REWIND: James Booker, “Classified” (Rounder Records)

“James Booker had a gig every week at the Maple Leaf with Johnny Vidacovich on drums, James Singleton on bass and Red Tyler on sax. That was going to be the band on the record. And Booker had very thoughtfully put together a list of songs that they were going to record and they worked on those at their gigs at the Maple Leaf. It sounded good. Some of those gigs were just spectacular.

But a couple of weeks before, Booker ended up in Baptist Hospital. He had some sort of breakdown—a nervous breakdown. But he told me he wanted to go forward with the recording. He was a little shaky but he was ready to go. We recorded over three days [October 18–20, 1982] at Ultrasonic Studio on Washington Avenue across from Xavier University.

Sometimes I wonder in those sessions if he was fearful of putting himself on the line and make a new record. I know he never doubted his piano playing—that was the one thing he had confidence in himself in. But the rest of his life was very, very difficult. I always thought he was one of the most lonely people I’d ever met. Sometimes I think he enjoyed the attention of having this producer and engineers [David Farrell and Steve Reynolds] and musicians all waiting on him.

He enjoyed being the guy in the spotlight even when he frustrated everybody by deviating from the songs that we thought we were going to record. Johnny and Red and James were such brilliant musicians that whenever Booker started to play something without even telling anybody what it was, or what key it was in, they’d be on it within the first four or five measures. But as soon as they got in the groove again, he’d change direction and go somewhere else.

It was all stuff that was in his repertoire. Songs like Annie Laurie’s ‘If You’re Lonely’—that was the one song he really wanted to record, the only thing from his list that made it. Some, like ‘Classified,’ he’d recorded before while touring in Europe for a live record. The rest were spontaneous ideas. ‘Grits Ain’t Groceries.’ ‘Hound Dog.’

He could play anything he set his mind to playing, but he was such an erratic person in general. There was a point in the sessions where Red and I picked up him and carried him back over to the piano bench. Picking him up, it was like picking up bones. He was a frail person; he didn’t take great care of himself. He’d been in the corner, huddled, hiding his face. It was at that point that I said, ‘This is enough. I’m going to have to call the session if you don’t play that piano. C’mon!’

Before our third day, John Parsons took him out to a meal and after he went to John’s apartment and James stayed there that night in John’s guest room. So he’d gotten a good night’s sleep and something to eat. When I arrived early at the studio the third day to check the tape to see if there was anything actually usable, he was there waiting for me at the door. He said, ‘Hey Scott, can I go play now?’

He wanted me to sit with him in the studio at his piano bench while he played. He was smiling. He was happy. That’s where all the solo piano things on the record came from. I did some prompting but mostly he just played what came to mind—some of it out of nowhere, like ‘Theme from the Godfather.’

At the end of the day he came through for me, came through for himself and he made an incredible record. Like Red said at the end of the session, it was like trying to capture the wind.”

– Scott Billington