Musician and photographer Jim Scheurich captured many of the iconic images of James Booker in the late ‘70s. He came to know Booker through his brother, Val, who managed Booker for many years and was the attorney of his estate after Booker’s death in 1983.
At the time, Jim Scheurich had just ended a six-year run with Dustwoofie, whose members included Dave Malone (Radiators), Tommy Malone (subdudes), Susie Malone (Pfister Sisters), John Magnie and at times Reggie Scanlan (Radiators). The Rhapsodizers, predating the Radiators, were the first from Scheurich’s group of friends to start backing up musicians such as Earl King, Lee Dorsey and Jesse Hill.
After Scheurich first saw Booker live at the Jazz Fest in 1975, he jumped at the opportunity to gig with him.
“We started writing and recording music together,” Scheurich says. “I played drums for Booker during the advent of many of New Orleans’ greatest clubs, such as Tipitina’s, the Dream Palace and Rosy’s in 1976 and ‘77.”
Booker recorded one of Scheurich’s songs, “Too Much Blues,” on the album The Piano Prince of New Orleans in October 1976 in Hamburg, Germany.
“I felt honored because the album starts with an Allen Toussaint song and my song is the last song on the first side,” Scheurich recalls. “It was good company to be in; I was real happy about it at the time.”
Scheurich says that if he could go back, he’d have a tripod with a camera behind him at the drum set. But he was a young man then, and a good bit intimidated to be playing with Booker, who played with James Black, John Boudreaux, Charles “Hungry” Williams and Ringo Starr.
The first time Scheurich photographed Booker one-on-one was in ‘76. Booker had a little spinet piano that he moved around with, and at the time, it was at Scheurich’s house. Scheurich got Reggie Scanlan to help him move the piano about two blocks down the street, got it all set up and went to pick up Booker on Third Street. About three blocks from the shoot on Broadway, Booker got cold feet.
“He goes, ‘Ah, I don’t want to do this.’ He was paranoid that I was taking photographs of him when he was going to Germany the next day. He figured this could be his last session; Buddy Holly syndrome. I explained to him, ‘It’s normal. Everybody gets a little scared before going on a big trip.’ He seemed relieved. After that, I was his armchair psychiatrist. He just didn’t have many people to talk to about his worries and stuff.”
Booker burned bridges both musically and personally with some of his antics, but Scherich decided he didn’t want any of that.
“I said ‘Fuck you Booker. You’re going to do this.’ And he did!”
Overall, Scheurich claims to have had a normal, “no-bullshit” working relationship with Booker, both behind the drums and behind the camera. The red suit on this month’s OffBeat cover was something Booker brought over to Scheurich’s house and wanted to be photographed in.
“That’s how most of these things came about,” Scheurich remembers. “It almost always came from him. The NOPD hat; the underwear he got from James Black’s girlfriend; and he wanted to do the Catholic symbol in that photo, calling himself the Piano Pope.”
Scheurich photographed Booker a half-dozen times in his studio on Lowerline Street between 1975 and 1980. Things were going well for Booker, who by then was traveling regularly to Europe.
“He was starting to feel some positive energy from going over there, but it kind of backfired on him coming back here, the contrast between the big audiences in Germany that listened to everything he did to the small audiences in New Orleans, talking over everything.”
When Joe Krown played a tribute to Booker at the Maple Leaf a while back, Scheurich walked up to him and said, “Real authentic! This is real authentic. You’re up here playing your ass off and I had to get right next to the stage to hear you!”
The last time Scheurich saw Booker he was playing at the Maple Leaf. He played “Too Much Blues” over and over again. Scheurich believes this was Booker’s way of pointing out to him that it didn’t really matter what he was playing because people in the audience weren’t listening.
“Michael Doucet of BeauSoleil told me the best thing I ever heard. He goes, ‘I was there at the Maple Leaf that last night Booker played. Maybe 15-20 people, something like that. But I’ve met 1,500 who said they were there.’ Since his death, it has always been my intention to increase the awareness of James Carroll Booker III. And I am pleased that it seems to have happened.”