13 Songs, 57 Minutes

EDITORS’ NOTES

John Parsons was the manager of New Orleans' Maple Leaf Bar and liked nothing more than to have the venerated and sometimes unhinged pianist James Booker in for a long night of solo piano. Parsons was so transfixed by Booker that he recorded more than 60 hours of him playing at the Maple Leaf in 1977 and 1982. The first volume drawn from these tapes is called Spiders on the Keys, which is how people referred to Booker’s ambidextrous hands. Booker was never more himself than he was on these recordings, which are at once relaxed and frighteningly virtuosic. The piano knowledge imparted in these performances is almost impossible to fathom, as they blur the lines between ragtime, funk, boogie-woogie, blues, jazz, and even classical. (Chopin was Booker’s all-time favorite composer.) Booker was beloved because songs like “Papa Was a Rascal” captured the essence of New Orleans music like no one since Professor Longhair, but his covers really prove the depth of his soulfulness. Whether he was playing “Malaguena,” “Eleanor Rigby,” or “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” Booker delivered each song like a dying message from the pit of his spirit.

EDITORS’ NOTES

John Parsons was the manager of New Orleans' Maple Leaf Bar and liked nothing more than to have the venerated and sometimes unhinged pianist James Booker in for a long night of solo piano. Parsons was so transfixed by Booker that he recorded more than 60 hours of him playing at the Maple Leaf in 1977 and 1982. The first volume drawn from these tapes is called Spiders on the Keys, which is how people referred to Booker’s ambidextrous hands. Booker was never more himself than he was on these recordings, which are at once relaxed and frighteningly virtuosic. The piano knowledge imparted in these performances is almost impossible to fathom, as they blur the lines between ragtime, funk, boogie-woogie, blues, jazz, and even classical. (Chopin was Booker’s all-time favorite composer.) Booker was beloved because songs like “Papa Was a Rascal” captured the essence of New Orleans music like no one since Professor Longhair, but his covers really prove the depth of his soulfulness. Whether he was playing “Malaguena,” “Eleanor Rigby,” or “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” Booker delivered each song like a dying message from the pit of his spirit.

TITLE TIME
7:46
3:28
3:02
5:36
2:27
4:00
4:10
4:40
5:42
5:28
4:09
4:43
2:33

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

  • ORIGIN
    New Orleans, LA
  • BORN
    December 17, 1939

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