James Booker was a talented and influential pianist, once described by Dr. John as “the best black, gay, one-eyed junkie piano genius New Orleans has ever produced.” The good doctor couldn’t have been more dead on.
Born in New Orleans, the teenage James recorded a few songs under the guidance of famed producer Dave Bartholomew. These songs were a stepping stone for work with Fats Domino and Lloyd Price. In 1958, James had the opportunity to play for acclaimed pianist Arthur Rubinstein. An astonished Rubinstein commented, “I could never play that … never at that tempo.” His piano playing and flamboyant personality earned James the nickname “The Black Liberace.”
Unfortunately, James began to dabble in illegal drugs, specifically heroin. His frequent drug use led to numerous arrests. Consequently, he became close with New Orleans District Attorney Harry Connick Sr. In exchange for nullified jail time, arrangements were made for James to teach Connick’s young son how to play piano.
In the 70s, James recorded and toured with Dr. John’s band, as well as with a variety of other artists including Ringo Starr, The Doobie Brothers, Patti Labelle and Jerry Garcia. He toured Europe, playing jazz festivals in Nice and Montreux. James loved Europe. He was well received and didn’t experience the racism and homophobia he saw in the United States. Upon his return to the United States, James was disappointed to be relegated to house pianist at the Maple Leaf Bar in his native New Orleans, after being treated as a superstar in Europe.
By the 80s, James’ drug use had affected his health, both mentally and physically. He passed away at the age of 43, seated in a wheelchair in a hospital emergency ward, waiting for medical treatment.
A documentary, released in 2013, sparked a renewed interest in James Booker. He was regarded by his peers as a genius, under appreciated for his emotional vocals and his soulful musicianship.