Gonzo's Cool Turkey
"Cool Turkey" (D. Malone)
James Booker, Peacock 1697, 1960
(tune in to HOTG Internet Radio)
It being Thanksgiving Day, I thought I'd dish out this James Booker song with a foodish title (turkey is the meal of choice on this US holiday - deep fried whole sometimes in Louisiana - or for the vegetarians, tofurkey. Rather than referencing leftovers, when he chose this title, Booker, an incredibly complex trickster and keyboard virtuoso with a heavy drug monkey on his back, was making a veiled play on a junkie term for kicking the habit: cold turkey.
Already a prodigious pianist, Booker came to Houston in 1960, around 21 years old, at the end of a tour where he'd been playing organ in Dee Clark's band. While there, he picked up work with the infamous music mogul Don Robey, playing gigs at his Golden Peacock club and sessions backing artists on his Duke and Peacock labels, probably getting hired through fellow hometown pianist Ed Frank, who was arranging music and scouting talent for Robey. After Booker did some sessions with Junior Parker and others, the label owner gave him the chance to record some organ instrumentals. The first two, "Gonzo" backed with "Cool Turkey" came out on Peacock, with the top side becoming an unexpected and substantial hit, charting in the R&B top ten and fairly high in the pop charts as well that year. Jeff Hannusch, who devoted a chapter to Booker in his essential book, I Hear You Knockin', says that the record was one of Robey's most commercially successful releases, although I don't recall hearing it on the radio back then - and I listened a lot. My bad luck. This was also the only time James Booker's name would grace the charts.
"Gonzo" (D. Malone)
(tune in to HOTG Internet Radio)
For that reason, I'm tossing in "Gonzo" for Turkey Day lagniappe. Hannusch relates that Ed Frank came up with the title, which was Booker's nickname, taken from the movie The Pusher - can we see a theme developing, with a side on his next single called "Smacksie"? Despite the success of this track, Booker got essentially nothing out of it, having signed away the writer's credits to Robey (his oft used alias D[eadric] Malone) and all other rights as well. There were three more attempts to revisit the success of "Gonzo" on Peacock singles that did not get it done; and Booker was the featured player on two other hapless instrumentals for Duke, released under the name of drummer Earl Forest. With no more action from those, Booker and Robey parted ways by 1962.
That year he was in New Orleans, playing organ at several clubs on Bourbon Street, and living with his old running buddy, Mac Rebennack. There are several connections beyond narcotics with Booker and Mac Rebennack that come to mind when I hear these tunes. First of all, he and Mac had been friends since their teenage years, when they hung out at Cosimo's studio, managing to pick up some session work and gigs despite their youth. Then, after Mac had gotten into an altercation in Florida that resulted in a debilitating gunshot wound to the ring finger of his left hand, which kept him from playing guitar (his main instrument in those days), Booker taught him the ins and outs of the organ. That was in 1962, and, with the instruction and Booker's knowing club owners in the Vieux Carre, Mac was soon able to get steady work on the new instrument. Thus, he kept on the always precarious musical career path, prepping for bigger things to come. Later, Mac concentrated on the piano work he is most famous for these days, again with inspiration from Booker, among many others.
In the 1970s, Rebennack would try to repay the favor by using Booker in the Dr. John road band; but Booker's antics on- and off-stage made that a continual challenge.Yet, despite the difficulties dealing with a true poster boy for eccentricity, Mac had a huge respect and awe for his gifts which were lost to the world in 1983, when Booker died of an overdose.
Booker could play it all. . . He'd sit down at the piano and play knocked-out versions of all kinds of tunes - everything from Malaguena boogie to Bach fugues. There were just too many things Booker did that were so outrageously beautiful that I just can't see how he ended up like he did. I consider him to be a genius. If I was ever blessed to meet one, James Carroll Booker was. - Dr. John, from Under A Hoodoo Moon