The dazzling, devious, doomed sound of James Booker

10 October 2020

9:00 AM

10 October 2020

9:00 AM

Dr John called James Booker ‘the best black, gay, one-eyed junkie piano genius New Orleans has ever produced’. Booker died in 1983 at 43, ruined by drugs, drink and madness. Though he appeared on plenty of other people’s records and stages — Dr John, Aretha Franklin, B.B. King — Booker recorded only three studio albums in his lifetime. Classified, recorded in October 1982 and now re-released on vinyl, was the last of them. It might not be the best of them, but it shows why Booker was one of the greats.

The studio was booked for three days, but Booker had a breakdown the week before and couldn’t get a good take in the first two days. He revived on the third and recorded Classified in four hours. He sounds dazzling and devious, mournful and ecstatic, lyrical and doomed, all at the same time.

Booker has a clear virtuoso signature. His left hand pushes the bass rhythm with anticipatory octaves, and stretches the feel with thick, arpeggiated mid-range chords. His right hand is behind the beat, with triplets and ornaments tumbling out of four-note block chords.

He opens ‘King of the Road’ with a torrential obbligato that nods to ‘Eleanor Rigby’. He understates his vocals with strictly percussive chords, then erupts into a ten-fingered finale, foot jammed on the sustain pedal as he howls ‘I’m a man of means’ with rising desperation, before subsiding into ‘I’m king of the road’ in a yodelling sob. ‘All right?’ he asks the producer. ‘A little different?’

Booker’s father was a dancer turned Baptist minister, his mother a church singer. At nine, he was hit by an ambulance and nearly lost a leg; hospital morphine began his addiction. He studied piano with ‘Tuts’ Washington, the last of the old-time professors, and memorised solos by Erroll Garner, Chopin and Liberace. In his twenties, Booker worked with the touring bands of B.B. King and Aretha Franklin. In 1970, his drug habit led to a year in Louisiana’s notorious Angola jail.

Around this time, Booker lost his left eye. The recent documentary Bayou Maharajah recounts the stories. Perhaps the eye was removed with a spoon during an accounting dispute with a dealer in Harlem, or perhaps in Angola. Booker told Dr John that JFK did it; or, when he was asked about his star-shaped eye patch, Ringo Starr.

After starring at the 1975 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, Booker began touring Europe. Some of these shows, such as his celebrated gig at the 1978 Montreux Jazz Festival, can be seen on YouTube. He even appeared in Leipzig, East Germany, after smuggling his marijuana through the Iron Curtain in his curly wig. But Booker couldn’t get arrested back home — unless it was for narcotics. Luckily, the New Orleans DA was a fan. In lieu of jail time, he sentenced Booker to teach piano to his young son, Harry Connick, Jr.

Half of the dozen tracks on Classified are solos, and half are with Booker’s trio from his regular spot at the Maple Leaf Bar in New Orleans. Most are New Orleans standards. All are transmuted by inspired subversion. The bump and grind of ‘Lawdy Miss Clawdy’ becomes an unrequited solitary stroll. Professor Longhair’s theme ‘Tipitina’ is sheared of its right-hand signatures and reduced to a two-handed rhythmic hammer. On ‘Angel Eyes’, Booker tears off a double-time, single-note solo phrase that lasts 14 bars, an appoggiatura on every other note in a neurotic parody of genius. On the closing-time ballad, ‘If You’re Lonely’, he deliberately stumbles his right-hand rhythm against his left, leaning on his impeccably steady trio like a drunk.

Art Tatum would have responded to the elaborate minor-key sequences of ‘Madame X’ with chromatic substitutions. Booker plays it straight and steady in the left hand, faithful to the ‘Spanish’ rhythm and changes. But his right flies around the upper keyboard, ornamenting the opening and closing notes of each phrase, and frequently a piquant note or two in the middle too. This rococo Spanish blues, light and airy as Tiepolo’s last ceilings in Madrid, could topple into camp. With Booker, we float away on his suspension of disbelief.

It is a cliché that the blues should be played in mortal dread. Until his mother gave him a saxophone, Booker aspired to join the priesthood. He was tormented by his addictions and his sexuality, and bound to a boundless talent. There is a hysterical jollity to his playing, a whistling past the graveyard.

On the final track, the ghostly ‘Three Keys’, Booker exhumes the double roots of New Orleans piano in the bamboula feel and musical creole of Louis Gottschalk. Each jerky change of key opens up a new vista. The music, like the river, will roll on forever, but the player is breaking down.

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Classified is reissued by Craft Recordings.

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