James Booker: Old Soul with New Wrinkles


Since we are coming up to the time of year when Booker died I thought I’d mark it now. IMHO Booker is one of those geniuses on par with “Gatemouth” Brown in the sense that they were so versatile encompassing so many different styles and so authentically. Both were “characters” but of course were very different in lifestyles and temperament.

Below is a Maple Leaf Bar gig apparently from Oct ’83. Also, there is a recent documentary film on Booker that I’ve yet to see Bayou Maharajah: The Tragic Genius of James Booker — check out the trailers for that as well to get some quick context.

Booker combined his classical training with an encyclopedic knowledge of music and filtered this through a singular take on that distinct New Orleans blend of funk, gospel, blues, R&B, gutbucket, and street syncopations. He never played the same set twice. His off-the-cuff medleys could blend a Rachmaninoff tune with Sinatra, dip into some Fats Domino, take a detour through the Afro-Caribbean roots of New Orleans and end up in the first-row pew of a Catholic church. Dr. John told me that Booker is the only guy he ever knew who would play a song with every verse in a different key.

On top of this musical brilliance, Booker was one of the most outrageous characters New Orleans has ever known (and that’s sayin’ something). He might show up at a gig dressed only in a diaper and a police cap and refuse to play a single note until someone brought him drugs. Plagued with mental illness, he would hallucinate, hear voices, and had extreme paranoia about the CIA’s and the mafia’s plots against him. Self-proclaimed as the Piano Pope, he used the piano bench as his pulpit, expounding on his views on Louisiana’s incarceration policy, racism, the multiple-offender act, how the busses were running, or anything else that irked him.


Pt: 1


Pt: 2


Pt: 3


Pt: 4


Kickstarter page for documentary: interest in video from about 1:20 since the campaign is closed.

Old Soul with New Wrinkles