Born James Carroll Booker, III, 17 December 1939, New Orleans, Louisiana
Died 8 November 1983, New Orleans, Louisiana

Pianist / organist / singer.
As an exceptionally talented child, Booker studied classical piano, but balanced his virtuosity with blues and boogie learned from Isidore "Tuts" Washington and Edward Frank. In his early teens he appeared on radio WMRY and formed a band he called Booker Boy And The Rhythmaires. He made his first record for Imperial in 1954, "Doin' The Hambone" c/w "Thinking 'Bout My Baby", produced by Dave Bartholomew and credited to Little Booker. This led to sessions for Fats Domino, Smiley Lewis and Lloyd Price, among others. Booker made just two more singles during the 1950s, "Heavenly Angel" for Chess and "Open Up The Door" for Ace (on which his vocal was overdubbed by that of Joe Tex !). In 1959 he enrolled at Southern University to study music. A year later, he signed to Peacock Records and had the only hit of his career, an insignificant organ instrumental called "Gonzo", which reached # 3 in the R&B charts (also # 43 pop). Further singles such as "Tubby" and "Big Nick" failed to achieve similar success. By this point, however, drugs had added to his psychological problems and his work became erratic. In 1967 he was convicted of possession of heroin and served a one-year sentence at Angola State Penitentiary, which took the momentum out of an otherwise promising career.

The rediscovery of "roots" music by college students during the '70s provided the opportunity for a comeback by 1974, with numerous engage- ments at local clubs like Tipitina's, The Maple Leaf, and Snug Harbor. As with Professor Longhair, Booker's performances at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festivals took on the trappings of legendary "happenings" and he often spent his festival earnings to arrive in style, pulling up to the stage in a rented Rolls-Royce and attired in costumes befitting the "Piano Prince of New Orleans", complete with a cape. Such performances tended to be unpredictable: he might easily plant some Chopin into a blues tune or launch into a jeremiad on the CIA. He recorded only two studio albums during his lifetime, "Junco Partner" in 1976 and "Classified" in 1982. His deteriorating mental state and an inability to control his drug problem led to a fatal heart attack in 1983. He was only 43 years old. Despite his personal eccentricities, Booker had the respect of New Orleans' best musicians, and elements of his influence are still very much apparent in the playing of pianists like Henry Butler, Harry Connick, Jr. and, most of all, New Zealand's Will Sargisson (born 1980).

More info: http://www.cascadeblues.org/History/JamesBooker.htm
Further reading: James Booker : The Piano Prince of New Orleans, in: Jeff Hannusch, I Hear You Knockin' (1985), page 45-54.

In spite of his virtuosity (his left hand is phenomenal), none of his ten CD's is really satisfactory, IMO. Most of them contain at least a few (instrumental) gems, but I'm not a great fan of his vocal style.
My introduction to him was "New Orleans Piano Wizard Live" (Rounder), which I still like best, followed by the two studio albums.


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