If Mojo don’t love you baby, then grits ain’t groceries, eggs ain’t poultries, an Mona Lisa was a man. Yeah, that’s right, that’s what my man the late James Booker used to sing in “All Around The World” while wearing that sexy eye patch with the star on it.
It just stuns me that more people don’t appreciate this New Orleans great, he’s a footnote, an afterthought in the hall of fame of American pianists (not just blues or jazz players, I mean all-time greats). Heck, he’d weave classical motifs into his blues, like in “Gitanarias” and the “Black Minute Waltz.” From the sounds of things, he took these musical side streets just for the sport of it.
And of course early in his career he played a little B-3 and did the James Brown thang on cuts like “Beale Street Popeye.”
But he was at his best playing cuts like “Something You Got” and “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” in the classic New Orleans doctor-professor impresario style. His complex left hand rhythms complemented the furious, ornate melodies coming out of the right, making most other blues cats look like ham-fisted piano-beaters. Dig yourself some live “Tico Tico/Papa Was a Rascal” and listen to the interplay between his steady left and deadly right.
Lifestyle-wise, Booker was a wreck. Professionally, he worked with all the New Orleans greats in the blues, R&B and jazz realm, and had every bit the resume of his peers Professor Longhair, his good friend Dr. John, Art Neville and Allen Toussaint. In the mid-’70s, he mentored a young Harry Connick, Jr., who like Booker was identified as a musical prodigy at an early age.
Yet for some odd reason–maybe because his recorded catalog was spotty, sporadic, and not well-publicized–he’s considered at best an obscure cult figure. A true indie musician who toiled on the margins of the music biz.
Until Warner Bros. or whomever (Rounder and Concord Records, you reading this?) decides to put his playing in proper historical perspective with a gorgeously produced box set, however, it’s up to you and me to make sure the world doesn’t forget about this singularly American icon, James Booker.
Now go to Half.com or your favorite (legitimate) download site and buy up all the CDs you can find, and play the living crap out of them. While I don’t claim to know everything, I do know for certain that James Booker’s piano playing is a major waystation on the long path to musical enlightenment we’re all attempting to navigate. If that ain’t true, baby, grits really ain’t groceries.