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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

The Greatest Piano Player You’ve Never Heard

New Orleans R&B musician James Booker was a musical genius on the level of Beethoven.

Alright, first: by “you” I don’t mean you, the person who does already know all about James Booker. I mean you, everyone else. And I know for a fact that there are a lot of you. The top James Booker videos on YouTube barely make it into the hundreds of thousands of views. Most of his songs on Spotify only have listens in the tens of thousands, with some listened to so little that they don’t register numbers at all. 

Part of the reason, I suspect, is that James Booker is a little difficult to get into. Lily Keber, who crowdfunded a documentary about Booker, Bayou Maharajah, in 2013, says that when she was first introduced to Booker, she “had no idea what to make of the music,” because it was like “a different language.” It doesn’t help that Booker’s recordings are mostly a jumble of posthumously compiled live albums with wildly varying audio quality. Booker never had a hit record, he never had a Great Album, and there’s not an obvious great starting place for a new listener. I had spent years as a fan of New Orleans R&B before I managed to get into Booker. I had the same experience as Keber at first; I enjoyed Fats Domino records, but Booker’s music was more difficult. It just didn’t sound like anything I’d ever heard. It didn’t fit neatly into a genre.

And yet Booker was a genius. In fact, he may have been the greatest piano player of the 20th century. When Arthur Rubinstein, himself regarded as one of the greatest classical pianists of all time, heard Booker play in New Orleans, he was astonished, commenting: “I could never play that…never at that tempo.” Allen Toussaint, himself one of the most innovative and talented pianists this city has produced, was unequivocal: “as far as I’m concerned he’s just as important as Beethoven or any of the other greats.” He’s not exaggerating. Booker deserves to be as acclaimed and widely known as Beethoven. The fact that he isn’t may have something to do with the fact that Booker did not play in the royal courts of Vienna. He was a gay, Black heroin addict who played New Orleans dive bars, and never had a hit record (though he played on the hits of others, including Ringo Starr, the Doobie Brothers, and Fats Domino).

Booker wasn’t just a piano virtuoso capable of flooring Arthur Rubinstein. He was also an innovator who fused classical music with R&B to create a totally unique sound that was entirely his own. A Booker setlist was eclectic, and could just as easily include a medley of Ray Charles songs, Chopin’s Minute Waltz, standards like “St. James Infirmary,” Little Richard rock and roll songs, Frank Sinatra songs, or even “La Cucaracha.”

Booker had a tough life. When he was 9 years old, he was hit by an ambulance traveling 70 miles an hour. Given morphine to deal with the pain of his injuries, he became an addict, and he was repeatedly busted on drug charges, even serving a stint in Louisiana’s infamous Angola prison. Later in his life, Booker was appreciated in Europe, and some of the best recordings of his work are from live performances at jazz events in Switzerland and Germany. But he spent most of his career drifting around New Orleans, playing its various pianos. 

One of those pianos was at the district attorney’s house. The DA was an amateur singer, and allegedly offered an arrangement whereby Booker would avoid prison time for drug charges if he would give piano lessons to the prosecutor’s son. The DA, Harry Connick Sr., would become infamous for putting innocent people behind bars, and one of his wrongful convictions led to a major Supreme Court case, Connick v. Thompson.1 

The son of that infamous DA, the one who received Booker’s piano coaching, was Harry Connick Jr.. He would go on to become one of the leading jazz pianists in the world, selling 30 million records and winning three Grammy Awards. Connick, Jr., is hugely talented—witness this clip of him deftly improvising a way to adjust his audience’s clapping—but I can’t help feel there’s something of an injustice in the fact that our Black Beethoven, James Booker, is known mainly to musicians and New Orleanians, while the (white) son of the foul district attorney became a major star playing jazz. That one clip of Connick Jr. has far more views on YouTube than anything by James Booker. 

The best way to appreciate Booker is to listen to him. To that end, I’ve put together a playlist of nearly 40 Booker songs on Spotify, which you can listen to here. I am not a music writer, so it is beyond my capacity to evocatively describe his sound. All I can say is it’s some of the best piano playing I’ve ever heard, and I think James Booker deserves to be considered the finest piano player of the 20th century.

I think other piano players like Toussaint and Dr. John would agree with that. Connick Jr. himself has said that “There’s nobody that could even remotely come close to his playing ability…I’ve played Chopin Etudes, I’ve done the whole thing, but there is nothing harder than James,” and “he did innumerable things that would be considered revolutionary.” Joshua Paxton, who transcribed Booker’s playing, has described Booker’s contribution like this: 

“It’s Ray Charles on the level of Chopin. It’s all the soul, all the groove, and all the technique in the universe packed into one unbelievable player … I can now say with certainty that it’s a pianistic experience unlike any other. He invented an entirely new way of playing blues and roots-based music on the piano, and it was mind-blowingly brilliant and beautiful.”

Listen for yourself. I’ve tried to incorporate Booker’s wide range, from his versions of Eleanor Rigby to the Minute Waltz, the very socialistic anthem “Let’s Build a Better World,” and his incomparable originals. I’ve also included Aretha Franklin’s version of Booker’s great “So Swell When You’re Well” (which I believe features Booker himself on piano).

There are certainly greater injustices in the world than a musician not getting enough recognition. But the more music I hear in my life, the more amazed I am at how much superb material goes unheard and underappreciated. Even Prince, who achieved worldwide fame, is actually underrated, in my opinion, and much of his greatest work is rarely heard. (I know because I once compiled a giant playlist of the best live Prince tracks that I downloaded from bootlegs, and even Prince fans told me they hadn’t heard much of the material before.) I’m always hearing brilliant street musicians and thinking “Wow, why aren’t they famous? Why aren’t there more people here listening?”  

I don’t know that James Booker will ever get the recognition he truly deserves. It’s not that nobody has heard of him—as I say, you might have—but I think he tends to be appreciated by pianists and jazz aficionados. I did find him a little tough to get into at first, as I say, but once I did, I was floored by the quality of his playing and the innovativeness of his style. 2013’s excellent Bayou Maharajah brought Booker some press attention, and the Daily Beast’s culture section ran a feature on him in 2016. A new 5-CD set of his performances in East Germany was released last week, though sadly it’s quite expensive. But like I say, the viewership and listenership figures online are still far too low. So there is still work to be done in spreading the word about the beautiful, totally unique music of the late James Booker. 

Listen to the Current Affairs James Booker playlist.

  1. John Thompson was imprisoned for nearly two decades for a crime he didn’t commit after Connick suppressed exculpatory evidence. After his exoneration, he worked to help others adjust to life after being freed through his nonprofit organization, Resurrection After Exoneration. Incidentally, I met John Thompson once, and served as producer for an online course about the death penalty that he appeared as a guest on. Thompson died at age 55, having experienced far too few years as a free man. 

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