THE Bobby Rush: Legendary soul-blues singer is on tour and you must go

Bobby Rush at the Mint LA. Photos by Pat Rainer with Omnivore Entertainment (c) 2016

Photos by Pat Rainer with Omnivore Entertainment (c) 2016

Last night at the best spot in Los Angeles for roots music lovers, The Mint LA, I had the pleasure of seeing THE Bobby Rush for the second time. The first time I saw the legendary blues-soul singer from Homer, Louisiana at SXSW in Austin two years ago, I was impressed that well into his 80s he was doing a solo set of acoustic blues, which took me back to a time and place I have never been, but imagined I might have via my distant ancestors.

Last night, I saw Mr. Rush jumping and dancing on stage with a full electric band (including the sax player touring with The Rolling Stones, THE Stones). He was so full of energy and zest, that at half his age, I was a little embarrassed that I almost didn’t come out because I was tired! He brought the entire sold-out crowd to their feet, and unexpectedly, I rediscovered that I too could find that passion I had seemed to lost for live music in the past year. Next thing I know I was hootin’ and hollerin’ and dancing around to the pure, unadulterated (and I mean unadulterated) blues.

Straight from the chitlin’ circuit, he brought a bit of southern blues-soul history to some lucky blues fans in LA. The man who knew Willie Dixon, played with Etta James, Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, and Howling Wolf, among others, is unstoppable. He just released an epic box-set, Chicken Heads: A 50-Year History Of Bobby Rush, received two back-to-back Grammy nominations for albums released in 2014, Down in Louisiana
and 2015, Decisions, and is set to record ANOTHER brand new album, with equally legendary roots-producer, Scott Billington.

Bobby Rush is touring the U.S. (Tucson on Jan 28th, Austin on Jan 30th, then onto Nashville, Mississippi, Illinois, St. Louis, Texas, and Ohio all in February and March). Please go see him if you are in those areas. Considering he is one of the last of his generation, a stellar musician, with a stellar band, you will get more than your return in time and money to see a living American treasure in person.

Bobby Rush at the Mint LA. Photos by Pat Rainer with Omnivore Entertainment (c) 2016

Photos by Pat Rainer with Omnivore Entertainment (c) 2016

James Booker: Producer Scott Billington on the enigmatic “Bayou Maharaja” (Part 2)

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This post is a continuation of my last post by the same title. We were discussing the genius and legacy of James Booker with renown roots music producer Scott Billington, who produced Booker’s last album, Classified, and through Rounder Records is re-issuing it with previously unreleased tracks. I’ve heard the entire album and would recommend that anyone who is a fan of authentic New Orleans or blues music should have this in their collection. Also, important to note, there is a new documentary awaiting distribution which should also help in bringing a wider audience to this 20th Century unheralded piano genius, “The Bayou Maharaja: The Tragic Genius of James Booker”. The trailer is below the interview. For this post we continue with our conversation with Scott about the art of producing and the art of producing an album with someone as enigmatic as James Booker.

Rootnotemusic: In the liner notes you talked about that this was one of your earliest producing experiences. How did you come to that experience, how did you end up there at that age?

Scott Billington: Well, I was probably really naïve in thinking that I could just walk up to James Booker and say ‘Hey you want to make a record?’ and he would say ‘Sure!’

Rootnotemusic: So you had heard him play at the Maple Leaf and were like ‘I gotta make a record with this guy.’

Scott:  Yeah. Soon after I first heard Booker, we [Rounder Records] put out a record he had made in Switzerland, a beautiful record, and we called it New Orleans Piano Prince Live. And then I heard him at the Maple Leaf. My friend Tom Smith, a writer from Connecticut, says ‘man you gotta hear this guy he’s playing in the window of a laundromat.’ The Maple Leaf had washing machines in the back at the time. It wasn’t the iconic club it is today, but it was on its way. 
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James Booker: Producer Scott Billington on the enigmatic “Bayou Maharaja” (Part 1)

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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?
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