James Carroll Booker III (1939-1983) was one of the foremost musical and piano geniuses of the 20th century, yet his name is not as widely known beyond music lovers, musicians, and New Orleanians. That should change because his last album is being revisited by a reissue of his album Classified by Rounder Records by renown roots producer Scott Billington, who did the original sessions for the album in 1983. Scott has produced and played on more than 100 recordings and won two Grammy Awards and has been nominated for 10. I had the good fortune of speaking with Scott this past week about the “tragic genius” of James Booker, who died at the age of 43 before he could become the household legend his legacy deserves. He’s been called the Piano Prince of New Orleans, a wizard, the King of New Orleans Keyboards, a tragic genius, and the Bayou Maharaja. Who was this man who was so talented and brought to the surface so much tragic emotion? Talking with Scott, who knew him well, sheds some light on this enigmatic genius. He suffered from mental illness and addiction which stymied his rise to his proper place among musics’ legendary geniuses. This interview will be two parts as there is too much great info for just one post.
Rootnotemusic: People have called James Booker a genius. What do you see as his specific genius that is different from any other artist that sets him apart from other musicians labeled genius’ of his generation or his style of music?
Scott Billington: He could play more piano than anybody I ever heard. He could synthesize so many different styles of music.
Rootnotemusic: I heard gospel, ragtime, jazz, blues, classical.
Scott: He was a brilliant improviser. He had a classical background. He studied classical music when he was a boy and had a teacher that taught him Chopin and Rachmaninoff. He could do things with his mind that many other people couldn’t do. Earl King, the New Orleans piano player had many Booker stories. One of them was about showing up at a gig and the bandleader handed Booker a fairly complicated score and Booker looked at it for 10 or 15 seconds and Booker said “Okay I got it” and set it aside. And the bandleader said “What do you mean? You can’t play that!” Well he did.
Rootnotemusic: He was a true genius.
Scott: Yeah, Earl King said he had a photo mind, a photographic mind. Earl King told another story about the organist Jimmy Smith being in New Orleans and playing a show. They were backstage and they had an upright piano and Booker was back there and he said to Jimmy Smith ‘I really liked your show, but you made a mistake on the bridge to this song.’ And Jimmy Smith said ‘I didn’t make a mistake.’ And Booker said ‘Yes you did’ and he went to the piano and showed him. And Jimmy Smith said, ‘damn I guess I did.’ Booker said ‘well do you want to hear it backwards?’ and he could play the same song backwards and forwards with both hands at the same time.
Rootnotemusic: Why do you think he never achieved the wider notoriety of other musicians of his talent?
Scott: He certaintly had opportunities to travel. After this record came out the first time, Soundstage in Chicago, which was a public television performance show, wanted to do a show with Booker and Dr. John, just two pianos. It would have been a wonderful opportunity for him to do that, but he couldn’t even ride a cab across town without getting sick at that point in his life. He was not particularly able to focus on the business that you would have had to deal with if he was going to be more popular. He didn’t show up for gigs, he was undependable.
Rootnotemusic: I felt like in the instrumental songs there was this exuberance that in the vocal songs I didn’t hear. I think because I could hear the loneliness or pain in his voice when he sang. I wonder if maybe there was a freedom or joy he could find in just playing pure piano?
Scott: Hmmm that’s interesting. I mean it must have felt good to play like that! And there were times he could just tear sheets of sound of the piano. There was a particular performance, “A Taste of Honey,” at Rosie’s Jazz Hall in New Orleans in the late 70s. He’s transitioning from one song to another, ultimately he’s going to play “A Taste of Honey.” He just starts this rumbling at the low-end of the keyboard. All of the sudden it’s just waves of heavy rain and thunder. Just playing with the entire piano. It’s like you just expected the entire piano to levitate.
Rootnotemusic: What do you think his legacy was among other musicians?
Scott: He was such an iconoclast, it’s hard for anyone to follow exactly what he did. Harry Connick has done the best job of it. Harry Connick, Jr. who was his student. With his eclectic repertoire… There are many piano players who are dedicated to James Booker, some of them in New Orleans, like Tom McDermont. There are quite a few piano players who study him and do their best to carry on.
In my next post, Scott talks about his experiences as a producer working with one of the foremost geniuses of the 20th century as well as the challenges of working with Booker in terms of his erratic behavior and how working with him differed from other producing experiences. With an upcoming documentary, “The Bayou Maharaja: The Tragic Genius of James Booker” ready for distribution, and the reissue of James Booker’s last album “Classified: Remix And Expanded” on Rounder, here’s hoping that James Booker will finally achieve the widespread recognition his music deserves.
For an audio interview with Scott Billington regarding James Booker on New Orleans’ own WWOZ click here.