New Orleans Piano Wizard Live!

James Booker

album cover

A Gumbo from the Piano Prince

James Booker (1939-1983) took a rogue's delight in messing with established texts. On stage, the New Orleans pianist and singer would interrupt a tune, any tune, to add zany detours. Booker had classical training until he was twelve; he'd sometimes lunge into flamboyant arpeggios and other faux-baroque show-off moves. Irreverence dominated his performances: Almost nightly, he'd take some corny old song—like the easy-listening standard "Something Stupid" heard on this 1977 performance at a Zurich boogie-woogie summit—and pump it into a hip-shaking tour de force.

The pirate-patch-wearing Booker was, however, an erratic human being. He spent much of his career under the influence of various intoxicants. He was frequently in debt, and though a regular on the New Orleans club circuit, he recorded sporadically—only three albums of his work were released in his lifetime, and none of them features him on the organ, where, as private tapes demonstrate, he seemed to grow extra hands.

Although this date doesn't show the full range of his repertoire, it's carefully recorded and finds Booker playing on a well-maintained grand piano—a big step up from the rickety upright at one of his main New Orleans haunts, the Maple Leaf Bar. Between the eighty-eight-key heroics are several sparkling vocal pieces, including the torchy "Come Rain or Come Shine" and "Please Send Me Someone to Love," both of which reveal him to be a deeply moving ballad singer. Listen just once, and you will wonder why James Booker, manic wizard of the piano, remains such a well-kept secret.

Genre: Blues, Jazz, R&B
Released: 1987, Rounder
Key Tracks: "On the Sunny Side of the Street," "Something Stupid," "Let Them Talk"
Catalog Choice: Junco Partner; Spiders on the Keys; A Taste of Honey
Next Stop: Professor Longhair: New Orleans Piano
After That: Eddie Bo: The Hook and Sling
Book Pages: 104–105

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