10 Songs, 41 Minutes

EDITORS’ NOTES

Following the prison sentence for heroin possession that derailed his career in the '60s, Junco Partner was James Booker’s first proper opportunity to reintroduce himself to the general public. Once touted as one of New Orleans’ most promising young bandleaders, this album was the first in a string of solo recordings that repositioned Booker as an untamed virtuoso on the piano. Recorded in February 1976 by the British-based producer Joe Boyd (best known for his collaborations with traditional folk acts like Fairport Convention and Nick Drake), Junco Partner emphasizes the diversity of Booker's repertoire. The first three songs are a Chopin waltz, a Leadbelly standard, and one of Booker's original compositions, the sparkly and funky "Pixie." Booker's genius is that he could play three such songs in a row and convince the listener that they shared a root. As much as he was writing a history of New Orleans piano with his recordings, he was also writing his autobiography. He was totally unafraid of letting his scars show, even when he was playing dance tunes. The title song, a Booker perennial, remains one of music's great accounts of drug addiction.

EDITORS’ NOTES

Following the prison sentence for heroin possession that derailed his career in the '60s, Junco Partner was James Booker’s first proper opportunity to reintroduce himself to the general public. Once touted as one of New Orleans’ most promising young bandleaders, this album was the first in a string of solo recordings that repositioned Booker as an untamed virtuoso on the piano. Recorded in February 1976 by the British-based producer Joe Boyd (best known for his collaborations with traditional folk acts like Fairport Convention and Nick Drake), Junco Partner emphasizes the diversity of Booker's repertoire. The first three songs are a Chopin waltz, a Leadbelly standard, and one of Booker's original compositions, the sparkly and funky "Pixie." Booker's genius is that he could play three such songs in a row and convince the listener that they shared a root. As much as he was writing a history of New Orleans piano with his recordings, he was also writing his autobiography. He was totally unafraid of letting his scars show, even when he was playing dance tunes. The title song, a Booker perennial, remains one of music's great accounts of drug addiction.

TITLE TIME

About James Booker

Certainly one of the most flamboyant New Orleans pianists in recent memory, James Carroll Booker III was a major influence on the local rhythm & blues scene in the '50s and '60s. Booker's training included classical instruction until age 12, by which time he had already begun to gain recognition as a blues and gospel organist on radio station WMRY every Sunday. By the time he was out of high school he had recorded on several occasions, including his own first release, "Doing the Hambone," in 1953. In 1960, he made the national charts with "Gonzo," an organ instrumental, and over the course of the next two decades played and recorded with artists as varied as Lloyd Price, Aretha Franklin, Ringo Starr, the Doobie Brothers, and B.B. King. In 1967, he was convicted of possession of heroin and served a one-year sentence at Angola Penitentiary (referred to as the "Ponderosa"), which took the momentum out of an otherwise promising career. The rediscovery of "roots" music by college students during the '70s (focusing primarily on "Fess" by Professor Longhair) provided the opportunity for a comeback by 1974, with numerous engagements at local clubs like Tipitina's, The Maple Leaf, and Snug Harbor. As with "Fess," 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 with all the fervor of a "Reverend Ike-meets-Moms Mabley" tag-team match.

Booker's left hand was simply phenomenal, often a problem for bass players who found themselves running for cover in an attempt to stay out of the way; with it he successfully amalgamated the jazz and rhythm & blues idioms of New Orleans, adding more than a touch of gospel thrown in for good measure. His playing was also highly improvisational, reinventing a progression (usually his own) so that a single piece would evolve into a medley of itself. In addition, he had a plaintive and seering vocal style which was equally comfortable with gospel, jazz standards, blues, or popular songs. 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 and Harry Connick, Jr. ~ Bruce Boyd Raeburn

HOMETOWN
New Orleans, LA
GENRE
Blues
BORN
December 17, 1939

Songs

Albums

Listeners Also Played