James Booker Was Hands Down the Greatest New Orleans Piano Player Ever
A junkie and ex-con, the late James Booker was also the epitome of Crescent City keyboard artistry. A new documentary captures him right down to his glittering eye patch.
Picade LLC / Alamy Stock Photo
In the rain forest of New Orleans music, lush with trumpets, reeds, and drummers who parade the dead to the afterlife, one instrumental tradition holds a terrain of high fertility. That is the piano. No other U.S. city has generated such a distinctive line of pianists. Piano players are custodians of melody: singers ignite the masses: some few artists do both.
From Jelly Roll Morton, who channeled ragtime into demanding compositions at the dawn of jazz, unto Professor Longhair’s prancing rumba rhythms in the ’50s and Fats Domino’s boogie-pounding fingers and rich honeyed baritone that got white teenagers up and dancing, the New Orleans piano lineage is a story of artists taking a tradition out on regenerating cul-de-sacs that curl back to a ground beat of melody.
Art Neville came of age in the ’50s when Huey Smith and the Clowns hit the charts with “Rocking Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu.” Huey followed Domino’s good-time R&B style. Schooled in the R&B dance hall stomps, Neville found a greater influence in Longhair’s Caribbean left hand—what Jelly called the “Spanish Tinge”—island rhythms of carnival that colored Art’s keyboard on the 1976 Mardi Gras Indian classic, The Wild Tchoupitoulas.
Dr. John fused the best of Fess and Fats in a keyboard signature as wide-ranging as anything rock has seen. Allen Toussaint gave the piano line a beautiful high impressionism (particularly on his late, mostly instrumental albums Bright Mississippi and American Tunes), matched by a poetic lyricism in his river of compositions.
The artists who hit their stride in the ’70s and ’80s set out from that keyboard intersection of Fats and Fess, with variations of melody influenced by shifting cross-rhythms of feet on the street—Henry Butler, Harry Connick Jr., Jon Cleary, Joe Krown, Davell Crawford, Marcia Ball, and not least, Tom McDermott, a world-class talent whose exceptional reach cradles habanera, Brazilian choro, and other far-flung styles.
In this grand procession across time James Booker was the rare piano player, the outsider-as-insider, an extravagant bohemian adept in the music of Fats and Fess, and with a classically-trained precision to undergird his flights of improvisational fancy. Booker on a good night was a wonder of the world. His roaming on “Malaguena” (by Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona and found on Booker’s Spiders on the Keys) is a marvel of formality and experimental range. Released in 1992, Spiders on the Keys is taken from cuts recorded live at his hub, the Maple Leaf Bar, between 1977 and 1982. Spiders was a labor of love for esteemed Rounder producer Scott Billington and John Parsons, manager of the Maple Leaf, who spent years dealing with Booker in his carousel of moods and the musical passions that animate this recording.
Toussaint, Dr. John, and other peers had huge admiration for Booker’s talent; but his long battle with drugs, the mystery of the missing eye beneath the star-emblazoned black patch and the stark swings of mood suggesting bipolar disorder gave him the reputation of a crazy. A loveable crazy, sometimes, but he was also prone to darkness and unpredictability.
He stiff-armed yearning producers and club-owners in New York, Chicago, and other foreign countries eager to book him and organize studio sessions. He hated to leave New Orleans, an outpost of funk where he felt comfortable, yet a town with few high dollar venues to reward him. Booker had so many recordings yet to make when he died in 1983 of a drug overdose, age 43, sitting in the Charity Hospital waiting room, waiting. Someone unknown dropped him off there and split.
Booker had a huge following among musicians and a cult of aficionados when he died. His 13 CDs in circulation (the song lists have some overlap) reveal a player of “joy, wit, intelligence, and sheer bloody mayhem,” as Hugh Laurie, the actor and himself a substantial practitioner of New Orleans piano, says in Bayou Maharajah, a documentary feature directed by Lily Keber, now available on Error! Hyperlink reference not valid., iTunes, and Netflix.
