James Booker Re-Classified
It's good to see a revival of interest in one of the greatest of New Orleans pianists James Booker. Radio 4 broadcast a programme about him today, with contributions from two other New Orleans piano legends Allen Toussaint and Dr John, and his last studio album Classified, recorded in 1982, a year before his death, has been reissued. There's also a documentary film about him called the Bayou Maharaja: The Tragic Genius of James Booker.
New Orleans has a tradition of brilliant piano players (one of the main things that attracted me to the place), including Jelly Roll Morton, Archibald, Professor Longhair, Fats Domino, Eddie Bo, Huey 'Piano' Smith and Art Neville, as well as Dr John and Allen Toussaint, but Booker was probably the most gifted of them all. He could play anything from blues and boogie woogie to classical and his playing is so intricate that it seems at times as though more than one person is playing.
But like so many of the New Orleans greats, his life was cut tragically short as a result of drug and alcohol abuse and he died aged just 43. He began playing as a young child and by 12 was able to hold his own with other more experienced piano players in the city. He first recorded for Imperial in 1954 under the name of Little Booker and his biggest solo
success record-wise was Gonzo, recorded for the Peacock label in 1960. He served time for drug possession in Angola prison and later played with Dr John, who memorably described him as "the best black, gay, one-eyed, junkie piano genius New Orleans has ever produced." Other nicknames included the Black Liberace - one he coined himself.
Booker played on records by many other artists, including Ringo Starr, John Mayall and Jerry Garcia, and enjoyed great success when he toured Europe in 1977 and 1978, but back in New Orleans he found himself playing to a handful of people each night at the Maple Leaf bar. The Classified album, produced by Scott Billington of Rounder records and released in the UK on Demon, shows off his keyboard brilliance but the end was near, as drugs and mental illness took hold. He died at New Orleans' Charity Hospital (where he was born) while waiting for medical attention for renal failure.
There's an interesting article in today's Daily Telegraph: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/music/worldfolkandjazz/10481332/James-Booker-revival-of-a-genius.html