All men have their demons. Sometimes the demons win, sometimes the man does. The demons keep at you with their fire and fury, trying to break you down until there is nothing left that can resist.
That is perhaps the story of James Booker. A New Orleans piano legend, he passed away in 1983 in a hospital emergency room sitting in a wheelchair waiting to be seen. Renal failure was the cause of death and his condition was exacerbated by his lifestyle. Booker overcame a heroin addiction and spent time in Louisiana’s infamous Angola prison. While an inmate he taught music to the other inmates. On Antabuse to prevent drinking and alcohol problems, he went into the studio in 1982 on Rounder’s nickel with Scott Billington to produce a New Orleans piano record. He did it but it was not easy. This is the re-release of that album with many added tracks.
Scott admits he was a little naïve at the time he produced this. He set out on the first day to get started and got the classic “If You’re Lonely” in the can. Booker is hugely expressive in this song and it second to the title track that opens the album. One can hear him really relate to the lyrics as he sings them. Other than that, the day was a complete failure. Booker drifted aimlessly, shirking prods and pushes to do this or that. Day two was perhaps worse. Booker did break into a version of “Angel Eyes” that was recorded, but otherwise the day was another mess despite inviting Cyril Neville and Earl King into the studio with Booker and Allen Toussaint’s people dictating a song to them over the phone. Booker would play bits and pieces of songs but never what Billington wanted. Scott was a wreck and feared that day three, the final day in the studio, would complete the waste of Rounder’s money. He found Booker waiting for him at the door at ten AM and he blazed through 2 hours of solo stuff that all made the original album. In the early afternoon they cut the stuff with the band and had a nice album completed. Booker faded though, perhaps knowing he was done, perhaps not. He asked to get paid, left to make the 3 PM bank closing time and then disappeared for several weeks. He would drink tumblers of gin after taking his Antabuse, destroying his stomach and more. Stories abound about what happened. Billington relates a lot of interesting stuff about Booker in the extensive 2013 reissue liner notes.
If you are looking for a pure piano blues CD this may not be for you. If you want a superb New Orleans piano CD then this is a must. The original album showcased the man who could probably single handedly outplay other piano players. His left hand beats out some mean stuff. His right hand glides up and down the scales and makes beautiful melodies. He is something else! Vocally, his work is good. Today with backing vocals we’d be commenting how great it was. He does sing with intense feeling and has a New Orleans mojo going that is hard not to like. There is some blues, there is a lot of jazz, there are show tunes and movie songs and classical music- he does it all equally well.
The opening title track is superb. Transitioning into “If You’re Lonely” we can feel the loneness of this possessed man. Well done, as is the solo piano version that was added that appears later on the CD. Then all of a sudden we are listening to a perfectly rendered “Warsaw Concerto,” added from the studio recordings as one of the many bonuses. This is a short, 1941 work for piano and orchestra by Richard Addinsell. It was part of the British film Dangerous Moonlight and shows us what this man can do- amazing stuff! A slowed down solo piano version of “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” was added to the full band version on the original album and both are super. He does a medley of Professor Longhair stuff; he breaks into “Hound Dog” and “Baby Face” and pop stuff. He even nails the “Theme from the Godfather.” “Madame X” is another odd but cool piece and a great version of “Lonely Avenue”. They closed with “Amen,” which is sort of a punctuation mark to his life which ended just over a year after the session, a few months after the album release.
The liner notes are worth the price of admission. Billington captures Bookers’ commentary and relives the days practicing leading up to the sessions, the sessions themselves and then recounts the remainder of Bookers’ life until the end. He tells stories of Booker as a public servant and his time playing at the Maple Leaf bar that are priceless. On the CD are Booker who plays piano, B3 ad sings, Alvin “Red”Tyler is on tenor sax, James Singleton is on bass and Johhny Vidacovich is the drummer.
Nine of the twenty two cuts are add-ons from the sessions and not intended for the original album. Billington actually feared revisiting them 3 years later but when he did he found gem after gem captured and worthy of pressing. It is an interesting and creative mix of stuff from a man most of us never got to see or hear live. If you like New Orleans music and would like a sampling of a master who learned at the feet of greats and mentored guys like Harry Connick, Jr. then don’t delay and pick this up. It is a mixture of piano styles, but if you like piano music you will not want to miss this.