James Booker – Classified: Remixed and Expanded (2013)

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James Booker’s tortured ingenuity was never given its due, partly because he mixed such a dizzying degree of elements into his sound and partly because of his legendary erraticisms. This new set of late-period work — recorded and originally released just before his 1983 death — might end up changing that. Certainly, it should.

Classified: Remixed and Expanded — being released October 15, 2013 from Rounder Records, in conjunction with festival screenings of the new biopic “Bayou Maharajah: The Tragic Genius of James Booker” — includes all of the album’s original October 1982 recordings, along with nine previously unreleased items.

Highlights include alternate solo piano takes on “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” and “If You’re Lonely,” the simmering unheard blues “I’m Not Saying” and a layered, utterly fascinating take on Nina Rota’s motion picture theme for “The Godfather.” Elsewhere, Booker moves with fizzy, utterly astonishing aplumb between R&B, classical, deep blues and jazz — all of it presented with a new crystal-clear clarity courtesy of a remix by original co-producer Scott Billington.

Sadly, this date (which also features saxist Alvin “Red” Tyler, bassist James Singleton and drummer Johnny Vidacovich) was one of just two Booker sessions issued in his lifetime, a signpost for all of the missed opportunity that surrounded this off-beat character. Other than the rare piano-focused recording by former Booker student Harry Connick, it’s become increasingly difficult for a broad audience of converts to be made.

After all, Booker’s No. 43 hit instrumental “Gonzo,” inspired by nickname given to Felice Orlandi in the film The Pusher, goes all the way back to 1960. That’s Booker playing piano behind Bobby “Blue” Bland on the 1960 hit “Cry Cry Cry,” too. He was still a college student then, attending Southern University in New Orleans. Booker immediately dropped out, but never quite made good — at least if the charts were to be used as a guide — on that early promise.

Booker instead has remained a largely local legend, with his biggest splashes on the national stage having long since become sadly forgotten. At 14, he’d already done “Doing the Hambone” with Dave Bartholomew, who collaborated with Fat Domino on hits like “I’m Walkin,'” “Ain’t That a Shame” and “Blue Monday,” among others. Booker also recorded for Leonard Chess, and played with Huey “Piano” Smith, Joe Tex and Dr. John — who once reportedly described Booker as “the best black, gay, one-eyed junkie piano genius New Orleans has ever produced.” He was right.

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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