Down the road came a Junco Partner
Of the innumerable great musicians New Orleans has produced, few approach James Booker in his amazing, idiosyncratic and genius career. No New Orleans walking tour could be called complete without a discussion about the great one-eyed, gay, drug addicted, wig wearing piano player who wore a black eye patch featuring a yellow star and, by the way, would wave a handgun around on stage sometimes.
Booker advanced the old New Orleans “stride” piano tradition given to us from Jelly Roll Morton through Professor Longhair and Fats Domino up to Dr. John. His left hand drove a hot, funky beat that could stand alone as a masterful piece of percussion and rhythm. His right hand rained down an orchestral-sounding melody expertly weaved into jazzy harmonies. Finally, he sang with the enthusiasm of a child on Christmas morning.
Take a listen to “Junco Partner.” This has been covered in various styles since the early 1950s, up to a rock steady version by the punk band The Clash. Booker takes this classic blues tune, about a “worthless man” and electrifies it with his piano voicings and his vocal improvisations taking us on a wild ride.
Speaking of wild rides, James lived his life in a blur. He would stuff joints into his wig so he always had one available. He was known to stick hypodermics in between the keys of his piano as he performed. He also kept a pistol in the piano bench.
One night at the iconic club, Tipitina’s, Booker appeared on stage in a giant diaper, held by an enormous golden diaper pin. He held his gun to his head and, in a less vulgar transcription, cried “I’m going to shoot myself if someone doesn’t bring me some cocaine!”
Years of hard living claimed James Booker at the age of 43. Many artists’ lives don’t bear a lot of positive scrutiny, and it’s undeniable he suffered from addiction and self-destructive behavior. It’s also undeniable he towers as a Mount Rushmore performer in a town that brags over 300 years of great musicians.