He had the character (or some might say “characters”) and the sheer virtuosity befitting his full name, James Carroll Booker III. But he wasn’t just another New Orleans pianist who acted out of his head and did outlandish things. Booker was the quintessential New Orleans musician. His life, music, and career encompass the good and bad, yin and yang, uptown and downtown of New Orleans. His art and life also dissolved the artificial barriers between those so-called opposites. Often he is too much to contemplate. As one-time New Orleanian Walt Whitman said about himself and could have said about Booker, “I contain multitudes.”
First: the music. Aside from Art Tatum, Booker was the best pianist you will ever hear. His technique was virtuoso and his musical imagination matched it, so when he was playing, anything could happen. Anything was game. You might hear Schubert and you might hear Longhair and you might hear Lecuona. And he would do it sounding like he had 3 or 4 hands interspersing 12ths and triads in the left hand while doing long, thrilling runs up and down the piano with his right. “Spider on the keys” was an accurate description of his playing. He synthesized a whole new way of playing where all forms of piano had equal say and legitimacy. He’d take the Minute Waltz and make it sound like Jelly Roll Morton, or play the deepest, grittiest, gutter blues and give it the majesty of Beethoven. High art and low art were on the same exalted level when Booker sat down at the piano.
There was genius at work and play here. Many have heard the story of Booker meeting up with organist Jimmy Smith in Municipal Auditorium and playing Smith’s solo on “Walk on the Wild Side” back to him and then playing it backwards. I always took that with a grain of salt. Really, how would anyone know if he played the solo or played it backwards? A couple years ago, I was having lunch with Earl King, one of Booker’s best friends and running buddies. I asked Earl point blank about it and he chuckled and told me that not only had Booker done that, but one night he and Rickie Castrillo had walked into the Maple Leaf, Booker saw them and started in on a version of Earl’s first single, “A Mother’s Love.” He played it both backward and forward. King, having written the song, would know if it was backward and not just a mess of good-sounding notes.
And it wasn’t just the piano. Rarely has a voice and an instrument been so in sync. Booker’s slightly reedy voice is an acquired taste; he’s no Pavarotti or Irma Thomas. He hit all the notes he needed to hit, but it’s his tone that gets you. Most people hear it with the ballads. When he sang “Black Night,” “Please Send Me Someone to Love,” or “Since I Fell for You,” his voice was possessed with the soul of someone trying to make sense of all the turmoil and pain of his life and yours. Although Bookerphiles point it out less, this is also true of the up-tempo numbers. When Booker was racing through a riotous “Goodnight Irene” or “Papa Was a Rascal,” it was, as producer Scott Billington said, “as much joy as you could get out of piano.” It was rollicking and dancing. It made you want to get in on the party with Booker’s infectious attitude before you realized that simply by listening to it, you were already there.
And this wasn’t all for show. Booker had a method behind the keyboard madness. He was often trying to relate an epic idea or adjust the minds of his audience. In the many recordings that he left behind, he felt that he had to play songs in a certain order so that the audience would understand what he knew and what he was trying to get across. The late saxophonist Fred Kemp related to me the story of playing with Booker in the 1960s and that entire evening Booker had been avoiding playing a certain note on the piano. Finally Booker hit that note, and it spooked the audience. Kemp said that those listening felt quite strange after Booker did that, and that Kemp got a funny feeling, too. Booker’s friends and fans Scott Billington and Jerry Brock both said that Booker’s performances could whip up a frenzy that would leave everyone present moved and speechless. Brock compares it to the intense meditations that John Coltrane would attain in his late performances. When he wanted to, Booker wasn’t playing to entertain. He was playing to impress some profound concepts upon his listeners. As his friend Jessie Hill sang, “I won’t stop trying until I create a disturbance in your mind.”
