The Tragic Genius of James Booker

John Morthland

By John Morthland

on 01.09.14 in Spotlights


James Booker

Dr. John once eulogized the late New Orleans piano professor James Booker as “the best black, gay, one-eyed junkie piano genius New Orleans has ever produced.” But when Booker died in 1983 at age 43, he was almost a complete unknown outside his hometown.

It was that obscurity that inspired New Orleans bartender-turned-filmmaker Lily Keber — who was frustrated by her own inability to find much information on Booker — to crowdfund and create the documentary Bayou Maharajah: The Tragic Genius of James Booker, which made big waves on the festival circuit. In a wonderful scene near the beginning of the film Harry Connick Jr. demonstrates, hand by hand and finger by finger, Booker’s complicated style. Then, for the rest of the movie, you see and hear it in action repeatedly, and (probably for the first time) it all makes sense.

That style — deep, dark blues and New Orleans R&B, injected with classical, gospel, jazz and pop motifs — was marked by torpedoing improvisations, mind-boggling and seemingly incongruous juxtapositions that were nonetheless seamless, and rhythmic flights of fancy. While his left hand played sonorous, freewheeling bass lines as dexterous as those produced by most right hands, his own right soared and slurred all over the place in an astonishing mating of rhythm and melody. He extended the classic New Orleans piano style as far as it could go without abandoning the tradition entirely; he did so by incorporating classical techniques into R&B and organ techniques into piano-playing, both of which enabled him to make a single instrument sound more like a band — or, when he really got rolling, like a whole damn Crescent City street parade. His cracked, raspy vocals made up in raw emotion what they lacked in technique; there was a desolate edge to his voice that accentuated his loneliness. (Keber says she learned to love Booker while waitressing in a New Orleans bar due to his passionate singing; only later did she start to realize how unusual his piano-playing was.)

Saddled by alcoholism, heroin addiction and mental illness throughout his adult years, Booker died a death that seemed to flow naturally out of his star-crossed life and sorta-career. He was sitting in a wheelchair in New Orleans Charity Hospital, waiting to be seen by a doctor, when his organs simply gave out, probably as a result of heavy drug use; the official cause of death was renal failure. He’d been delivered to Charity by cab, and wasn’t even wearing his customary eyepatch, emblazoned with a gold star.

A child prodigy who’d mastered Chopin and Bach by age 12, Booker made his first single at age 14. His sole brush with mass fame was “Gonzo,” a 1960 organ instrumental that spent 10 weeks on the R&B charts, peaking at No. 3, and even brushing the pop charts for a week. But he spent most of his career working as a sideman for artists as diverse as Aretha Franklin, Dr. John (who learned organ from Booker), Little Richard, B.B. King, Joe Tex, Ringo Starr, Maria Muldaur and the Doobie Brothers. In 1976, producer Joe Boyd got him into the studio to cut the solo Junco Partner, the finest example of Booker embellished by nobody other than himself (it was his only studio album besides 1982′s Classified, which was recently remastered and reissued). In the late ’70s, he toured Europe extensively; several of the posthumous live albums on the market come from these months, and they are superior to his live American releases. When he returned to New Orleans, he took up a residency at the Maple Leaf bar and laundromat, which is the source of his live Rounder albums Resurrection of the Bayou Majarajah and Spiders on the Keys (that phrase was Booker’s own description of his piano technique). His Jazzfest appearances were always a special occasion, with Booker delivered to the stage by Rolls Royce and wrapped in a bright, flowing cape.

But it’s Classified that best captures the totality of Booker’s extraordinary music. You can hear it in tracks like “Professor Longhair Medley: Tipitina/Bald Head,” which begins with semi-classical touches before resolving into recognizable Longhair songs. On tracks like the opening, rapid-fire “Classified” or “Three Keys,” you wonder how Booker can make so much noise with just two hands. His improvisations on “Angel Eyes” and “I’m Not Saying” are devastating; his desperation on the band version of “If You’re Lonely” is heartbreaking. “All These Things” is sped up until it threatens to snap in two, yet still comes off elegiac, bittersweet, unattainable. Roger Miller’s “King of the Road” is a goofy celebration of reefer, while “Medley: Tico Tico/Papa Was a Rascal/So Swell When You’re Well” takes ragtime to the carnival. Time and again, on rockers like “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” and “Hound Dog,” on pop standards like “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby” and “Baby Face,” he completely makes over the most familiar material, until it’s barely recognizable and yet still somehow unmistakable. No matter how fast or slow Booker plays, the bluesman in him never loses the groove.

“It’s pretty good Booker, though not the best he could have made,” says producer Scott Billington today. He’s right, but it’s the kind of remark that could only be made by someone who’d seen Booker live, at his peak. On record, “pretty good Booker” stands out like some of the most accomplished and most infectious music you’ve ever heard.

Throughout Keber’s documentary, talking heads like Allen Toussaint, Irma Thomas, Dr. John, Dave Bartholomew and Charles Neville refer to James Booker as a genius, but it’s important to note that Booker’s genius wasn’t merely musical. He spoke with authority on Shakespeare and classical literature, on religion, world history and the like.

“In New Orleans everybody has a James Booker story,” says Keber, who includes a fair number of them in her movie. “He was such an unconventional character, and most of what you hear is about his craziness, but you can’t miss his intelligence. He was so well-spoken, so well-read. I think he probably was a genius.” Until now he’s been largely an undocumented one. The time is nigh for a change.