Sunday, April 22, 2012

The gonzo piano genius of James Carroll Booker III

James Carroll Booker III, left, and Reggie Scanlan
at Orleans Parish Prison.

New Orleans bassist Reggie Scanlan talks
about playing with the Bayou Maharajah

Few would argue that James Carroll Booker III belongs in the upper echelon of New Orleans’ piano geniuses—and there have been plenty.

A lot of paths led me to the brilliance of Booker, not the least of which was my favorite band from New Orleans, the Radiators, whose repertoire and rhythms drew considerably from Booker. Longtime friend and Radiators bassist Reggie Scanlan, who is currently recovering from surgery for pancreatic cancer, played with Booker for several years in the late ‘70s before the Radiators coagulated to become New Orleans’ longest running rock band over the next three decades.

Scanlan recollected on his experiences playing with Booker in this interview originally published in Beat Street Magazine, a fine but short-lived literary magazine about New Orleans music and street culture, in 2003.

By Karl Bremer

Radiators bassist Reggie Scanlan was still wet behind the ears when he got tapped to play with James Booker.

“It was 1975,” Scanlan recalls, “and I got a call from someone connected with Dr. John’s management, says ‘Hey, man, James Booker is moving back to New Orleans and is having a gig on Mother’s Day. Do you wanna play?’ It was at a black gay bar in the Quarter.”

Scanlan jumped at it. “From that first phone call, I knew it was a total opportunity. The guy was such a legend, I knew I could learn something if I could just hang on. … You knew you had heard his stuff but you really didn’t know much about him. You had heard some of these outrageous stories about him.”

The day before the gig, Booker met the band—Scanlan, Web Burrell on drums and “Squirrel” on congas—for the first time for rehearsal. “So Booker shows up and he’s—man, he’s kinda crazy,” Scanlan chuckles. “Obviously flamboyantly gay, he’s got this huge wig on and the eye patch on—he’s a riot!

“He starts warming up and my jaw dropped to the ground. The guy was unbelievable. Even then, I felt that bands really slowed this guy down. No matter who was playing with him, he was, like, ‘Man, I got places to go.’ At the end of the rehearsal, he says, ‘Let’s meet tomorrow before the gig, 5 o’clock, and we’ll go over some more stuff.’”

That left Scanlan with some degree of comfort. After all, getting up to speed with the likes of Booker wasn’t an overnight thing—especially for someone who describes himself at the time as “still just learning the bare-bones basics of how to play.”

The next night, 5 o’clock came and went and no sign of Booker. Eight o’clock on the bandstand—the gig’s starting time—came and went and still no sign of Booker.

"He shows up at 8:15, 8:30,” Scanlan says. “It kinda put me on edge. When he came in, he had this little toiletry bag, he had the wig, the eye patch, stick pin. They were oohin’ and aahin’ over Booker. The stage was about the size of a desk. It sounded pretty cool, and as we started going along, he starts flirting with this guy. They started flirting back and forth, and all of a sudden he takes off his eye patch and takes another one out and puts it on, looks at me and says ‘How does this look?’ And turns around and without missing a beat keeps playing.”

Scanlan played with Booker on and off over the next five years, with Booker almost always on piano, until his regular gig with the Radiators got too busy. Like his time playing with ‘Fess, Scanlan says, “It was a real education playing with Booker. There were some nights that were just amazing—you couldn’t believe it. And other nights were sheer hell, because he just kind of went over the top.”

One big difference between ‘Fess and Booker, at least from a bassist’s perspective, was the role of the left hand.

“With ‘Fess, his left hand was a monster,” explains Scanlan. “A bass was almost superfluous. Booker’s left hand was lighter, so you had a little more room to move.”

Booker’s uncanny ability to string together medleys out of thin air was particularly challenging, says Scanlan, but it was also what made playing with Booker such a phenomenal learning experience.

“It was a job just keeping up and being ready for anything … The way he could link things that were so disparate—“Iko” into Mozart into Sinatra into Beatles—and it always made sense. … His fingers would just kind of float all over the keyboards, but he had total command of his hands. He was just so buoyant.”

Scanlan recalls one of his more bizarre gigs with Booker inside Orleans Parish Prison, part of a concert series the prison put on.

“It was the Earl Turbinton Quartet and Booker. Earl’s band is going to back up Booker, and I’m going to play, Vidacovich. We get down to park the car and Booker starts reaching down in his pants and pulling out this huge bag of pot. ‘I just wanna make sure it don’t fall outa my pants,’ Booker says. ‘You’re not gonna take that in there?’ someone asks him. ‘Oh yeah, it’s no problem for me,’ he says.”

“We get inside and Booker says, ‘I wanna take you around and show you the cells I used to stay in. I said ‘No, thanks, man.’ … He had his own little rooting section in there.”

Scanlan recorded on some sessions with Booker, but the best one has never seen the light of day.

Allen Toussaint produced the spontaneous session, which Scanlan says “happened literally in a day. Booker called, I said, ‘Yeah, I’d be there.’ All these people are there. Earl King’s there, Ken Laxton, who was (engineer) on (the Meters’) “Rejuvenation,” John Mayall’s in the studio, Fats’ drummer, Cyril (Neville), Allen’s running the show. We go through two tunes and get ‘em down. It goes alright. And then Booker leaves.

“Everyone’s just hanging around, and Booker comes back, and he’s just out of it. He sits down and goes into a totally wild version of ‘Goodnight, Irene.’ He’s going off, and it’s like a totally different person recording.”

At the end of the session, Scanlan says, “Apparently Booker, out of paranoia, insisted on taking the master tracks with him and proceeded to leave them in the cab on the way home.”

Now there’s a challenge for the archivists out there.

Photo courtesy of Reggie Scanlan.


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