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.

Friday, April 20, 2012

'Ripple in Stillwater' voted City Pages' 'Best Local Blog-2012'

By Karl Bremer

Ripple in Stillwater is happy to announce our latest award—City Pages’ “Best Local Blog – 2012.” 

Welcome new readers! As you peruse the blog, you might gather that my recent health issues have slowed down the entries somewhat. But there’s plenty more to dig into in the archives—from fraudsters to Felix, the Blue Light to the Boondoggle Bridge.

“If you're looking for the real dirt on Stillwater politics,” City Pages writes, “we recommend skipping the Star Tribune and Pioneer Press and going straight to Ripple in Stillwater.”

We appreciate the recognition by our peers on the Interwebs, and hope you'll agree that we're worthy of it. Stick around—there’s plenty more to come.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Never Let Your Fire Go Out: A Celebration of Survival

By Karl Bremer

The healing power of music and friends was out in full force at Wilebski’s Blues Saloon in St. Paul March 25. Between 400 and 500 people came through the doors over the course of a day jammed with some of Minnesota’s finest musicians and songwriters. They were there to help keep me alive.

I never set out writing this blog as a Caring Bridge kind of thing, but things don’t always work out as planned. So rather than the usual steady diet of slings and arrows at local political miscreants, investigations into fraudsters trying to buy votes, pardons or legitimacy, or occasional forays through musical doors, today you get another Update from the Cancer Desk.

First, the medical lowdown. A CT scan several weeks ago showed the tumors on my liver had shrunk since chemotherapy had begun (the tumors have metastasized from the pancreas to the liver, thus the “Stage 4” diagnosis), which was a good sign. Another scan next week will determine the future course of treatment after the eighth of 12 planned chemo sessions. That could include surgery and/or radiation. Stay tuned.

Now for the fun stuff. Yes, there is an up side to getting cancer. In this case, it came through the love and dedication of the Krewe of DADs, a whole gang of great musicians and hundreds of friends. I’m a founding member of the Krewe of DADs, which modeled itself after New Orleans’ notorious Krewe of MOMs, a rogue Krewe among the Crescent City’s elite other Mardi Gras Krewes that ultimately coalesced around the New Orleans-based Radiators. The Krewe of DADs adopted Halloween as their annual celebration of music featuring the Radiators and we’ve hosted our own Halloween masquerade balls on this end of the Mississippi River for a quarter century. All but last year’s featured the Radiators, but after they disbanded in June 2011, the New Orleans Suspects, a new group formed by Radiators bassist Reggie Scanlan, ably filled the bill.

L to R: Curt Obeda, Tony Glover, Camile Baudoin &
Paul "Newport Slim" Toracinta.

Besides helping with the Krewe’s regular musical events that brought in some amazing talent to the Twin Cities and surrounding farms and living rooms over the years, I initiated Krewe of DADs fundraisers for post-Katrina musicians in Louisiana and for another Krewe member and cancer survivor, Minneapolis artist Johnny Hanson. In a show of the old saw “what goes around, comes around,” the Krewe of DADs put together a musical extravaganza and silent auction fun(d)raiser for me at Wilebski’s Blues Saloon March 25 that featured some of the same gracious talent that always seems to be there when you need them:

Camile Baudoin, Tony Glover, Gene LaFond & the Wild Unknown, Paul Metsa & Cats Under the Stars, Curtis Obeda and the Butanes, Tim O’Keefe, Peter Ostroushko, John Pasternacki, Paul Toracinta, Harold Tremblay, Willie Walker, Willie West.

In an ironic twist of fate, Reggie Scanlan had to cancel his trip up from New Orleans to play. Instead, he had exploratory surgery for pancreatic cancer that week, for which he was diagnosed two weeks before. Fortunately, it appears treatable and his recovery period mercifully short.

Friends came from near and far, some I hadn’t seen in 30 years or more, to help take the sting out of losing a year or more of fulltime work and good health. It did that and more. It was kind of like getting a snapshot of your future through the lens of your past. Or an episode of  “This Is Your Life.” Seven hours of pure positive energy permeated the room on Rice Street, and I didn’t miss a minute of it.

In situations like this, you’ve got to treat the mind as well as the body. Thanks to all who organized, attended, performed, donated, publicized or otherwise participated in this celebration of survival. I promise a good return on your investment.

Videos by David Fried
Photo by Paul Sand