James Booker – Classified – Rounder Records (1983)/Craft Recordings CR00281 (2020) stereo vinyl, 38:36 *****:
(James Booker – piano, vocals; Alvin “Red” Tyler – tenor saxophone; James Singleton – bass; John Vidacovich – drums)
In a tragically brief career, New Orleans native son James Booker was a formidable presence. As early as 1954, the teenage piano sensation was recording r & b singles like “Doin’ The Hambone” and “Open The Door”. His persona was as elevated as his play. As the story goes, he met pianist Arthur Rubinstein and played some tunes, amazing the master. He patterned his technique after Ray Charles and of course, Professor Longhair. In 1960, he achieved some notoriety with the song “Gonzo”. Most of his album catalog was comprised of live performances. Booker recorded only three studio albums, Lost Paramount Tapes (1974), Junco Partner (1976) and Classified (1983). His flamboyance (he was compared to Liberace) would rival Little Richard, but the self-destructive lifestyle was a significant impediment to this talented prodigy.
Craft Recordings has released a re-mastered vinyl of Classified. In just over 38 minutes, Booker’s instrumental and vocal skills are vibrantly on display. Side A opens with a boogie woogie-infused blues number that is all Booker…voice and piano. The explosive piano in the bridge is terrific. A tight quartet (Alvin “Red” Taylor/tenor saxophone; James Singleton/bass; John Vidacovich/drums) join on a cover of Fats Domino’s “One For The Highway”. Booker distills the jaunty essence of his fellow Crescent City performer. Tyler’s tenor accents add some broader texture to the proceedings. Taking on Roger Miller’s country-pop hit “King Of The Road”, Booker turns it into a stride classic with his nimble technique. His halting tempo and arpeggios culminate in a aspirational, gospel statement that transform the song. A certain highlight is “Professor Longhair Medley: Bald Head/Tipitina”. Booker’s command of his instrument is palpable in its potency and fluency. The hard-charging swing of “Baldhead” is bona fide New Orleans. With equal skill, “Tipitina” is graceful with exquisite flourishes. In an unusual cover of the popular standard “Baby Face”, the vibe is translated in a rollicking arrangement. Booker’s solo is mesmerizing and fiercely rhythmical. His upper-register notation demonstrates both flair and passion. Every song resonates with authenticity. His classical influences can be heard on “Madame X” with its 3/4 time signature and athletic virtuosic swelling.
Side B kicks off with the rolling sway of the solo title track. Piano riffs and hooks on “Classified” touch on blues and rock and roll, while Booker’s vocals are soulful. Lloyd Price’s “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” is a rhythm and blues classic. In Booker’s hand, it is now a South Louisiana anthem. The muscular piano and emotional depth are a fitting tribute to this great piece of songwriting. Booker’s innate feel for jazz resonates in the late-night melancholy of “Angel Eyes”. Reclaiming “Hound Dog” as a blues song, relentless grittiness on the “88’s” is framed by a raw, but dulcet vocal offering. Slowing things down, “If You’re Lonely” is nuanced, but with a magnetic slow-burning intensity. Booker’s singing reflects the raw emotion. The finale (“Three Keys”) is simply dazzling, showcasing Booker’s prodigious, elastic skills on his instrument. As the title suggests, there is a dizzying array of key changes.
Craft Recordings has done an excellent job in re-mastering Classified to vinyl. James Booker was a phenomenal talent and made an important contribution to the r & b legacy. This would be a valuable addition to any vinyl blues collection, whether you are familiar with his work, or listening to it for the first time.
All Around The World
One For The Highway
King Of The Road
Professor Longhair Medley
Baby FaceMadame X
Lawdy Miss Clawdy
If You’re Lonely
More Information at Craft Recordings website: