November 22, 2007

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


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was not really familiar with Booker apart from hearing Dr John and other piano players talk about him as a genius. Thanks for bringing some light on this great artist. I hope Dr john would make tribut to Booker that would be probably a terrific CD

4:10 AM, November 23, 2007  
Blogger Dan Phillips said...

I've posted on Booker a couple of times here, not much. I hope do to a piano piece on him in December. As I mentioned when I featured another of his organ sides (with the Lloyd Price band), his organ playing was always fairly straight ahead as compared to the wild gonzo stuff he did on piano. He's an acquired taste for some, but well worth acquiring.

11:08 AM, November 23, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post. Really enjoyed these tunes. Thanks for sharing your time and expertise.

11:00 PM, November 23, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Probably the reason you never heard this stuff on radio is that by that time Don Robey had ripped off a number of Memphis artists. Some of these had close ties to radio (as in DJs on WDIA). The records were always available, though, and I've always found lots of Peacock singles in the cut-out bins over the years.

1:27 PM, November 26, 2007  
Blogger Dan Phillips said...

Another mystery of the universe solved! Good point on why I missed "Gonzo", growing up in Memphis. Mr. Robey shoulda paid 'em off 'stead of rippin' 'em off.

6:11 PM, November 26, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

ah yes, Booker on organ. There's some great organ medleys on the Funky Delicacies release United Our Thing Will Stand.

And there are the tales of being on the road with that Dr. John Band that also had Shine Robinson, Red Tyler, Didimus, and James Black. Booker playing the pipe organ with the band in Chicago. Booker dealing heron in bed with his boyfriend out of some hotel in NYC. Booker challenging Dr. John to a duel. The Booker stories are endless.

But most importantly, aside from Art Tatum, Booker is the best pianist and organ player that you will ever hear. Ever.

Dan, email me your address again and I'll send you some Booker stuff.

Jazz Lunatique

12:46 PM, November 27, 2007  
Blogger BWB said...

Great post, and thanks again for the Booker guidance.

If anyone is interested in sharing Booker stories, I'm working on a project dedicated to the man. Please get in touch:

3:55 PM, November 27, 2007  
Blogger Dan Phillips said...

Jazz Lunatique: I do not recognize that handle. Senior moment? Quite possibly. Anyway, email me at hotgblog (at) gmail (dot) com and we'll get this sorted out. And, hey, what I would've given to see the DJ band with Booker and Black in it, while it lasted. Just glad I wasn't IN it!

Also, everybody who has Booker tales to tell, do contact New Orleans Nation. Should be an interesting project, from what he's told me so far.

3:42 PM, November 28, 2007  

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