 30 feet; the hospital treated him with morphine, and he kept returning to the drug again and again throughout his life, especially after his parents and beloved sister died. That sense of loneliness was perhaps reinforced by his homosexuality and his high IQ.
“He’s the only person I’ve ever met who was a genius,” says Billington. “But his personal life was such a mess that it got in the way. He told his manager John Parsons, ‘I’m a lonely motherfucker.’ He was so incredibly intelligent; he could look at a column of numbers and tell you the total; he could glance at a music score once and play every note. It’s hard to know what was going on in Booker’s mind, but I think it made him very lonely.”
The Lost Paramount Tapes got their name because Booker walked into the Paramount Studio in Hollywood during the mixing phase and convinced someone to give him the original two-inch tapes. He then disappeared into a heroin binge in New York City, and the tapes were never seen again. It was only years later, when the studio was cleaning out its storage, that the reference tapes for the mix were discovered by Johnson’s co-producer Daniel Moore.
“We listened again,” Johnson remembers, “and they blew me away. Some of the songs had been 10, 15 minutes long, and all we had were the three-to-five-minute versions we’d edited for the mix. So we lost some amazing jamming and solos, but what we had left still sounded unbelievable.”
They finished the mix and finally released the album in 1995, and now it’s being released on vinyl — in large part because the documentary movie has raised awareness of Booker and stoked a hunger for his music.
“I thought the film was quite good,” says Billington, “a little impressionistic at times, but Lily was able to focus on James Booker the musician and not the other stuff that doesn’t matter now. It was a miracle that she got the film made, but she was persistent where so many other proposed films never happened. People who own Booker tapes can be very possessive of them, but she was able to get the rights to what she needed. And she used entire songs in the movie, not snippets like a lot of documentaries. Just to hear a ballad like ‘True’ from the Montreux Jazz Festival is reason enough to see the movie. That is one of the most heartbreaking things I’ve ever heard. I’m tearing up now just thinking about it.”