Jame Booker's Live Life
James Carroll Booker, III
"Life" (Allen Toussaint)
James Booker, unreleased, live at Tipitina's, 1977
Well, I said I’d get around to putting up one of James Booker’s piano excursions; and now seems like a good time, as his birthday comes around on the 17th. He would have been 66 this year, had he not passed on shortly before he turned 44.
With Booker, the overused and undervalued term “genius” is often bandied about and is apt. He possessed an elemental spirit, an overwhelming endowment of talent, and a keen, unorthodox mind. He had a long career, starting in the 1950’s, as a sideman, and but never recorded all that much under his own name. While his only “hit” was one of his fairly tame organ numbers, “Gonzo” in 1960, his true nature is revealed in his often over the top, stream of consciousness, polymorphous piano playing. His overflowing keyboard facility could amaze and delight his audiences; but Booker’s performances could also be erratic, disjointed, abrupt and sloppy. Sometimes this was the case within the same song! Such were the challenges of encountering his capricious creativity mixed with a possible bipolar disorder and a long-term relationship to King Heroin. Yet his influence is proudly claimed by many keyboardists in New Orleans (Dr. John, Jon Cleary, Tom McDermott, Harry Connick, Jr., et al) and around the world; and he has inspired an enduring cult following.
It is impossible to pick any one performance or recording that is truly representative of all James Booker could do at the piano. For this post, I’ve picked one of his versions of Allen Toussaint’s “Life”, which Booker played often over his career. Dr. John, who was his friend and, at one point, employer had recorded it in 1973 on In The Right Place. Booker may have picked up the song playing it in his friend’s band. On this take, he displays a nicely funked up rhythmic feel while turning out some of his trademark right hand intricacies. His singing may take some getting used to; but suits his purposes.
I got this soundboard recording from a friend of a friend of a friend who knew somebody. It’s from Tipitina’s around 1977. Just one of Booker’s typical solo gigs back then, often playing to small crowds. I was lucky enough to catch him at the Maple Leaf Bar in New Orleans the summer before he died. There were maybe ten people in the place, including the staff. Booker would play some amazing riffs, get halfway through a song and just stop and walk over to the bar for five minutes, come back to the piano sit and let something else rip that would just kill. Then, after a song and a half, he’s be up again ranting about something or other. It was both a frustrating and rewarding evening that I wouldn’t trade for anything. His few studio or live albums can give you but a sense of his often uncontainable energy and unconventional expertise, but are worth seeking out. His music, infused at various times with soul, humor, paranoia, brilliance and bliss, is as unique, valuable and imperfect as the city that James Booker’s called home.