But how about the disturbance in his own mind? Booker could seem and act crazy. He had lived through troubles, and trouble had not left him alone. His mother and sister, with whom he had been very close, died within several months of each other in the 1960s. He suffered through addictions. He did hard time in Angola and Orleans Parish Prison. He lost his eye. He was immensely frustrated that his fame did not reach the dizzying heights of his talent. So certainly when he acted all crazy, ranted from the keyboard, drank his own urine onstage, or pulled out a starter pistol and threatened waitresses who wouldn’t tip him, there were reasons behind such actions. But people who spent time with Booker offstage and knew him for years thought that his acting crazy was an act. Art Neville told me point blank that Booker wasn’t crazy. Booker and Neville knew each other since grade school, and Art said, “That it was his way to get over on people.” Jim Scheurich, his friend and drummer in the 1970s, agreed with that sentiment and added, “If you act crazy all the time, then people will think you’re a crazy person.”
But who knows? Booker was a genius, and genius could be considered a mental illness. Look at Mozart, Charlie Parker, Paul Morphy, Isaac Newton, and Vincent Van Gogh. All these people saw things in ways that no one had ever seen before, and they all were more than slightly off their rocker and not necessarily happier because of it. Maybe once one sees things in a whole new revelatory way, one always sees in that way and has difficulty in bridging the gap between what one sees and what the rest of the world sees.
To his credit, Booker bridged a lot of gaps. One of the great things about New Orleans is how easily different worlds cross and intermingle. From the Quadroon Balls to the slave pews in St. Augustine Church, from second lines to Mardi Gras Indians, New Orleans’ greatest attribute is the way different cultures mix and the fact that they do. In Booker’s art and life, he was the epitome of this. He could play Rachmaninoff and “Junco Partner” as if both were in his DNA. He shot up illegal narcotics and counted the District Attorney as one of his biggest supporters, even giving his son piano lessons. He attributed his losing his eye to a fight involving former Beatle Ringo Starr’s people, and then he put a star on his eye patch to let everybody know who was responsible. In his performances, he could rant hilariously about the CIA, Ray Charles, or Richard Nixon, punctuate it with his high, laughing cackle, and then slay everyone with his cut-to-the-bone version of “True.”
It was comedy and tragedy on a very high level. Booker bridged those gaps better than anyone in this city, but maybe he never could bridge that gap between his genius and the rest of the world. And by trying to cross that divide, he gave us the greatest piano art that New Orleans and the USA have ever known. Booker died alone in a wheelchair in the Charity Hospital emergency room in 1983. He was 43. We were lucky to have him as long as we did.
More Than All the 45’s (Night Train): This recording has Booker’s early singles including his first record, “Hambone/Thinkin’ ’Bout My Baby.” It features his groovy organ sides from the early ’60s including his biggest hit “Gonzo,” which is the song that inspired Hunter S. Thompson and gave a name to an entire school of journalism.
Junco Partner (Hannibal): Booker’s most coherent work. Great versions of “Goodnight Irene,” (with Booker’s intro) “Pixie” (sounds like four hands), and “Junco Partner.”
New Orleans Piano Wizard Live (Rounder): Great European live set with soulful versions of “Please Send Me Someone to Love” and “Black Night” and a jaunty version of “Sunny Side of the Street”
Classified (Rounder): Slightly muted studio set, but it still features gems “Angel Eyes” and “Classified.”
Spider on the Keys/Resurrection of the Bayou Maharajah (Rounder): Taken from Booker’s manager John Parsons’ recordings at the Maple Leaf Bar, this is what a typical night at the Maple Leaf sounded like. There are some great medleys here and some wild singing.
United Our Thing Will Stand (Night Train): This compilation of recording from New Orleans night clubs in the 1970s and early 1980s is hit or miss with varying sound quality, but it is worth it to hear Booker do a gospel organ medley starting with “Old Time Religion” that smokes.
A Taste of Honey (Night Train): This double CD set suffers from the same problems as United Our Thing Will Stand, but it features a crazy, stream-of-consciousness Booker rant as he riffs on one of his signature tunes “Classified.”
And if you can find them, Piano Prince of New Orleans and Blues and Ragtime from New Orleans are great recordings made in Germany in 1976 on the Aves label, full of insane technique and Booker’s manic laughs and thank yous. There are literally thousands of live recordings in the hands of collectors and fanatics. The best of those is Live at Rosy’s which showcases a coherent Booker on top of his game, especially in the medley of “Taste of Honey”/Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C Sharp Minor that shocks the audience so much that they can barely clap.