1939-12-17

JAMES BOOKER (d: 1983) was a New Orleans rhythm and blues musician born on this date in New Orleans. Booker’s unique style combined rhythm and blues with jazz standards. Harry Connick Jr., a student and close friend of Booker, is probably his most renowned disciple. Connick, Henry Butler, and Dr. John, among others, have recorded songs with titles and musical styles referencing Booker.

Booker was the son and grandson of Baptist ministers, both of whom played the piano. He spent most of his childhood on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, where his father pastored a church. Booker received a saxophone as a gift from his mother, but he demonstrated a stronger interest in the keyboard. He first played organ in his father’s churches.

Booker was highly skilled in classical music and played Bach and Chopin, among other composers. He also mastered and memorized solos by Erroll Garner and Liberace. His thorough background in piano literature may have enabled his original and virtuosic interpretations of jazz and other popular music. These performances combined elements of stride, blues, gospel and Latin

Booker made his recoring debut in 1954 on the Imperial Label, with “Doin’ the Hambone” and “Thinkin’ ‘Bout My Baby.” This led to some session work with Fats Domino, Smiley Lewis and Lloyd Price.

In 1958, Arthur Rubenstein gave a concert in New Orleans. Afterwards, eighteen-year-old Booker was introduced to the concert pianist and played several tunes for him. Rubinstein was astonished, saying “I could never play that… never at that tempo! Booker also became known for his flamboyant personality amongst his peers.

After recording a few other singles, he enrolled as an undergraduate in Southern University’s music department. In 1960, Booker’s “Gonzo” reached number 43 on the U.S. Billboard chart, and number 3 on the R&B chart. This was followed by some moderately successful singles. In the 1960s, he turned to drugs, and in 1970 served a brief sentence in Angola Prison for possession.

In 1973 Booker recorded The Lost Paramount Tapes at Paramount Studios in Hollywood with members of the Dr. John band which included John Boudreaux on drums, Jessie Hill on percussion, Alvin Robinson on guitar and vocals, Richard “Didymus” Washington on percussion, David Lastie on sax and Dave Johnson on bass. This album was produced by the former Dr. John and Sweathog bassist, David L. Johnson and Daniel J. Moore. The master tapes disappeared from the Paramount Recording Studios library, but a copy of some of the mixes made near the time of the recordings was discovered in 1992, which resulted in a CD release.

Booker recorded a number of albums while touring Europe in 1977, including New Orleans Piano Wizard Live! which was recorded at his performance in the ‘Boogie Woogie and Ragtime Piano Contest’ in Zurich, Switzerland. This album won the Grand Prix du Disque. He played at the Nice and Montreuz Jazz Festivals in 1978. Fourteen years later a recording in Leipzigfrom this tour would become the last record to be produced in the former East Germany. It was entitled Let’s Make A Better World!.

From 1977 to 1982 he was the house pianist at the Maple Leaf Bar in the Carrollton neighborhood of uptown New Orleans.

His last commercial audio recording, Classified, was made in 1982 — in four hours according to the producer. By this time, his physical and mental condition had deteriorated. One anecdote to illustrate his state of deterioration: he famously came on stage at a concert wearing nothing but a diaper with a large gold diaper pin holding the nappy together. He reached into the back of the diaper and pulled out a gun, announcing “I know someone out there has some, and if they don’t bring me some coke I’m going to blow my brains out!” 

At the end of October, 1983, film-maker Jim Gabour captured Booker’s final concert performance. The footage from the Maple Leaf Bar in New Orleans was broadcast on Cox Cable and a six-and-a-half-minute improvisation, “Seagram’s Jam,” featured on Gabour’s film – All Alone with the Blues.

Booker died ten days later, on November 8, 1983, while seated in a wheelchair, waiting to be seen at the emergency room at New Orleans Charity Hospital. The cause of death was renal failure. His death was mourned by music lovers, but was unsurprising to those who were aware of his life-long history of serious drug abuse and chronic alcoholism.

It has been speculated that his song “Gonzo” was the inspiration for the use of the word gonzo to describe Hunter S. Thompson’s journalistic style.

A feature-length documentary entitled “Bayou Maharajah” is currently being produced on the life of James Booker, set to be released in Spring 2012.