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James Booker (1939 – 1983) is widely regarded as one of the most accomplished and inventive pianists to ever emerge from New Orleans during the city’s four-decade history. Known variously as the “Piano Prince of New Orleans,” the “Bayou Maharajah,” and the “Black Liberace,” Booker’s style suggests a uniquely Louisiana hybrid of Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Moreau Gottschalk, plus contemporary material from his own lifetime. Beyond his pianistic prowess, James Booker sang with sly, provocative wit on originals such as “Papa Was A Rascal,” and put his own deeply emotional stamp on standards such as “Let Them Talk.” Booker’s technically complex and ornate keyboard style combined expertise in two genres that are often considered mutually exclusive: classical music, in which he was formally trained, and Afro-Cuban tinged R&B from the streets of New Orleans.

Since Booker divulged little of his personal history, his biography is somewhat difficult to construct. Although born in New Orleans, Booker spent much of his childhood on the nearby Mississippi Gulf Coast. He returned to New Orleans as an adolescent and attended Xavier Prep where, presumably, he acquired the classical technique and dexterity that set him apart from all of his estimable pianistic colleagues. On the R&B and jazz side Booker received some training from the respected New Orleans pianists Edward Frank and Isidore “Tuts” Washington.

Booker’s student and protégé, Harry Connick Jr., gave the following paraphrased explanation of Booker’s unique piano technique to documentary film-maker Lily Keber: “Instead of just playing note-chord, note-chord,” Connick told Keber, “Booker would play one, two, and three… that’s a very Chopin-esque thing to do… that has a very French kind of sound. And then he would add the swing feel to it. That’s what he would do with his left hand. And with his right hand, instead of just playing a melody with single notes, he would put it in octaves, eight notes apart. But that wasn’t enough, he needed some more chords, so he would play the melody with block chords, and that still wasn’t enough. He would do grace notes: a quick note leading to a bigger note; you can do it with two fingers. But when you are doing it with octaves, you only have one finger, in addition to having other notes in the middle and he would roll those sometimes, and turn it into a whole different kind of deal.”

At age 14, as a teen-prodigy colleague of fellow pianists Allen Toussaint and Dr. John, Booker began his recording career. Under name Little Booker, he recorded his first single, “Doin’ The Hambone” and “Thinkin’ About My Baby” for Imperial Records. A surge of creativity energized the New Orleans R&B scene during this time, resulting in an abundance of great records that led to fierce competition for the limelight. In this crowded marketplace Booker only saw one song – his instrumental “Gonzo,” released in 1960 – achieve any significant record sales. For the most part, he worked the low-paying Gulf Coast nightclub circuit, and accompanied more successful musicians on recording sessions. From the mid ’50s through the mid ’70s – working in New Orleans, Houston, and around the nation – Booker backed up the diverse likes of Amos Milburn, Joe Tex, Fats Domino, Smiley Lewis, Freddie King, Dave Bartholomew, Aretha Franklin, King Curtis, Earl King, Ringo Starr, Jerry Garcia, Maria Muldaur, John Mayall, T-Bone Walker, the Doobie Brothers, Shirley and Lee, and Junior Parker, among others. In addition he often played with Dr, John, who had ascended from local-level status to national renown.

Booker grew increasingly frustrated in this behind-the-scenes/sideman role, with…

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Discover image description James Booker’s Connections

Relationships

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Harry Connick Jr

Tutored Harry in Piano

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Isidore "Tuts" Washington

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Harry Connick Jr
Isidore "Tuts" Washington