The word “genius” gets tossed around rather indiscriminately these days. So does the word “virtuoso”. Along with Ray Charles, John Coltrane and a few others, James Carroll Booker III (1939-1983) is more than worthy of both descriptions. A pianist/organist and singer steeped in the traditional New Orleans gumbo of jazz, blues and funk, Booker stood apart from the pack due to his astonishing command of the keyboard and his equally astonishing and soulful singing.
There are a variety of Booker’s albums available, some of which are better than others. A good one is The Lost Paramount Tapes, recorded in L.A. in 1973, which showcases James in top form with a seriously funky band. However, New Orleans Piano Wizard: Live, recorded in 1977 at the Boogie Woogie and Ragtime Piano Contest in Zurich, Switzerland, is for me the ultimate Booker album. It’s James, solo, tearing through some old chestnuts, half instrumental, half vocal, in front of a sizable and very appreciate crowd that really gets how great he is.
From a pianist’s point of view, the album is absolutely amazing. As with giants like Oscar Peterson and Art Tatum, it sometimes literally sounds like there are two people playing. On Charles Brown’s brooding classic “Black Night”, Booker’s impeccable sense of time and groove is the left-hand foundation over which he effortlessly double and sometimes triple-times a furious yet somehow laconic array of rolling blues, jazz and classical ideas. In lesser hands (sorry..) it could be showboating. With Booker, it’s just who he is. I’ve listened to this triumphant album hundreds of times, and as with artists like Ray Charles and John Coltrane, it always floors me, and I always hear something new.
Over the years, Dr. John (formidable on his own) and Harry Connick Jr. have both extolled the virtues of (and been strongly influenced by) Booker’s playing and singing. There are some lovely photos around of an 11-year old Harry Connick Jr. shaking hands with James Booker at a New Orleans Music Festival, and later sitting on a piano bench next to Booker on stage in front of a festival audience!
Booker’s short time on Earth was filled with turmoil and tragedy, and his fame (or notoriety) during his lifetime was confined mostly to musicians who knew how great a talent he was.There is a very good Wikipedia entry on James Booker’s life, career, achievements and untimely demise.