On November 8, 1983 - 36 years ago this week - legendary New Orleans pianist James Booker passed on. While his legacy grows even stronger in the city, recent interviews with Bay St. Louis family members give details about Booker's early life on the Mississippi coast - and explain why "the Bay" became one of his touchstones.
- by Edward Gibson
In 1978, James Carroll Booker III took the stage in Leipzig, DDR - one man and one piano. It was the pinnacle of his career and the height of the Cold War. How the notoriously temperamental — paranoid and high — Booker made it through the Iron Curtain with a wig filled with marijuana is anyone’s guess.
Booker was a notorious conspiracy theorist, fearful of the Central Intelligence Agency. One would think that the STASI, the notorious East German secret police that occupied the first rows of the performance hall would have rattled him, but behind a keyboard, Booker could not be rattled.
The recording is outstanding from beginning to end, but halfway through the second side, Booker rises to yet another level. He teases out the opening bars of “Mardi Gras in New Orleans” before settling into a mid-tempo blues, a standard of his repertoire “Let’s Make a Better World.” He sings, “Nobody can live in despair. Everybody sing, sing, sing. Let freedom ring.”
It is unclear whether these lines are an anthem to inspire the East Germans or a confession. He turns then to Aretha Franklin’s “People Get Ready.” “I’m free at last,” he sings before he transforms Franklin’s theme into a blues riff in the high register before turning it again, now into ragtime, and then back again to Aretha’s song of freedom.
The politics could not have been lost on the men in gray uniforms, not only the message of freedom but the exuberant expression of it. But before he could be dragged off to the Runde Eckei for interrogation, he turned 180 degrees to Chopin, a deft and exact rendition of the “Minute Waltz,” and then turns again to a left-handed boogie before closing the show with “Malengua de la Lousiana,” a Fess inspired flamenco, a melodic and rhythmic largesse packaged into three minutes and four seconds.
James Booker was (and is) a mystery to all, to his friends and family and to other musicians, and so it may be presumptuous to say that side B of the live recording in Leipzig, entitled “Sic Transit Gloria Mundi” (AMIGA) captures not only Booker’s talent but the frenetic and troubled man behind the keys.
All agree that James Carroll Booker was a complex character, a true musical genius, tormented and defeated by his own worst tendencies. Yet James Booker played with a speed, imagination, and touch that has left such masters as Arthur Rubinstein, George Winston and Harry Connick Jr. in silent awe.
Born in 1939 at Charity Hospital to J.H. Booker and Ora Champagne, James Carroll Booker III grew up between New Orleans and Bay St. Louis. His father was a reverend and professional dancer from Bryan, Texas. His mother was a Creole, and several years younger than J.H. Booker.
J.C., as family called him, moved at age two to 126 Ballentine Street in Bay St. Louis, the home of his aunt, Bessie Lizana. Betty Jean Booker, his older sister by six years, joined him two years later when the Rev. Booker suffered a stroke.
It was on Ballentine that Booker’s musical talent flourished. Bessie Lizana and her husband, Bernard, enjoyed a relatively prosperous life. Among their few luxuries, an upright piano occupied a corner of the large main room. He received instruction from Ms. Natalie Piernas and attended the St. Rose de Lima School.
In elementary school when other children played bells, triangles and woodblocks, Booker played piano. He mastered it by age seven. He received a saxophone as a gift and mastered that as well. According to Ms. Lizana, Booker enjoyed his life near the Gulf. In addition to learning piano and saxophone, he crabbed and fished with a Mr. Prowell, the husband of Lizana’s employer.
It is not clear how long Booker stayed in the Bay. Booker himself accounts being struck by an ambulance at age nine in about 1948. Documentary filmmaker Lily Keber places the accident in New Orleans, on Dauphine Street.
According to Kent Taylor, J.C. Booker and Betty Jean moved to New Orleans with his mother and lived at his aunt Eva Sylvester’s home at 2511½ Third Street in Uptown, across from Shakespeare Park and around the corner from the famed Dew Drop Inn. Booker attended Xavier Prep and met fellow Orleanians and contemporaries Art and Charles Neville, as well as Allen Toussaint.
