James Booker: Producer Scott Billington on the enigmatic “Bayou Maharaja” (Part 1)

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James Carroll Booker III (1939-1983) was one of the foremost musical and piano geniuses of the 20th century, yet his name is not as widely known beyond music lovers, musicians, and New Orleanians. That should change because his last album is being revisited by a reissue of his album Classified by Rounder Records by renown roots producer Scott Billington, who did the original sessions for the album in 1983. Scott has produced and played on more than 100 recordings and won two Grammy Awards and has been nominated for 10. I had the good fortune of speaking with Scott this past week about the “tragic genius” of James Booker, who died at the age of 43 before he could become the household legend his legacy deserves. He’s been called the Piano Prince of New Orleans, a wizard, the King of New Orleans Keyboards, a tragic genius, and the Bayou Maharaja. Who was this man who was so talented and brought to the surface so much tragic emotion? Talking with Scott, who knew him well, sheds some light on this enigmatic genius. He suffered from mental illness and addiction which stymied his rise to his proper place among musics’ legendary geniuses.  This interview will be two parts as there is too much great info for just one post.

 

Rootnotemusic: People have called James Booker a genius. What do you see as his specific genius that is different from any other artist that sets him apart from other musicians labeled genius’ of his generation or his style of music?

Scott Billington: He could play more piano than anybody I ever heard. He could synthesize so many different styles of music.

Rootnotemusic: I heard gospel, ragtime, jazz, blues, classical.

Scott: He was a brilliant improviser. He had a classical background. He studied classical music when he was a boy and had a teacher that taught him Chopin and Rachmaninoff. He could do things with his mind that many other people couldn’t do. Earl King, the New Orleans piano player had many Booker stories. One of them was about showing up at a gig and the bandleader handed Booker a fairly complicated score and Booker looked at it for 10 or 15 seconds and Booker said “Okay I got it” and set it aside. And the bandleader said “What do you mean? You can’t play that!” Well he did.

Rootnotemusic: He was a true genius.

Scott: Yeah, Earl King said he had a photo mind, a photographic mind. Earl King told another story about the organist Jimmy Smith being in New Orleans and playing a show. They were backstage and they had an upright piano and Booker was back there and he said to Jimmy Smith ‘I really liked your show, but you made a mistake on the bridge to this song.’ And Jimmy Smith said ‘I didn’t make a mistake.’ And Booker said ‘Yes you did’ and he went to the piano and showed him. And Jimmy Smith said, ‘damn I guess I did.’ Booker said ‘well do you want to hear it backwards?’ and he could play the same song backwards and forwards with both hands at the same time.

Rootnotemusic: Why do you think he never achieved the wider notoriety of other musicians of his talent?

Scott: He certaintly had opportunities to travel. After this record came out the first time, Soundstage in Chicago, which was a public television performance show, wanted to do a show with Booker and Dr. John, just two pianos. It would have been a wonderful opportunity for him to do that, but he couldn’t even ride a cab across town without getting sick at that point in his life. He was not particularly able to focus on the business that you would have had to deal with if he was going to be more popular. He didn’t show up for gigs, he was undependable.

Rootnotemusic: I felt like in the instrumental songs there was this exuberance that in the vocal songs I didn’t hear. I think because I could hear the loneliness or pain in his voice when he sang. I wonder if maybe there was a freedom or joy he could find in just playing pure piano?

Scott: Hmmm that’s interesting. I mean it must have felt good to play like that! And there were times  he could just tear sheets of sound of the piano. There was a particular performance, “A Taste of Honey,” at Rosie’s Jazz Hall in New Orleans in the late 70s. He’s transitioning from one song to another, ultimately he’s going to play “A Taste of Honey.” He just starts this rumbling at the low-end of the keyboard. All of the sudden it’s just waves of heavy rain and thunder. Just playing with the entire piano. It’s like you just expected the entire piano to levitate.

Rootnotemusic: What do you think his legacy was among other musicians?

Scott: He was such an iconoclast, it’s hard for anyone to follow exactly what he did. Harry Connick has done the best job of it. Harry Connick, Jr. who was his student. With his eclectic repertoire… There are many piano players who are dedicated to James Booker, some of them in New Orleans, like Tom McDermont. There are quite a few piano players who study him and do their best to carry on.

In my next post, Scott talks about his experiences as a producer working with one of the foremost geniuses of the 20th century as well as the challenges of working with Booker in terms of his erratic behavior and how working with him differed from other producing experiences. With an upcoming documentary, “The Bayou Maharaja: The Tragic Genius of James Booker” ready for distribution, and the reissue of James Booker’s last album “Classified: Remix And Expanded” on Rounder, here’s hoping that James Booker will finally achieve the widespread recognition his music deserves.

For an audio interview with Scott Billington regarding James Booker on New Orleans’ own WWOZ click here.

