Talk of Talented New Orleans Phenomenon James Booker, Pianist, in Britain: Manchester ’77

By Daniel Garrett

James Booker, Manchester ’77
(Recorded by Dave Lunt)
Document Records, 2008

The famously talented and personally notorious New Orleans pianist James Booker’s performance in Manchester, England, in 1977 need not be legend: it is fact, and can be heard anew. Rather than a grand event, this—Manchester ’77—is a working musician’s performance—direct, funky, and fun, determined to entertain. It is clarifying, even useful, to hear that, as comments about James Booker can begin with talk about his talent, and end with stories of his outrageous behavior: he is said to have arrived for a club performance in New Orleans wearing a diaper, waving a gun, and demanding drugs. Sometimes reputation is no more than an accumulation of gossip, whether a performer is great or obscure.

“Languaging my life is part of living true to myself, staying on course, being whole. Daily, moment to moment, I strive to use words I want associated with my life: magic, love, beauty, truth, laughter, clarity, strength, joy, purpose,” wrote the singer and actress Diana Ross in her book of photographs Going Back (Universe/Rizzoli, 2002; pages 26-27). Obviously, any individual, even artist, whether famous or obscure, is fundamental to defining her or his own identity and purpose, but that image, especially if one emerges out of a minority group or two minority groups (such as being female and black) is likely to be contested. Where does the ultimate cultural authority rest? Or is that always in negotiation? The best road to understanding for an admirer or a critic is the path made in the art, the music or films or literature or paintings or dance.

Was James Booker a genius, a freak, an ongoing scandal? The recording of James Booker’s Manchester performance is rough but rousing, opening with a truncated version of “Let the Good Times Roll,” and an immediately appealing “Blues Minuet,” full of energy and craft, first raucously swinging then bluesily mellow. There is boogie-woogie and early rock ‘n’ roll. The acoustics in the room are a bit distant and dull at times for “Junko Partner,” yet the listener can make out the fire of Booker’s piano playing. The musician makes light comments about Britain, socialism, and the word cocaine containing the letters “C” and “I” and “A.”

In the blues ballad “Black Night,” James Booker’s piano playing is crystal clear and fine—it is his transcendence; and his singing is roughly expressive, no more than an efficient tool. “Tipitina” is upbeat but cloudy-sounding, not as crisp as this listener desires. Booker uses a somewhat more formal singing voice for his soulful interpretation of “Come Rain or Shine.” What might James Booker have become with more traditional guidance and support? Yet, the reason for Booker’s renown is apparent: Booker’s fingers move deftly, quickly, over the piano, and his piano tone ranges from the saloon to the concert hall. “Pixie” is rousing, barroom stuff. “Nobody’s a foreigner because we’re all living in one world,” asserts Booker, affirming the internationalism of music, within “We’ve Only Just Begun,” in which he gets the audience to join in with heavy clapping. Booker’s short, fast performance of “Rip It Up” and “Long Tall Sally” affirm his and Louisiana’s connection to early rock ‘n’ roll, the music of Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and Bo Diddley. Booker’s closing take on “Every Day I Have the Blues” is both drama and burlesque: emotion as emphatic entertainment.

Emotion is ground and sky for artists, but artists can forget that their emotions do not have the same firmness as stone, and the human world is a harder place; and while artists, soft of flesh and sometimes soft in the head, go about chasing their passionate visions, the world is making plans both to exploit their work and to live without them. Greatness elevates, but it is not protection. In Joseph Vogel’s comprehensive book on the creative life and work of the great but troubled performer Michael Jackson, Man in the Music (Sterling, 2011), the author Vogel describes the gossip surrounding Jackson and how that affected professional criticism of his music collections, including Dangerous, History, and Invincible—and the quotations of the Daily News’s Jim Farber and the New York Times’s Jon Pareles is heartbreaking if you care about Jackson and infuriating if you care about the craft of criticism (pages 184 and 186). Who is responsible for evaluating the content of criticism, and pointing out when it is nothing more than a rationalization of conjecture, malice, and prejudice?

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today. Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader. He has an internet log, “The Art Notes of a Solitary Walker,” focused on visual art. He has written a novel, A Stranger on Earth.