Off Topic: The Bayou Maharajah

JamesBooker-GicleeIt’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:

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13 thoughts on “Off Topic: The Bayou Maharajah

  1. We must talk my Calvinist counterpart!!! I play trumpet too…and love jazz and blues–ALOT. I used to play in church settings mostly, but I attended an African American congregation for a number of years and Billy Steele was our organist, so I played with him. (JD Steele family, Sounds of Blackness, and Grammys–not me but him!). So I did have my 10 minutes of musical fame too back in the day!

    • Okay…the next time I’m up your way, we’re going to have to have a long talk about how you got your hands on a mint condition copy of anything by Leroy Carr, much less “Barrel House Woman.”

      I don’t suppose you’ve got any Pinetop Perkins in that collection of old 78s, do you?

      • Yes. I think so. I have Pinetop Smith for sure. Bessie Smith too…a one-sided test pressing of “I Ain’t Got Nobody” by Louis Armstrong. Charlie Parker, several. “Strange Fruit” both by Billie Holiday and Josh White. Everything Josh White did. A lot of what Fletcher Henderson did. Some 50s blues stuff, and early Rock n Roll stuff such as Jerry Lee Lewis and Buddy Holly. Just to name some (I can repent of my pride tomorrow on Ash Wednesday). I have around 1500 78’s and the majority are blues and early jazz. 2 other Leroy Carr ones too. You need to come to Minnesota. Soon! Blessings on you.

            • Unfortunately, I’ve tried that…along with naming and claiming some Peetie Wheatstraw and Blind Blake.

              My record collection (primarily 33 1/3s and 45s) is still missing those 78s.

          • I have Peetie too, and I think one Blind Blake, or else Blind Lemon Jefferson. One of the blind guys anyway…now do not take this in a morbid way since I plan to remain around for awhile, but no one in my family is in the LEAST interested in these records. If I beat you to heaven perhaps you will get some. Or all.

            • Richard, I think you and I could carry on this conversation for months…let’s see, a few of the “blind guys” would be Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Blake, Blind Joe Reynolds, Blind Teddy Darby, Blind Roosevelt Graves, Blind Boy Fuller, Blind Willie Johnson, Blind Willie McTell, not to mention blind musicians without the “Blind” name, like Sonny Terry and Rev. Gary Davis, among others.

              Just as a word of advice, if you have any 78s of Blind Joe Reynolds…you’re sitting on a gold mine.

            • No I don’t but I do have Sonny Terry I think. And if I ever sit on any of my 78s that would be less than pleasant, for it or for me, and would certainly tarnish the gold!

              But seriously who knew we shared such a unique interest? BTW are you familiar with Georgia White or Lil Johnson?

"I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naïve." (Romans 16:17-18) Please read "The Comments Policy."

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