“There has been nobody like him before or after,” says acclaimed producer Scott Billington, from his Louisiana home. On the line with PopMatters to discuss Classified, the 1982 studio release from piano wunderkind, James Booker, the Massachusetts native strikes an even balance between awe and resignation when discussing the sessions that captured the late legend in the studio for the last time.
First released on Rounder, a vinyl reissue of the LP releases on 31 July via Craft Recordings. Though it may serve as a bonus for completists, it may also very well serve as an introduction to those who missed out on Booker’s somewhat brief but mercurial career.
Born in 1939, the piano titan was as well-versed in the world of Bach and Chopin as he was the famed stride style associated with his birthplace. Reportedly described by his friend and contemporary Dr. John as “the best black, gay, one-eyed junkie piano genius New Orleans has ever produced”, he began recording sometime in the 1950s, amassing credits that included work with Fats Domino and Lloyd Price.
No matter that his bouts with the law, drugs, and mental illness were barely kept at bay, Booker went on to work with Ringo Starr, T-Bone Walker, the Doobie Brothers, and Labelle and, for a brief moment joined Jerry Garcia’s band. Aretha Franklin cut his tune, “So Swell When You’re Well”, and he performed piano duties on Domino’s Fats Is Back Record.
Booker landed a contract with Island Records and delivered one of three studio records, Junco Partner, produced by Joe Boyd, in 1976. Soon, he was on a whirlwind tour of Europe, where he wowed audiences and the kind of acclaim that many spend an entire career waiting for.
By the end of the decade, he’d returned to New Orleans, his star somewhat dimmed. He became the house pianist at Maple Leaf Bar, the place that Billington first saw him. “Hearing him live was truly a mind-blowing experience,” the producer says. “He truly was one of the great pianists of the last century. People tried to imitate what he did, tried to learn his technique. I think the only person who comes close to it is Harry Connick Jr., who was his student.”
Listening to Classified,which captures not only Booker’s impeccable range, dynamism as a performer, and his inimitable sense of humor, you might be hard-pressed to imagine its difficult birth.
Booker hadn’t made a studio recording in six years by the time Billington brought him into the studio in 1982. Billington became acquainted with Booker’s manager, John Parsons, and suggested that the pianist would be welcome to make an album for Rounder. Ideally, it would re-establish him as a talent known to the wider world and help further a process of personal rehabilitation he was involved in at the time. “He’s probably the only person I’ve ever met where I would say, ‘OK, this is what a genius is,'” says Billington.
To prepare for the sessions, Billington and Parsons assembled a band that would perform weekly gigs at the Maple Leaf. That ensemble was comprised of tenor saxophonist Alvin “Red” Tyler, a legendary session musician, who had played on some of Little Richards’ most notorious sides, drummer Johnny Vidacovich and bassist James Singleton. The latter had played with Booker on other dates. “On some nights the band was on fire,” recalls Billington. “It was amazing to hear.”
As sessions with Booker approached, the first signs of trouble appeared. Billington was working with Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown on the album One More Mile when he received word that Booker had suffered a breakdown and was now in the care of Baptist Hospital. Returning to New Orleans, the producer found Booker “not in great shape”. The hospital had also lost the upper plate of the musician’s dentures. “That was the top four teeth of his bite,” recalls Billington. “He wasn’t going to be able to sing very well without that.”
Luckily, someone recalled that the dentist who made the plate had initially made a cosmetic mistake (placing a gold star on the wrong tooth), and soon one problem at least was solved. Everyone turned to their planned three days of recording at Ultrasonic Studios.
The musician’s breakdown was a harbinger of hard labor and what might be best described as psychological warfare. “The first couple of days were part of the most nightmarish scenario any record producer could imagine,” Billington recalls. Booker refused to play the material he’d prepared for the session, and when he did, he’d begin songs without telling the other players what he was going to play or what key it was in. “The other guys were all good at picking up on things, but it was just maddening.”