Bayou Maharajah and a new Davell Crawford release, In the Vaults Vol. 1 (Basin Street Records) are a rejuvenating showcase for Booker’s music to millennials weaned on downloads and those baby-boomers, long in the tooth, who missed the self-styled Piano Prince alive and now, couch potatoes at the apocalypse, wallow in joys of Amazon. Just press send!
Booker bolstered his manic reputation with an obsession for conspiracy theories. He loved the rhyming potential in acronyms: The FBI, CIA and KKK seemed all of a piece in certain things he sang and said. One night at Tipitina’s in the mid ’70s, I sat on a neighboring bar stool as he told the guitarist and composer Earl King “that FBI-CIA underground took Nixon down. Watergate? Ain’t nothing but a building, Earl! Pres-ident of the USA, smacked by a train of FBI ’n’ CIA! Never saw it coming.”
Ah, Booker. Sweet, brilliant, broken James.
The conspiracy song he sang in varied versions had its own disguise.
On “Papa Was A Rascal,” he improvised on his own lyrics many times. The core version, more or less, goes less comme ca:
There was a sweet white woman down in Savanna GA
She made love to my daddy in front of the KKK …
She made my papa move to Boston
He took a gangster gal
She stole away with my papa
The whole Italian affair…
I was a young boy about the age of 9.
I found a sweet Russian woman.
You know I made her mine.
I found a sweet Russian woman, you know that I made her mine.
And then my sister and my mama, they began to say
You know we all got to watch out for the CIA …
Yay, yay, yay, yay
As we learn in a probing scene from Bayou Maharajah, Booker drew from a harrowing childhood experience. His father had left the family when James was injured in a collision. In rare footage tracked down by Keber, Booker says, “When I was a young boy about the age of nine I got hit by an ambulance going 70 miles an hour. It drug me for thirty feet.”
From the film transcript, John Parsons of the Maple Leaf: “He was in the hospital in pain, so they gave him morphine. ‘When I was at the age of nine I found a sweet rushin’ woman and I made her mine.’ What he meant by ‘rushin’ woman’ was not the Russian country, but R-U-S-H-I-N. Sometimes cocaine or heroin is referred to as ‘the lady.’ So hence the ‘sweet rushin’ woman’ in the song. That’s what it means.”
Booker: “In 1949. So you know, way back then a little nine-year-old black boy fuckin’ with a rushin’ woman, you know what’s going to happen. The CIA coming in!”
Booker’s addiction struggles ran most of his life. In the ’60s he did a stretch on drug charges in the state penitentiary at Angola, a town named for a former plantation, which was named for the country that exported slaves to Louisiana. Angola is a huge prison farm, surrounded by guard towers and razor ribbon wire, with no back fence—the land ends at the Mississippi River and currents so treacherous few inmates even try to swim away. At Angola, Booker experimented with a folk song popularized there, “Junker Blues.” As it came down through variations in the lyrics, Professor Longhair and Booker recorded versions of “Junco Partner,” the tale of a wayward junkie coming “down the road, knocked out loaded, loaded as can be.”
Booker put his own stamp on the end of the song, singing of his desire “for a weed farm around Angola” and—in one of several versions—how at his death bed, “I want a little cocaine, cocaine and heroin, heroin by my side.”
Despite his moody pendulum, Booker could be a delightful guy to hang with; he had no small quotient of charm, and that part of his personality shimmers in his version of “Sunny Side of the Street.”
Harry Connick Sr., for many years the district attorney of New Orleans, helped Booker find work after he finally, or so it seemed, managed to detox. Booker gave piano lessons to the prosecutor’s son, little Harry, then in middle school. In Bayou Maharajah, the now grown recording artist and actor Harry Connick Jr. speaks tenderly of Booker and on piano demonstrates the tenacity and originality of his technique.
