James Booker in the Here and Now

Everyone in New Orleans who followed the music in James Booker’s glory years has a Booker story. His gigs from the late 1970s into the early ’80s at the Maple Leaf are mythic now. Back then the brilliant, unpredictable keyboard wizard sat on the small stage, many a night to a place near-empty, making music fine as gold. The self-styled Piano Prince had moods that swung like a pendulum from black rot to sweet light. At his best he played like a rocking angel.

On another night, the washing machine in the back of the club churned away as Booker unfurled “Make A Better World” – and then stopped, in the severe heat coating the club, a dance floor half full, all eyes riveted on him. Booker jabbed an index finger into middle distance and yelled, “Tell that girl her underwear’s dry!”

A few people laughed. Most stood there, uneasy, looking around. “They don’t know,” muttered Booker. Then he tore into his song.

Everything about Booker was surreal. His talent was staggering; he could send up a club like a 12-piece orchestra by himself. But he was off the margins, like a character in a Tennessee Williams play or one of Nelson Algren’s novels, roaming the edges, hungry for the hearth, acceptance, normalcy. The artist who played a dazzling “Malaguena,” laced with all the Spanish tinges that Jelly Roll Morton said gave New Orleans music its stamp, played havoc with his own image. He posed for a series of photographs in tight underwear sporting the embedded silver star in his black eyepatch, grinning as he covered his crotch, holding the memoir of a fire department chaplain: Tragedy is My Parish. Go figure.

Booker was probably bipolar. Today, pharmaceutical advances allow many people with bipolar issues to find stability. But even if he had kept to his meds, the hard drugs were there. The easy side of his personality and edgy wit might have propelled him to an international career. When I interviewed him in 1976 at a halfway house on Euterpe Street, he was detoxing. Serene and composed, he talked about Smiley Lewis and the blues tradition the old troubadour embodied.

A few years later he walked into Tipitina’s wearing a beat-up tuxedo coat with a button-down white business shirt and black velvet tie. He sashayed up to the bar, positioning himself between Earl King and Jessie Hill, who was wearing a coat studded with rhinestones. Booker smiled like a Boston Club confederate and chirped, “I just thought I’d come down to the club and see what the fellas was up to!”

The man who did time in the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola for drug use made a trademark song of “Junco Partner,” the anthem of a junky clamoring for “a weed farm around Angola and little heroin for when I die.” He never got the pot farm but the last line was prophetic. On a September night 30 years ago, Booker walked into Charity Hospital and expired from a low-grade overdose.

He sang about conspiracies of the Ku Klux Klan and CIA with jocoserious intensity. He was also one of the finest piano players in the legacy that runs like a silver thread from Jelly Roll Morton to Professor Longhair, Allen Toussaint, Fats Domino, Art Neville and then some.

It took chutzpah for Booker post-Angola to seek a friend in District Attorney Harry Connick Sr. Booker became a mentor to 12-year-old Harry Jr., now a superstar. The friendship between Booker and the Connicks is one of those mysteries that make this town so cosmic.

Lilly Keber’s new documentary, Bayou Marahaja: The Tragic Genius of James Booker, captures the kaleidoscopic personality of the piano prince and the offbeat tones of the city where jazz began. This is one gem of a movie. Both Connicks appear, reflecting on Booker with sensitivity for the long reach of talent and sad coloration of his life in full.

The range of stills, interlaced with buoyant concert footage of a beaming Booker and grainy black-and-white scenes of Booker in a bad space, show the artist whose racing talent could never outrun the demons on his trail. The film comes alive with comedy through the recollections of Dr. John, Maple Leaf impresario John Parsons, poet Ron Cuccia, hipster Russell Roch, musicians Johnny Vidacovich and Jim Singleton and a parade of others, layering the texture of Booker’s tale.

The year after he died, Jonathan Foose, Tad Jones and I were finishing the first edition of Up From the Cradle of Jazz. Jon contacted a music publisher in another city seeking permission to print lyrics from Booker’s “Junco Partner” as the final lines in “Piano Players,” the chapter that closes out with Booker. You can print four lines from T.S. Eliot for free and most publishers happily give permission for more in the spirit of literature. Not so the pirates of music publishing. You can quote lyrics in an article because it promotes the record. A book? You pay.

Foose sent the guy the lines transcribed from a Booker recording. I still don’t know how someone grabs copyright on a song that came out of Angola prison through oral traditions but this is America, where lawyers can do anything. The guy wrote back, incensed. Said it was illegal to violate his copyright by adding these lyrics about a weed farm and having heroin and cocaine by the bedside. The very idea of it! I guess Booker’s words were violating his copyright every time someone bought the record or heard the song and in whatever spiritual realm you inhabit, dear James, I hope you’re laughing at the irony.


 “Booker and I worked strip joints like Madame Francine’s ... There’d be two different sets of bands, me and my band – the white act – and Booker’s band – the black act. The only good thing about the segregation issue was that it gave us a little work.” Dr. John, Under a Hoodoo Moon.
 

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