James Carroll Booker III (December 17, 1939 - November 8, 1983) was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, son and grandson of Baptist ministers, both of whom played the piano. He spent most of his childhood on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, where his father pastored a church. Booker received a saxophone as a gift from his mother, but he demonstrated a stronger interest in the keyboard. He first played organ in his father's churches. Booker also recalled being hit by an ambulance at age nine, and being treated for multiple broken bones; the pianist speculated that the nearly fatal experience and treatment was linked to his later drug use.
After returning to New Orleans in his early adolescence he attended the prestigious Xavier Academy Preparatory School. He was playing Frédéric Chopin, Erroll Garner, and Liberace, and could play their solos from memory.
Booker was a diverse player who explored a variety of popular songs, ranging from jazz standards to rock. Rather than playing tunes in their original idioms, he integrated this repertoire into a virtuosic style that combined elements of blues, boogie-woogie, gospel, stride, latin, and classical piano. Ironically, his rendition of standards has influenced many jazz pianists, and can be compared to Erroll Garner and other straight ahead jazz men. Booker's left hand used various polished blues basses, repeated walk-ups, and unusual stride patterns, both in straight and shuffle rhythms. He also played entire chords in steady groups, divided by a lower note in the bassline. He was noted for his abilities on the organ, and examples of his organ playing can be found on the album United Our Thing Will Stand. Booker also had a powerful, wide-ranged singing voice. Professor Longhair and Ray Charles were among his important influences.
In 1958, Arthur Rubinstein gave a concert in New Orleans. Afterwards, eighteen-year-old Booker was introduced to the concert pianist and played several tunes for him. Rubinstein was astonished, saying "I could never play that... never at that tempo." (The Times-Picayune, 1958)
His album Junco Partner was produced by Joe Boyd, who had previously recorded Booker on sessions for the Muldaurs' records.
During 1976 he played and toured with the Jerry Garcia Band.
Booker recorded a number of albums while touring Europe in 1977 including New Orleans Piano Wizard: Live!, which was recorded at his performance in the "Boogie Woogie and Ragtime Piano Contest" in Zurich, Switzerland This album won the Grand Prix du Disque for Jazz. He played at the Nice and Montreux Jazz Festivals in 1978. Fourteen years later a recording in Leipzig from this tour would become the last ever record to be produced in the former GDR. It was entitled Let's Make A Better World!.
From 1977 to 1982 he was the house pianist at the Maple Leaf Bar in the Carrollton neighborhood of uptown New Orleans. Recordings during this time made by John Parsons were released as Spider on the Keys and Resurrection of the Bayou Maharajah.
His last recording, Classified, was recorded in 1982 — in four hours according to the producer, Scott Billington.
Booker died November 8, 1983 while sitting in a wheelchair, waiting to be seen at the emergency room at New Orleans Charity Hospital. The cause of death, per autopsy, was liver failure. (Orleans Parish Coroner's Death Certificate). His death was widely mourned by music lovers, but was unsurprising to those who were aware of his life-long history of serious drug abuse and chronic alcoholism.
Harry Connick Jr., a student and close friend of Booker, is probably his most renowned disciple. Connick, Henry Butler, and Dr. John, among others, have recorded songs with titles and musical styles referencing Booker.
Transcriptions by Joshua Paxton of Booker's playing are available in "The James Booker Collection" and "New Orleans Piano Legends", both published by The Hal Leonard Corporation.
Patchwork: A Tribute to James Booker is a 2003 release consisting of a compilation of his songs performed by various pianists.
The latest Booker album, released in June of 2007, is Manchester '77, which consists of a live performance recorded in October of 1977 at The Lake Hotel, Belle Vue, Manchester with Norman Beaker on guitar.
"I'm better than all of 'em."
"Music is a mysterious art... and people that's really good at it... they get a little taste of the mysterious... sometimes mysticism, too. In fact, all of the time they have mystical, mysterious attributes, but it's whether or not they're aware of it that's important."
- James Booker
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