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DJ Moonbaby’s “Unrestricted” radio show pays tribute to Marvin Gaye

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This April is the 30th anniversary of Marvin Gaye’s tragic passing and my girl DJ Moonbaby (my musical soulmate for many years as evidenced by this, this, and this blog post) will be doing a special tribute this coming Thursday, April 10th, on her radio show  “Unrestricted” on Acceleratedradio.net which airs on Thursdays 8-10 p.m. PST, and can be accessed via the internet or via the TuneIn, iHeartRadio, or iTunes apps (search Accelerated radio). Moonbaby will be interviewing both Zeola Gaye about her new book “My Brother Marvin” and producer Amerigo Gazaway on his Yasiin Gaye project (with Yasiin Bey aka Mos Def). Moonbaby will be playing some tracks from the Yasiin Gaye project, and some classic Marvin and Marvin-esque tracks:

Here is one of DJ Moonbaby’s choices for one of the best National Anthem performances out there by Marvin Gaye at the All-Star Basketball game in 1983:

Moonbaby found this gem where Gaye is playing solo, being candid, and really shows off his exceptional musical talent:

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Piedmont folk-blues: Ernest Troost, Cephas & Wiggins, & Etta Baker

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Piedmont blues legend Etta Baker.

I recently heard folk-blues singer-songwriter Ernest Troost’s new album “O Love” and loved it. I found myself drawn into the world of old screen doors and broken hearts being mended through the only thing that can heal, love. The only song from the album on YouTube is “Close” but please check out this album. The title track “O Love” is my favorite.


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Los Boleros de Celia Cruz y Benny Moré

Celia Cruz in Cuba, ca. 1950’s. (Photo by Narcy Studios, Cuba, courtesy of Omer Pardillo-Cid.)

I don’t remember the first time I ever heard Celia Cruz, however my grandmother had a vinyl record of hers. I remember getting a CD in the early 1990s called “Boleros” and to this day it is one of my most loved and played CDs. Celia Cruz sang these songs that were soothing lullabies to my young troubled soul.

Boleros originated in Cuba and descended from the trova. It traveled to the rest of Latin America, where composers put their own style on this beloved musical form. The bolero transports me to another place and time and reminds me of an era I never knew, but that of my grandparents. This music also reminds me so much of my late father, who use to embarrass me as a teenager by singing boleros to me at the local Denny’s. How I wish I savored those moments so much more than I did. And asked him the names of all those amazing songs. Continue reading

“Now Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers…”

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The Swampers, the studio musicians who created some of the best-loved sounds of our time.

I just finished watching the music documentary Muscle Schoals. It is an amazing movie which tells the story of a small rural town in Alabama with a magical connection to the best music ever recorded and the story of FAME studios and Rick Hall, the hard-working producer and owner. This man is the American dream. Coming from abandonment, crushing poverty, and tragedy, he built the studio and the reputation of Muscle Schoals to a world-class studio churning out hits for Aretha Franklin, Percy Sledge, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Etta James, Jimmy Cliff, Lynryd Skynyrd, Traffic, Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Candi Stanton, Allman Brothers,  and many more. Some of America’s best-loved songs came out of this tiny river town in Alabama like “When A Man Loves A Woman,” “Mustang Sally,” “Brown Sugar,” and too many others to list.

I didn’t know that one of my favorite Aretha Franklin songs, “I Never Loved A Man The Way I Loved You,” was recorded there and this song and album was what catapulted her to global stardom. The intro lines were played by long time FAME Recording Studio keyboardist Spooner Oldham. Aretha launched into the song, they had the cut in about 10 minutes and from that point on she was the Queen of Soul.

If you love American soul music, classic rock music, or music history, put this documentary on your list and get on it. I actually started taking notes during my viewing. One of my favorite songs is “Sweet Home Alabama” which is where my title reference comes from. The Swampers were the nickname given by Leon Russell to the set of studio musicians who started out with Rick and recorded some of the most beloved songs of our time.

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Rick Hall, producer and owner and originator of the “Muscle Shoals” sound.

 

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Trouble in mind: AJ Croce plays the blues his way

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AJ Croce. Photo by Shelby Duncan.

I recently was introduced to AJ Croce, an incredible singer/songwriter, boogie-woogie and barrelhouse blues piano player, and guitarist, whose new album Twelve Tales was released in February on Compass Records. Anyone whose been reading my blog should know that I’m a huge blues fan and I also have a love for boogie-woogie and barrelhouse blues. AJ has been performing and recording for over 20 years, since the age of 19, and his skills on the black and whites are beyond compare. Here he is with an original song that truly exemplifies his command of the 88s, “Come and Go”:

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King of Chitlin’ Circuit Bobby Rush still groovin’ into his 80s: SXSW 2014

One of the highlights of my time at SXSW 2014 was seeing Mr. Bobby Rush (who was nominated this past year for a 2014 GRAMMY Award in Best Blues Album for “Down In Louisiana”). There is a bit of discrepancy as to his age. He told the audience he was 81, however Wikipedia says 73. According to The Encyclopedia of Arkansas Music (where he lived for a while), “Bobby Rush, known as the ‘King of the Chitlin’ Circut’…was born Emmett Ellis Jr…in 1935, however the 1940 census lists him as three years old.” It’s a mystery. But what is clear is how incredible a performer, guitar player, blues vocalist and harp player this man is. He has been on over 200 records and played with the likes of Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Bobby “Blue” Bland, BB King, and Johnnie Taylor.

Here Bobby Rush is on harmonica and vocals for a soulful cover of The Beatles “Come Together”

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