Born: December 17, 1939 | Died: November 8, 1983 Primary Instrument: Piano
The Piano Prince.
As a piano player from New Orleans, he has no peers,though there is legion of those who have tried to imitate, duplicate and emulate his phenomenal approach on the keys.
James Carroll Booker III was born in New Orleans on December 17, 1939, son of a minister, who played piano. It was his sister’s music teacher who taught him piano scales and to read music. He was known for his musical gifts at an early age, and was considered a piano prodigy, giving classical recitals at age six, and continued classical training until twelve. He was acknowledged to have perfect pitch, instant musical recall, and a photographic memory in sight reading. He was playing Chopin, Erroll Garner, and Liberace, and could play their solos from memory. He would sneak out and play boogie woogie, and also learned local music from Tuts Washington, a family friend.
His sister took him along to her gospel show on WMRY in New Orleans, and he so impressed the staff at an audition, that he had his own show on Saturday afternoon at age eleven, playing blues and gospel piano. He would remain there for a few years even putting a band together, Booker Boy and the Rhythmaires.
By age of fourteen he auditioned for Dave Barthololmew at Imperial Records, where he cut a couple of sides as Little Booker. The records didn’t do much but Bartholomew recognized his talent for imitating any style, so he hired him as studio pianist to fill in and overdub piano parts, which he did for Fats Domino.
He would amass quite a long list of credentials in the recording and touring categories with a variety of artists. These would include between the years of 1956 to 1960 sessions and tours with Amos Milburn, Joe Tex, Shirley and Lee, Huey Smith, Dee Clarke, Earl King, Bobby Blue Bland, Junior Parker, and Smiley Lewis. In 1961 he recorded “Gonzo” which became a local hit, and is his cult classic. Then it was back on the road and in studios with B.B. King, Little Richard, Lloyd Price, and Wilson Pickett. There is a grey area in the mid sixties when he did time at Angola State Penitentiary, then returned to New Orleans to play in the local bars and clubs. He would reemerge again in 1968 doing the piano work on “Fat’s Is Back” for Fats Domino, and would continue to work and record for the next several years with Freddie King, King Curtis, Aretha Franklin, T Bone Walker, Ringo Starr, Maria and Geoff Muldaur, Labelle, and John Mayall.
James Booker would finally come into his own by the mid ‘70’s and began the recordings for which he is primarily known and judged by. He had developed an unusual style which is still difficult to categorize or define; he is recognized for his elaborate embellishments on the simplest of songs, and ability to turn the most tepid of material into a virtuoso masterpiece.He also did his own renditons of classical material. There is his “Booker riff” or comp which is most identified with him, which displays his New Orleans roots and the influence of Professor Longhair with the syncopated beat and rhythm which is indigenous to the music of the city. But that would be just his starting point from which he could take off. He had incredible feeling for the music he played, and the piano literally became an extension of the man, when Booker was on, it was nothing short of wizardry. His keyboard dexterity, excellent timing, coupled with a flamboyant expression, is just the beginning.
While he only recorded a few albums as a solo artist or leader, these are testaments to his musicianship and are his legacy in the history of New Orleans piano.
While in Los Angeles in 1973 he recorded with a group of New Orleans players in what would be called “The Lost Paramount Tapes” (DJM 1995). The mix is a bit rough but there are some highlights, and the tacky upright gives it a raunchy touch.
He was back in New Orleans in 1976,in Sea- Saint Studios for his “Junco Partner” (Hannibal) which many consider to be his best solo studio effort. He was in top form here and shows the dazzle that would establish his reputation.
There are a couple of releases that were recorded between ’74 and ’77 such as “United Our Thing Will Stand” and “A Taste of Honey” (both Night Train) that are a lot of retakes and repetition, these are double cd’s, but would have been better served as one single.
Booker went to Europe in 1977, where he had good reputation based on “Junco Partner”, and was recognized there for his talent. Taking advantage of the situation he recorded several albums in Hamburg, and Zurich. These are “King of the New Orleans Keyboard” Vol. I &II (JSP) “The Piano Prince of New Orleans” (Aves) and “New Orleans Piano Wizard: Live”(Rounder) they all have their Booker moments of course, but the Rounder set is a bit more refined and better recorded. Here we have the cuts “Sunny Side of the Street” and “Black Night”, both which he transforms and certainly both describe the man as well.
Between the years of 1977 and 1982 he was the house pianist at the Maple Leaf Bar in New Orleans, and luckily a certain John Parsons had the foresight to record Booker for posterity. These recordings were released as “Spider on the Keys” and “Resurrection of the Bayou Maharajah.” (both Rounder) The “Spider” set is classic for he does not sing and though sometimes uneven, shows again his brilliance on a few numbers, showing more his virtuoso side. The “Resurrection “sets him in more of a playful R&B mood.
By the end of 1982, he recorded “Classified” (Rounder) which the producer states was recorded in four hours. It is a good collection of Booker in a more commercial frame, but does not have some of the fantastic improvisations he was known for and is available on other sessions. This would be his last recording,
James Booker died in New Orleans, on November 8, 1983, at Charity Hospital, where he was born.
In 2003 there was released a compilation of his songs performed by various pianists on Patchwork: A Tribute to James Booker (STR)
His place in the history of New Orleans piano is secured. It seems like every musician in the city who was around, has a Booker story. He is recognized for his exceptional talent and for bringing up the musical standard. All these years after his death, there are piano players, and there is James Booker, The Piano Prince of New Orleans!
Source: James Nadal