James Booker: Manchester ‘77

[17 December 2007]

By Robert R. Calder

Normally and properly associated with reissues (including every surviving blues recording made before 1943, country music and more) Document’s policy has always included finding and issuing the occasional tape of a, more or less, live latterday gig. This began long ago with Son House and Robert Pete Williams, and has continued with a stunning Johnny Shines acoustic set from Vienna (1973) recently reissued on CD. Now there’s the unforgettable James Booker in Manchester, England (1977), never before issued ... a gig organised by the local blues enthusiast and musician you can hear tell all about it on the podcast on Document’s website.

Booker has a reputation for, at the least, eccentricity, though some of that (and the drug abuse which ended his short life) can be traced back to the horrors of his early life. The musical eccentricity is another matter. He did things maybe nobody else could. After all, he was perhaps the nearest there’s ever been to an omnicompetent pianist.

A Vladimir Horovitz intro to “Tipitina”? Sure, as a boy wonder, Booker was introduced to Artur Rubenstein. He was also close to the driving New Orleans piano of Professor Longhair, Fats Domino, and Dr. John. That’s what he goes into, with still more fire, in “Tipitina”. New Orleans R&Bach? From Booker, why not?

Another extended intro suggests maybe Jimmy Rowles, opening a beautiful Classic American Songbook performance from Ella Fitzgerald. What we get, though, is Booker singing “Black Night” like a male equal of Tina Turner. He was one of the best New Orleans R&B vocalists, and when he does a rock classic, it’s as if he wanted people to ask, “Who?” if told the number had been made famous by Little Richard; (Little Richard was one of several names Booker recorded with as a sideman, sometimes playing organ). Here, there’s even a lengthy piano solo suggesting comparisons with Marcus Roberts. There’s also another quirky instrumental to suggest that he could have done any of the Fats Waller or Jelly Roll Morton stuff which Roberts has done. Booker wasn’t just versatile, he was ridiculous, he played the blues material with the authentic touch of a few-tunes specialist, with a physical force usually schooled out of pianists who have attained the range and refinement of touch he also had at his fingertips.

The question about any Booker album or CD is whether he delivered variety and real things, or a mishmash of his various capacities. Sometimes, while there’s lots of piano, he doesn’t settle to do anything in particular, like people who are all fingers but no vocation. Everything here is, however, the real thing, of whatever sort. He was enthused by the Manchester audience, which he himself enthused. The voice has bite, and feeling, the energy is focused. Personally and psychologically, he was a mess; the boasting song about adding “co-caine” to a sequence of health-impairing substances is too nearly autobiographical.

The recording’s clear, slightly clangy, but all the virtues of a live performance are present. On the final items, he has a decent drummer and a very good blues guitarist, from the band of Dave Lunt, the guy who organised the gig. It would also be hard to imagine a better blues-band pianist than Booker, Chicagoan or wherever. Booker was certainly a hugely tragic case, but he was also immensely musical, as you can hear from the clips in Document’s substantial podcast, not to be missed. He deserves to be remembered, and this is certainly one of his recordings which deserves to be listened to, and will be hard to forget.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/james-booker-manchester-77/