Born in New Orleans, Louisiana, on December 17, 1939, James Booker was an African-American pianist who developed his own hybrid style of jazz, blues, ragtime and classical music. He worked with legends such as Fats Domino, B.B. King and Aretha Franklin, and is remembered for creatings songs like "The Sunny Side of the Street," "A Taste of Honey" and "Papa Was a Rascal." He died in New Orleans in 1983. Booker's own recordings are rare, but his work has influenced a new generation of musicians.
Early Life and Musical Career
James Booker was born James Carroll Booker III in New Orleans, Louisiana, on December 17, 1939. Booker's family encouraged his early musical interests, and he began taking piano lessons at the age of 6. He studied classical piano, learning the works of Frédéric Chopin and Johann Sebastian Bach. As a pre-teen, he performed regularly on live broadcasts from a New Orleans radio station. He also studied the saxophone, but the piano remained his true passion.
Booker attended the Xavier University Preparatory School in New Orleans. As a high school student, he was already playing in local recording sessions, contributing piano and organ tracks to albums by Fats Domino and other well-known musicians of the era. He released his own first single, "Doing the Hambone," in 1954.
Booker's single "Gonzo," an organ instrumental, was a hit in 1960. He continued to play live with music legends like B.B. King, and to contribute to studio recordings by artists as diverse as Aretha Franklin, The Doobie Brothers, Ringo Starr, blues master Freddie King and folk singer Maria Muldaur.
Booker developed a unique piano style that combined elements of rhythm-and-blues, jazz, ragtime and classical music. He gained the nicknames "Piano Prince of New Orleans," "Bayou Maharajah" and "Black Liberace," and the finger-work of his rapid, complex piano technique was often referred to as "spiders on the keys." He brought his signature sound to standards like "The Sunny Side of the Street," as well as to more recent hits like "A Taste of Honey." He also wrote the song "Papa Was a Rascal," which has been covered by other artists over the years.
Although he performed live throughout the 1960s and '70s, appearing regularly in New Orleans clubs and occasionally at jazz festivals in Europe, Booker only recorded a handful of albums independently. These included Junco Partner in 1976 and Classified in 1982, as well as several live albums recorded during performances in Germany and Switzerland.
Booker's stage persona was as mesmerizing as his playing: He was a memorable showman who dressed in colorful capes and wore an eye-patch emblazoned with a star. Unfortunately, his flamboyant appearance was matched by a risk-taking lifestyle. He was addicted to alcohol, cocaine and heroin throughout his career, and by the late 1970s, his behavior had become highly erratic.
Death and Legacy
Booker died in New Orleans, Louisiana, on November 8, 1983, at the age of 43, from organ failure—most likely brought on by heavy drug use. He is still remembered as one of the great jazz and blues musicians of his generation, and his legacy lives on in the work of the musicians he taught, such as Dr. John and Harry Connick Jr.
Booker's discography has increased since his death, thanks to the release of several live recordings, including Resurrection of the Bayou Maharajah and Spiders on the Keys, both originally taped at the Maple Leaf Bar in New Orleans.
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