“He was like that uncle you wished would come and visit more,” Connick recalls. But there were times when Booker called late at night, the boy’s parents asleep, “and he used to say, ‘Can you come get me? Can you come help me?’ I’m like, ‘James I can’t, dude. I’m 12.’ And I would take the tape recorder and stick it into the receiver. But I remember him telling me, ‘I’m getting beat up by the police.’ I remember stories about how he’s not shooting up anymore. He’s like drinking orange juice now. All these weird stories, and he would just talk and talk. And this was 2 o’clock, 3 o’clock in the morning, and I would go to school the next day. And I was just sitting there with that tape recorder. And you know, I shouldn’t have done it… I just wanted to hear him more, you know, because he was a special presence in my life.”
When Booker died in 1983, Harry Connick Jr. was starting his career in New York and Davell Crawford was an 8-year old piano prodigy; his grandfather, James “Sugar Boy” Crawford, had recorded the Mardi Gras Indian anthem “Jockomo” in 1953, a song later refitted by the Dixie Cups, the Nevilles and others as “Iko Iko.” In his new release, Piano in the Vaults, Vol. 1, Davell Crawford weaves through the tradition that links Connick to Booker, Fess, Fats and others in the New Orleans piano line.
Crawford works the music from R&B back to jazz with an echo of Booker in a barrel-house stride on “Song for James,” an instrumental. The second cut, “Booker Days,” unfurls the ring-like melody of a love song with lyrics of a young artist singing to a great ghost.
I’d give anything just to hear him play
Sure the world, it would be a better place,
if Booker was still around today.
What would he say and what would he do?
But now he’s gone, somebody’s got to carry on, feeling enough
Praise the Lord, help me run the race.
Am I the only one to feel the shoe?
Lily Keber felt the shoe in 2007 while bartending at Vaughan’s Lounge, a funky little groove spot in the Upper Ninth Ward. Three years out of the University of Georgia, just breaking into film work, Keber “kept hearing Booker songs on the jukebox and people started telling stories about him,” as she told The Daily Beast.
“I noticed that when people speak about Booker, they still use the present tense. It was strange to me that this guy made a huge impact, but if you Googled him, very little came up. His music was so different from anything I’d heard … The fact that he was so elusive became a crucial part of the story.”
The film took three years to make and, as often happens with low-budget indy films, it took another three to secure distribution. Along the way Bayou Maharajah won Oxford American’s Best Southern Film, the Grand Jury Prize at Fairhope Film Festival, Best Louisiana Feature at the New Orleans Film Festival, and a string of sold-out screenings at festivals in Europe and the U.S.
True to its subject, Bayou Maharajah never solves the mystery of how Booker lost the left eye, which he covered with a star-embedded black patch. Various musicians and people close to him give voice to the constellation of stories Booker told. Retribution from the Mafia. A CIA plot. Punishment for drugs unpaid. A fight with Ringo Starr. And the grand whammy, from Dr. John: “It had something to do with Jackie Kennedy.”
Keber, who is now working on a film about South Louisiana dance traditions, says that the purity she found in Booker’s music has been a pull to young people discovering him through the film. “People get it that Booker was in his own realm. He didn’t compromise his artistic vision, as complicated as it may have been. It’s not enough to make music. You need a website, social media—the whole package. Booker didn’t have the whole package. He was counter-cultural then and counter-cultural now; but as young people discover him, that story behind the music is part of what they fall in love with.”
In 1984, when my colleague Jonathan Foose was clearing permissions for song lyrics printed in the history we wrote with Tad Jones—Up From the Cradle of Jazz: New Orleans Music Since World War II — “Junco Partner” had a copyright holder who, upon being duly contacted, made it clear that the words we transcribed—Booker’s singing on a record being sold in stores—violated the copyright! The intimation of legal threat was clear: better not put those illegal words in your book, boys. We caved. Booker by then was dead. It was easy to imagine him out in some corner of the cosmos, fingers dancing on the ivory chips, laughing away at his words, our fate.