It’s something of a cliché that your teenage years will be to the soundtrack of odd, angst-ridden music; mine weren’t. While my teenage years were slam full of musical discovery, my taste in music was decidedly different from my peers.
I started playing trumpet at eleven-years-old, and discovered (much to my own surprise) that I was pretty gifted. Gifted enough that as a high school student I got to sit in with Maynard Ferguson and Big Bop Nouveau when I was sixteen, and jammed with the house jazz band at a club in the city where I group up every single Thursday night from fourteen until I joined the Army at eighteen. I was heavily influenced by the grunge movement of the day (Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Screaming Trees, Butthole Surfers, etc.), but I was also listening to Buckshot LeFonque, too.
When I was twelve, I discovered Eric Clapton, which in turn lead me to musicians like Howlin’ Wolf and McKinley Morganfield…and then on the to great Robert Johnson and Skip James. That same year, my mother’s younger brother moved to Mandeville, Louisiana, for his job with J.C. Penny, and I got to spend one wonderful month exploring the great city of New Orleans with my older cousin; we went to Lafayette Park and the French Quarter nearly everyday. Given my love for Southern music (the blues) and Southern history, New Orleans was what I imagined heaven must have been like.
My cousin had a wild streak, and we snuck in to places like the Maple Leaf Bar and the Lion’s Den Club; I got to meet musicians that I practically worshipped – including running into both Dr. John and Irma Thomas in a grocery store, and brushing up against Allen Toussaint on a street corner. I still dream about moving to New Orleans permanently thanks to those four outrageously wonderful weeks.
But just a little under a decade before I got to visit New Orleans, the one musician who I would have killed to meet, died waiting to be seen in the emergency room of a New Orleans hospital. It would be another decade after my time in New Orleans before I ever heard his name. I was reading a book about the New Orleans music scene when I first saw the name James Booker.
He had more nicknames than any musician I had ever come across. They called him “The Piano Prince of New Orleans,” “The Bayou Maharajah”, “Gonzo”, and “The Black Liberace”, among a myriad of others. He was a piano prodigy who stopped taking piano lessons at twelve because he had outstripped his teachers. When he was eighteen, after a concert by Arthur Rubinstein in New Orleans, he played some Chopin for arguably the greatest interpreter of Chopin in the world, and left him in awe.
His piano playing was an astonishing mixture of stide, stroll, gospel, Latin, and classical. His left-hand patterns were unique and complex, and are difficult for even gifted pianists to play smoothly. He never achieved the fame of Professor Longhair, Fats Domino, or Ray Charles, but if you asked them who they liked to listen to, Fats and the Genius were huge James Booker fans.
When I discovered James Booker in my twenties, it was like someone hit me in the stomach; they only thing I could compare it to was hearing Skip James for the first time. It left me speechless.
Ladies and gentlemen, good music requires an introduction – a friend to come alongside you and say, “Listen to this!”.
I’d like to introduce to you, the late, great “Bayou Maharajah”, James Booker: