December 12, 2005

Jame Booker's Live Life

James Carroll Booker, III

"Life" (Allen Toussaint)
James Booker, unreleased, live at Tipitina's, 1977

That's life

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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...


I think he played Tuesday nights at the Maple Leaf, but seeing Booker and doing your laundry on Tuesday nights (or was it Wednesday mornings), and maybe even sharing a bottle of T-Bird or Mad Dog with him afterwards, is another one of my great memories of what New Orleans was. Thanks for jarring my memory.

7:22 AM, December 12, 2005  
Blogger Red Kelly said...


thanks for sharin' the rare stuff!

5:19 PM, December 12, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was turned on to the genius and madness of James Booker when I first moved to New Orleans in 1992. I have written articles on him and done a documentary on him and spread the word as best I can. I even have a James Booker tattoo. With the exception of Art Tatum and maybe Horowitz, James Booker is the best pianist you will ever hear.

Since 1992, I have played James Booker's music for literally thousands of people. No one, and I mean NO ONE, has failed to be deeply moved when they hear it. Everyone can tell how great and deep and amazing his playing is. Then I start telling them the stories of Booker and his life and they are even more moved.

I have learned a lot about New Orleans, myself, and life in general from James Booker. He was something else.

8:48 AM, December 15, 2005  
Blogger Dan Phillips said...

It's hard for me to even scatch the surface in one post about Booker. Glad I could share it with y'all.

Keep spreading the word, dk. Hey, is that documentary commercially available?

9:22 AM, December 15, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

amazing track - amazing - I lived behind Tips then and attended many many of these sessions. Jimmy was most probably the sound man for this concert, and he recorded lots of these sessions and we would all trade him weed for sound board copies - we had to swear to him that we would never tell where we got the tapes from if we were caught - all of my tapes got destroyed in the flood - this track broght it all back. more from this session please. I will anonymously give you more details of those times as I was in the right place.

12:03 PM, January 02, 2006  
Blogger Dan Phillips said...

Man, every day I hear of more New Orleans history lost in the flood. Sorry for your loss, but appreciate hearing from somebody who was there! I'll get back to some of this live Booker stuff. I promise. I also may have a line on getting more of it. That would be sweet. Keep your Booker flag flyin'.

1:43 PM, January 02, 2006  

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