Betty Jean began to sing gospel at WMRY and introduced J.C. to the station’s producers. In short order he formed Booker Boy and the Rhythmaires. The radio shows caught the attention of Dave Bartholomew, and in 1954, at age 15, Booker cut his first single for Imperial Records, “Doin’ the Hambone” / “Thinkin’ ‘Bout my Baby.”
Before the end of his senior year at Xavier, Booker took to the road. He toured with popular artists like Joe Tex and Earl King. Booker found work making the most of his own sound but he also imitated the styles of other piano greats.
He so impressed producer Johnny Vincent, of Ace Records in Jackson, Miss., that Vincent hired Booker to tour as Huey “Piano” Smith. Huey Smith did not like touring, so Booker toured in his place, not in support of Smith, but actually appearing on the bill as Huey “Piano” Smith.
A busted tour with Dee Clark (“Nobody but You”) found Booker down and out in Houston, Tex., but he soon impressed the producers at Duke/Peacock Records. Soon he backed Peacock’s clients, acts such as Junior Parker (“Next Time You See Me”) and Bobby “Blue” Bland (“Farther on up the Road”).
In 1962, Booker scored his only top ten hit, “Gonzo,” on the Peacock label. Throughout the 1960s Booker recorded and/or toured with Aretha Franklin, B.B. King, Freddie King, Wilson Pickett and others. In 1968, at the request of David Bartholomew, Booker recorded all of the piano tracks for the Fats Domino record “Fats is Back (Reprise).” Domino, a tireless touring musician, was too busy to return to New Orleans to record. The record includes two of Booker’s best originals, “My Old Friends” and “So Swell When You’re Well.”
In 1967, at the height of his touring and recording career, Booker lost both his mother, Ora Champagne, and his sister, Betty Jean. According to Charles Neville, the loss of his family exacerbated Booker’s mental health issues. Three years later, while entering the Dew Drop Inn, New Orleans Police caught Booker with heroin. He served a year in Angola and 34 days in the Orleans Parish Prison.
The brutality of Angola took a further toll on Booker’s mental health. Although he continued to record and perform throughout the early 1970s, his deteriorating mental health and drug addiction irreparably damaged Booker’s rising star. He continued to record as a backing musician during the early 70s - most notably with Ringo Starr and the Doobie Brothers - but his career continued to founder until an appearance at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Fest in 1975.
His performance drew the attention of Island Records, which signed him to a recording contract. More significant was the attention it drew from European promoter Nobert Hess, who brought him to Europe for tours in 1977 and 1978. The tours produced several albums including “New Orleans Piano Wizard" (Rounder) and the aforementioned “Sic Transit Gloria Mundi (Let’s Make a Better World)” (AMIGA).
Throughout his long and storied career, it is unclear when and how often Booker returned to the Bay to visit his Aunt Bessie Lizana and nephew Kent Taylor and nieces, Shelia Twiggs and Yolanda Barroughs, but return he did.
Accounts differ as to how often he accompanied the choir at St. Rose de Lima. According to one source, he played only a few Christmas pageants during the ministry of Father Borgia Aubespin (1973-1978). Others recall more frequent visits to Bay St. Louis.
According to Kent Taylor, Booker returned again and again for family. He would attend the service at St. Rose, perhaps accompanying the choir. Then, he would retire with family and friends to Ballentine Street for Bessie Lizana’s Sunday dinner. Neighbors would come from Chinch Alley (Easy St.) and bring instruments. Ellsworth Collins came from 216 Sycamore and brought a guitar. Another neighbor, Clarence Collins, joined.
Considering the troubled and tormented life of James Carroll Booker, such a picaresque Sunday afternoon undoubtedly drew the Piano Prince back home to the Bay. How could, as Dr. John described him, “the best black, gay, one-eyed junkie piano player to ever come out of New Orleans,” resist the sound of Southern gospel, jazz and R&B, heard through open windows as far as the beach, all punctuated by the smell of Aunt Bessie’s gumbo?
Kent is the first to confess that Booker was also known “to be out for a fix” before playing Lizana’s upright through the night. He believed Miss Lizana overlooked Booker’s drug addiction. She told Jon Foose at Booker’s end that “I have never seen a child as good…. he was smart as a whip.”
