By Devon Wendell
The late, great James Booker’s recording career was just as mysterious and inconsistent as his troubled life would allow. Some of his earliest studio recordings got lost, he’d often back up or collaborate with other major artists, many of whom he inspired greatly – like Jerry Garcia and Doctor John. Or Booker simply opted to release a bevy of live recordings of his own throughout the ‘70s.
He only made a few studio recordings in his entire career. And one of them was Classified, recorded in October of 1982, just a year before his untimely death. These sessions are newly remixed and re-released on Rounder Records.
Although Booker’s New Orleans boogie-woogie piano and blues and soul stylings were slightly inspired by artists such as Professor Longhair, Jelly Roll Morton, and Ray Charles, Booker’s music became a genre and life-force onto itself, influencing generations of musicians from Doctor John to Harry Connick Jr. And his influence and genius are certainly prevalent throughout all 22 tracks of Classified: Remixed And Expanded.
The title track “Classified,” “Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” and Titus Turner’s r&b classic “All Around The World” feature Booker’s soulfully cocky, jive-filled vocals, along with piano playing that isn’t quite New Orleans Creole, and not quite boogie- woogie or blues, It’s all James Booker. At times Booker blends classical scales and chordal voicings with rhythm and blues in a truly virtuosic manner. “Warsaw Concerto” and “Madame X” explore Booker’s ability to incorporate classical piano with raw soul, even more strongly than Ray Charles had done shortly before him.
“If You’re Lonely, “Angel Eyes” and Doc Pomus’s masterpiece “Lonely Avenue” (popularized by Ray Charles) are Booker’s twist on blues and soul ballads which are destined to bring first time listeners and older fans to tears.
Sometimes Booker accompanies himself on piano or is backed by a tight and non- intrusive band consisting of Alvin “Red” Tyler on sax, James Singleton on bass, and Johnny Vidacovich on drums.
There is a brutal and haunting quality to all of these recordings, even on the up-tempo medleys like: “Tico Tico /Papa Was A Rascal/ So Swell When You’re Well” and Professor Longhair’s “Tipitina /Bald Head.” Booker’s wonderfully strange use of majors chords against minors is awe inspiring and sounds like no one else.
Sometimes Booker will move slightly behind the beat, right on top of it, and use space and syncopation like a jazz musician’s approach to piano. Just check out “I’m Not Sayin’.” Booker was the Thelonious Monk of New Orleans soul.
Booker was also fearless and never doubted his choice of material on these sessions as he conquers Roger Miller’s “King Of The Road,” Leiber and Stoller’s “Hound Dog,” Fats Domino’s “One For The Highway,” and even Nino Rota and Parti Siae’s “Theme From The Godfather.” Booker swings hardest here when he takes those daring risks, and he never fails to create something completely original each time.
A mournful reading of Allen Toussaint’s “All These Things” is harrowing in its intensity and easily one of the album’s many highlights.
Booker’s rendition of Walter Donaldson and Gus Kahn’s “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby” features some humorous and funky Hammond B3 playing . And a gospel version of Edward Buzell, Bert Kalmar, and Harry Ruby’s standard “Baby Face” shows off Booker’s more playfully humorous side – a side that is often overshadowed by his tragic life and death.
The compilation ends with the rollicking instrumental “Three Keys” and a slow and pleading cover of the gospel standard “Amen.” Booker’s voice sounds as if he’s on his knees crying out to the heavens in pain.
The remixed sound is stellar throughout this compilation and extra takes of “If You’re Lonely” and “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” help make Classified: Remixed And Expanded an essential glimpse into the mind and soul of one of American music’s greatest, influential, and most original musicians of all time.
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To read more posts, reviews and columns by Devon Wendell click HERE.