James Booker: Classified – Remixed and Expanded

JamesBooker_ClassifiedThe last studio recordings of a New Orleans legend

Though often cited as one of three primary New Orleans piano legends, James Booker’s popular renown never grew to the size of Professor Longhair’s or Dr. John’s. Launching his career in the mid-50s, he was sidetracked by a late-60s drug bust and continuing brushes with the law. One of those brushes, apparently, was with legal counsel Harry Connick, Sr., whose son became one of Booker’s students. The mid-70s roots revival brought renewed opportunities for Booker, particularly in Europe, and upon returning to the U.S. he took up residency at the Maple Leaf Bar. At the end of this run, in 1982, he hurriedly recorded this last studio album, and the following year succumbed to the physical and mental ravages of his drug use. Rounder’s remixed and expanded 2013 reissue adds ten bonus tracks to the original dozen, including nine previously unissued performances.

Booker is heard here playing solo as well as with a quartet of Alvin “Red” Tyler, James Singleton and Johnny Vidacovich. Playing “with” the quartet may be an overstatement, as they often seem to be chasing songs that he selected on a whim. Still, his playing and singing both show a lot of verve in each setting. The material is drawn from an incredible array of sources, including R&B (Lloyd Price’s “Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” Doc Pomus’ “Lonely Avenue,” Leiber & Stoller’s “Hound Dog” and Titus Turner’s “All Around the World”), country (Roger Miller’s “King of the Road”), classical (Richard Addinsell’s “Warsaw Concerto”), jazz (“Angel Eyes”), film (Nino Rota’s “Theme from the Godfather”) and the great American songbook (“Yes Sir, That’s My Baby” and “Baby Face”). Booker also drew from the New Orleans repertoire with Allen Toussaint’s “All These Things,” Fats Domino’s “One for the Highway” and a Professor Longhair medley; but even when he was playing outside material, the Crescent City was always in his fingers.

The fluency with which Booker plays this wide range of material is breathtaking. He’s equally adept at classical fingerings, florid jazz changes, blue R&B chords and the rolling arpeggios of New Orleans. There are many highlights among the original album tracks, including a lighthearted take on “Baby Face” that shows more finesse than Little Richard’s 1958 hit, with a vocal that maintains the spark of Al Jolson. The reading of “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby” added to this reissue is even funkier, with Booker on organ, a wicked second-line drum beat from Vidacovich and some fat sax from Tyler. There’s little hint of Eddie Cantor here (and perhaps a touch of Ricky Nelson‘s sax man), but the core emotion is swing. Booker’s classical training comes forward for dramatic readings of the Rachmaninoff inspired “Warsaw Concerto” and the title theme to the 1966 Lana Turner film Madame X. Note that “Madame X” was listed by its subtitle, “Swedish Rhapsody,” on previous reissues, but it’s the same track.

From the pop songbook, Booker tears into Leiber & Stoller’s “Hound Dog” and Roger Miller’s “King of the Road.” The former is played with great percussiveness, the latter as a haggard ballad. Booker’s singing never really matched the easiness of his piano, but it serves both of these songs well, the former coy and sassy, the latter a bit shopworn. The bonus solo take of “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” is speedier than the band version included on the original album, but each approach has its own merits. Booker’s originals include the album’s title song, the bonus track “I’m Not Sayin’,” and the original closer, “Three Keys.” The first two have edgy rhythms and unusual fingerings that bring to mind Thelonious Monk, the third weaves “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” into a rolling New Orleans’ piano solo.

Rounder’s reissue was remastered from the 24-track analog tapes, and includes Bunny Matthews’ 1983 liner notes alongside new notes by producer Scott Billington. The latter’s stories of Booker’s fragile and agitated state belies the remaining solidity of his musical mentality and ability to perform. The song list is all over the map, but Booker’s intellect and talent are enough to hold the album together. He pays homage to New Orleans in both song and style, giving traditional R&B tunes their due and pulling everything else into his Crescent City orbit. There are few who could so naturally give the “Theme from the Godfather” a helping of rhythmic soul and then add romantic flourishes to the jazz standard “Angel Eyes.” The album’s original lineup can be heard by programming 6, 20, 10, 9, 17, 19, 1, 12, 7, 14, 2, 21, but the expanded, rearranged track list plays as beautifully as Booker’s piano. This set makes a nice companion to Lily Keber’s documentary Bayou Maharajah: The Tragic Genius of James Booker, and a good introduction to the breadth of Booker’s genius. [©2013 Hyperbolium]

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