Others recount that in the '60s, the other Booker, the Uptown Booker, would occasionally make his way up Sycamore Street to the clubs that lined the block, like the Crack and Big Five Club.
Despite success and the adoration of European fans, heroin, cocaine and paranoia plagued the Piano Prince. By the early 1980s he had returned to the bars, playing a regular Tuesday night show at the Maple Leaf, either alone or with Johnny Vidacovich and “Red” Tyler.
His tenure at the Maple Leaf was erratic, from sublime shows (captured on several posthumously released albums) to no-shows, and prima donna tantrums, refusing to play at all. During this time, his only steady gig was at the Toulouse Theater in the French Quarter, playing intermission of the show “One Mo’ Time.”
Taylor who — like Booker — divided time between Ballentine in the Bay and New Orleans, would accompany Booker to local gigs. There was a room at Tipitina’s where Booker could shoot up cocaine and heroin. Taylor would wait outside.
Once, he recalled, Booker returned from Europe with two briefcases. In one, Taylor said was money, a briefcase full of money. “I want this for you. You can have this,” Taylor recounts Booker saying, “But you stay away from this other case. This ain’t for you.” Booker did not show Taylor the contents, but Taylor knew.
James Carroll III died Nov. 8, 1983. Taylor and Bessie Lizana went to his one-bedroom apartment in the French Quarter. By Taylor’s account, the apartment was filled with empty bottles of Canadian Mist, fifths, half gallons and pints, all empty. According to Taylor, doctors had told Booker in no uncertain terms that his liver had failed him and any more drinking would kill him. J.C. would not or could not stop. Documentary footage of his funeral show friends - among them, Red Tyler, Deacon John, and three elderly women - Bessie Lizana among them.
As to how he lost his eye, nobody knows - a cheap journalistic trick, of course, but one of which Booker would approve. Booker was a showman, and a showman loves and needs mystery.
He told Johnny Vidacovich that record producers beat it out of him after Booker worked some flimflam. He told Dr. John that John F. Kennedy did it. To Charles Neville and many others, Ringo did it, thus the star on the black patch he wore. He told Kent Taylor he lost it in Angola, but would not say how. The truth was likely too painful for Booker to share.
Booker had the marvelous gift to be able to set aside the tragedy of his own life - the addiction, the paranoia, the loss of family - and communicate joy through the keyboard. His own compositions are imbued with irony and humor, not only in the lyrics, but in his voice, and again, not just his voice but the piano itself. He can tear into Rachmaninoff with such authentic gusto and flair, then wind it into a Jelly Roll Morton swing, then again into “Goodnight Irene.”
There is a tremendous effusion of comedic wit in the way Booker folds a theme, song or style in on itself, transforming it again and again till it is, at once something different and yet somehow the same, like a Mobius strip or an M.C. Escher print.
It is hard to square this humor, this joy, with the man whom the New Orleans police reported had track marks in both arms with a total of 22 scabs. It’s hard to square the beauty with the ranting, broken man screaming over the piano at the Maple Leaf. He screams “Like the Bible tell you are guaranteed to live to seventy if you do the right thing. My mother wasn’t no junkie. She died when she was fifty-three.”
Booker puts it best in the liner notes of his best studio release, Junco Partner (1976): “To know the feeling of rejoicing in sorrow is nothing strange to me.”
Author Unknown. “James Booker” http://roots.life/new-orleans/james-booker/
Matthews, Bunny. “James Booker: Music as a Mysterious Art.” Wavelength, p. 24. Dec. 1983.
Foose, Jon. “Booker’s Life and Achievement.” Wavelength, p. 28. Dec. 1983
Keber, Lily “Bayou Maharaja” Netflix. 2013.
McDermott, Tom. “James Booker” https://64parishes.org/entry/james-booker
McDermott, Tom. “Remembering James Booker”. Offbeat. May 1, 1996
O’Hagen, Sean. “Cocaine boogie: James Booker, the tragic piano genius of New Orleans”. The Guardian. Nov. 20, 2013.
Parlese, Jon. “James Booker: Piano Prince” New York Times. Nov. 10, 1983.