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Album Review

One of the great blues albums of the early '80s, Classified captures the legendary New Orleans pianist James Booker not long before his premature death at the age of 43 on November 8, 1983. Recorded in a series of sometimes problematic sessions in 1982 — producer Scott Billington details them in his terrific liner notes on the 2013 reissue of the record, which is remixed and expanded — Classified appeared just a few months before Booker's death, so it's hard not to read it as something of a final statement. That said, Booker's recording career was, shall we say, erratic, consisting of many sessions and live records but only a handful of full-fledged, big-budget albums along the lines of Classified (1976's Junco Partner and the 1977 live set New Orleans Piano Wizard are the only ones that qualify). The pianist didn't intend this to be some kind of grand statement, but Billington was intent on getting a good, solid, New Orleans R&B record from Booker, pushing him through sessions that were often difficult and unfocused. That all changed on the last day, when Booker arrived fresh and recharged and proceeded to plow through a bunch of solo performances that form the bulk of the album and are even more prominent on the reissue. A few full-band songs followed but that was it — Booker took his $3000 check and left the studio, not to be seen again for several weeks. What he left Billington with is as close to a definitive studio album as we could get from the wildly inventive pianist. In the expanded edition, there is more room for detours and Booker takes them, playing "Warsaw Concerto" and "Theme from the Godfather," which gives a great idea of his sense of melody and space, but elsewhere this is firmly rooted in New Orleans, and his takes on "Lawdy Miss Clawdy," "Lonely Avenue," "All Around the World," and a Professor Longhair Medley of "Tipitina" and "Bald Head," all showcase his idiosyncrasies; how he simultaneously builds on tradition while playing with it. All this was present on the original incarnation of Classified, but in its expanded 2013 edition, there's simply more space to showcase every one of James Booker's quirks, and that freedom is why the album remains the definitive Booker LP — it's just even more definitive in this incarnation.


Born: December 17, 1939 in New Orleans, LA

Genre: Blues

Years Active: '50s, '60s, '70s, '80s

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....
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Classified, James Booker
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