On the second day, he requested the presence of Allen Toussaint, Cyril Neville, and Earl King as he needed songs. Neville and King materialized within an hour, while Toussaint sent along lyrics (perhaps even dictated over the phone by an assistant) to “Viva la Money.” Soon, Booker refused to talk to anyone in the studio, including King and Neville.
At one point, he crouched into a corner. Tyler and Billington picked the pianist up and brought him back into the main of the studio, where the troubles continued for the remainder of the day. Placed on his piano bench, he heard the words that might have ultimately spurred him into completing the record: “You’re not going to get paid if you keep this up.”
“My approach to making records then and to a large degree now is to do enough pre-production and planning that everybody’s confident going into the session. Then you hope that something magic happens in the studio, that you captured that moment when the music being made is greater than the sum of what the individuals there would be capable of alone,” Billington says. “You wait for that in record production and do everything you can to make that possible. It just wasn’t happening.”
Whether scared or simply enjoying the attention, Booker had run the clock down with very little music on tape. The producer adjourned to the studio early on the final morning to wade through what had been tracked and determine if there was anything salvageable. Waiting for Billington at the studio that morning was none other than Booker himself. “He said, ‘Scott, can I go in and play now?’ I said, ‘James, of course.'”
Over the course of a few hours, he laid out all the solo piano material heard on the album. The band turned up in the early afternoon and tracked the rest of the material quickly. Only “If You’re Lonely” and “Angel Eyes” were captured on previous days. Realizing that the sessions had yielded enough material for an album, Billington agreed to cut Booker a check.
Satisfied, the musician returned to the piano, plunked out some measures of a Professor Longhair tune, then said, “What time do the banks close?” When Tyler suggested it was 3:00 pm, Booker exited the studio and wasn’t seen for several weeks afterward. In all, the album was made in four hours.
What changed Booker’s mind? Billington suggests that a meal of boiled crab and a good night’s sleep may have offered some perspective. But this was just another day in a year mired with personal ups and downs and another sign of Booker’s strange duality. At one point, he’d paid his bills by holding down a job at City Hall in the Department of Economic Analysis.
“He had a photographic/mathematical mind where you could show him a column of figures, and he’d scan it down and add them all up like a calculator. A highly functioning mind in some ways but one of the loneliest and most cut off people I’ve ever known.”
By the end of 1983, heroin and alcohol had taken their toll on Booker’s body, and he reportedly died awaiting medical attention in a New Orleans hospital. The legendary live performances had become less inspired by that time. “One night, he might wander around the club, staring at the ceiling,” Billington recalls, “or he might get up and imitate Woody Woodpecker.”
When the record came out, it proved nearly impossible for Booker to promote it. Says Billington, “There was a PBS show called Soundstage, and they wanted to bring him up with Dr. John for a taping. Just two pianos. Booker and Mac knew each other really well. But it was impossible for Booker to take a cab across town to go to the airport by the time he got that invitation.”
Still, Booker’s prowess was intact at the time of the album, as evidenced by a rendition of “King of the Road”, among others on the album. “He never played a song the same way twice,” says Booker. “I’d heard him do ‘King of the Road’ once before with an entirely different groove. Even some of his signature songs, he’d play them with different grooves, different chord changes. But being there when he cut ‘King of the Road’, I’m sure that I was about to crack up laughing too. He was a funny guy. Sometimes on stage, he’d speak in a Bela Lugosi voice or in Spanish.”
One can also hear the sheer breadth of Booker’s influences, ranging from high to low art, the concert hall to the back parlor. “He was a child prodigy. It’s great to hear him fracture classical music,” says Billington. “His technique was astonishing. If you listen to his left hand, he’s aware of the stride piano tradition, but his life hand is doing something that sounds like two or three hands. He could stretch the time or compress what he was doing with his right hand.”
Reflecting on his late collaborator’s legacy, the producer adds, “There are some guys in New Orleans today who come close to what he did, but it’s a pretty high mountain to climb.”