THE BLOG
11/06/2008 07:38 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

James Booker: New Orleans Piano Wizard; 25 Years Gone

The name James Booker means very little in most parts of the world. In New Orleans, and to a great number of musicians, mainly piano players, the name James Booker is holy. Not bad for someone who was once called "the best black, gay, junkie piano player who ever lived."

In New Orleans, it seems as if everyone has a James Booker story. One story is that district attorney Harry Connick Sr. promised to keep Booker out of jail in exchange for a series of piano tutorials for his son Harry Jr. I'm sure it wasn't quite that simple, but it's a great story.

I visit New Orleans a few times a year, but I live in New York City, and even I have a few James Booker stories. They all involve my precious James Booker t-shirt and how it has caused a number of strangers from NYC to Florence Italy to stop me, ask me where I got it, and tell me their James Booker stories.

It's hard to describe Booker's playing. Of course, as a New Orleans native, Booker will get the obvious comparisons to Professor Longhair and "Tuts" Washington, but it's not that simple. James Booker also studied the solos of Chopin and Liberace, while continuing to play jazz standards and rock and roll. "He sounds like he has more than two hands." That quote is attributed to...well...everyone who has heard Booker play.

Booker played with people as diverse as Lloyd Price, Aretha Franklin, The Doobie Brothers, Rickie Lee Jones, and Ringo Starr. He even toured with Jerry Garcia. New Orleans piano player Joshua Paxton said this about James Booker's playing in an article from Offbeat magazine: "It was the kind of piano playing that I had always wanted to hear, but never had. It was Ray Charles on the level of Chopin. It was all the soul, all the groove, and all the technique in the universe packed into one unbelievable player. That Booker's music hasn't become part of the standard piano repertoire is, in my opinion, a crime."

25 years ago this Saturday the 8th, the legendary James Carroll Booker III died in a wheelchair, while waiting in a hospital emergency room, after being haunted for so many years by mental illness and drug addiction. And though I am not a piano player, I can say with great confidence, that the music he left behind is unrivaled. "Classified" is easily obtainable and worth every penny, if only for the intensity of Booker's "Angel Eyes." My single favorite live performance not just by Booker, but anyone, can be found, although with great difficulty in the song "True," from the "Live At Montreux" CD. How about making that available to the public, whoever is in charge of doing that?

I've honored and praised the magical city of New Orleans, its beautiful people, and infectious music a number of times on these pages. I've done the same on my own pages HERE. Still I go back to James Booker, his heartbreaking voice, impossible left hand, and iconic photos with that full on 'fro and eye patch. 25 years gone, I believe it's time to honor James Booker. Even The Chipmunks have a boxed set.

Rickie Lee Jones said this:

"Booker died then, much like he had lived, no one seemed to notice him, or maybe it was just that it would have been unbearable for him to have been noticed too much. I am glad to hear that people celebrate James Booker now. He would be really happy about that, in a quiet way, I think."

I never got to see James Booker play. Never saw The Beatles or Jimi Hendrix or Elvis Presley either. But not seeing Booker bothers me more.