To say that artists of color have been underrepresented in music would be an understatement. When we created a poll in a large vinyl Facebook group asking for a list of whom members perceived to be the most underrepresented artists of color, we got some fabulous responses: Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Fishbone, Death and Big Bill Broonzy, just to name a few. However, the list didn’t just include those top-voted four artists. Between the poll options and comments, there were about seventy artists and bands listed. SEVENTY. You heard right: A list of seventy artists of color, immediately present on the mind, who were on the same level or arguably better than their white contemporaries in their same time periods and genres, yet never received the justice which their art deserves.
Artists of color exist in the foundation of every genre of music, yet we have a systemic issue in the free world in recognizing these artists for their contributions to music and culture.
Here at Vinyl Writer, we seek to change that. We seek to set the record straight.
This column is entirely dedicated to celebrating the art and influence of artists of color, both past and present. We want to set the record straight, and we will. Artist by artist. Band by band. Grab a seat. This will take awhile, and we’re just getting started.
The life of James Booker tells the story of the war on race, homophobia and crime in America. Coined by Dr. John as “The best black, gay, one-eyed junkie piano genius New Orleans has ever produced,” Booker’s influence on music and sheer musical genius is lost in those who only remember him for his flamboyant mannerisms, his drug use and the fact that he had but one eye. No one really knows the true story of what happened to “Little Booker’s” eye, as that truth probably went to the grave with Dr. John in 2019. Little Booker is perhaps remembered most for his tragic death in 1983 at age 43; he was born in the same New Orleans hospital as the waiting room in which he died, doing just that: waiting for medical care. Like many artists before him, Little Booker’s influence was finally realized upon his death.
Born December the 17th in 1939, Little Booker grew up in Mississippi as the son of a second generation Baptist church minister and piano player. Little Booker was known for his unique blend of all the classical and church music he trained in, producing his iconic sound which always hinted at his influences of gospel, Latin, blues and stride. While masterfully banging those keys in highly-technical melodies, Little Booker never lost the soul and rhythm in the music he composed.
At the ripe age of 15, Little Booker made his debut with his tracks ‘Doin’ the Hambone’ and ‘Thinkin’ ‘Bout My Baby,’ both of which were produced by Dave Bartholomew for Imperial Records. His talent was immediately recognized, as he did some session work for Fats Domino, Lloyd Price and Smiley Lewis. Little Booker’s technical-tempo-playing impressed the hell out of Arthur Rubinstein in 1958, and by 1960, he was number 43 on the charts for his track “Gonzo.” It’s at this milestone in 1960 where Little Booker was not only at the high of his career, but sadly the high of his life as the first bricks along his long road with illicit drugs were paved.
By 1970, Little Booker not only developed a criminal record for heroin possession, but he developed a relationship with New Orleans District Attorney Harry Connick Sr. Little Booker monetized his musical talents to exchange piano lessons for DA Connick Sr.’s son to forgo his impending prison sentence. Does the name “Connick” make you think of someone? That’s right. Little Booker trained Harry Connick, Jr. to key out the tunes and tracks that have made him a star, an actor and an American Idol judge. The parallels between the public’s recognition of the mastermind behind Connick Jr., while completely washing over the influence of the wisdom and brilliance of his mentor, Little Booker, is the classic case of underrepresentation of artists of color in music, art and the American culture. If any of you have had the privilege of watching Harry Connick Jr. in action as a judge on American Idol, you’ll see a truly humble humanitarian who has never missed an opportunity to speak highly of his mentor, Little Booker. Sadly, that doesn’t stop the world from missing the opportunity.
After his lucky break in dodging a prison sentence, Little Booker went on to record what would become known as The Lost Paramount Tapes in 1973 with members of the Dr. John band, including Alvin Robinson, John Boudreaux and Richard “Didymus” Washington. Ironically, those original tapes went missing from the Paramount Studios recording library, but thankfully a copy was found in 1992 and quickly released on CD. Those of us who have a love of blues and jazz music long shared a dream of having these mixes released on vinyl. Thankfully, those dreams came true in 2018! There are many other unreleased James Booker tracks that still need unearthing, however. Colemine Records, where ya at?!
Little Booker never got to have his own band, but as a gay man of color making music in the 1970’s in America, is anyone surprised by that? Little Booker was an overqualified sideman on the 1970’s albums of many greats, including The Doobie Brothers and Ringo Starr. His outstanding performance at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 1975 earned Little Booker the deal with Island Records that would lead to one of his most acclaimed albums, Junco Partner.
After what some might rate an unsuccessful run with the Jerry Garcia band in 1976, Little Booker escaped to Europe for two years where he experienced great success in recording New Orleans Piano Wizard: Live!, an album that earned him the prestigious French Grand Prix du Disque award. His performance at the famed Montreux Jazz Festival in 1978 led to Little Booker being hired to perform a recording for BBC. How is it that this American legend never received the same level of success in his own country? History tells us that the racism and homophobia weaved into the fabric of American culture, which is sadly still present today, simply wasn’t as present in Europe. Little Booker’s flamboyant coloredness wasn’t a barrier in Europe, and his enthusiasm in being well-received by his audience is evident when watching him bop along to his tunes.
Little Booker’s return to New Orleans in 1978 had to be devastating, as the happy, grandiose crowds of Europe were nowhere to be found. Little Booker returned to a racist, homophobic America, where the only steady work he could attain at the time was a standing gig as the pianist at the Maple Leaf Bar. We’ve heard this story of man’s fall from fame many a time, and is it any wonder why his drug use worsened to the point of developing the chronic renal failure which would ultimately lead to his premature death? Little Booker needed help, but instead he was met with stigma of being a gay man of color suffering from social and mental health issues. Whether he might’ve sought that help is another story, as many close to him describe him as a paranoid, self-destructive conspiracy theorist, but the point is that the social and mental health services which people needed at that time weren’t even a thing. Had Little Booker not dodged his prison sentence a decade prior, who knows what may have happened in his life, but there’s no doubt that him returning to New Orleans is what killed his soul. His body quickly followed.
Little Booker’s final recording made in 1982 is titled Classified. Could there be a better name to describe the folder that is his life and influential career which has been hidden from the world behind some locked door built entirely upon negative social constructs. Maslow theorized that the journey to self-actualization and realizing one’s full potential is only possible should an individual have their basic physiological and safety needs met, immediately followed by the need for fulfilment in the areas of love, belonging and esteem. Watch any video of Little Booker from his European concerts, and you will see the smile of a man who was on the verge of achieving self-actualization. As Lily Keber explains in her documentary, Bayou Maharajah, Little Booker was fueled by the energy and acceptance of those European crowds, which resulted in the production of some of his finest music. Couldn’t that be said for almost all of us in the world: we achieve our best work when we have a support system of family and friends on the sidelines, cheering us on.
Little Booker wasn’t short on people who knew him and respected him for his work while he was alive. Dr. John is on record countless times citing the talents of Little Booker and has on more than one occasion referred to him as one of the best. Little Booker was just a victim of a society in which drug use, mental health and simply being gay are stigmatized, and as a result, his personal life suffered greatly. His music has no doubt filled a void in the lives of many, yet he was left to die alone in a void of his own. Little Booker is one of the world’s most talented musicians and pianists, and it’s time the world starts to give him the recognition he deserves.
Please enjoy this playlist of some of Little Booker’s most well-known tracks:
Here are some additional resources to learn more about the life of James Booker:
Bayou Maharajah, the documentary by Lily Keber, details the life and influence of James Booker. It premiered at the South by SouthWest (SXSW) Film Festival in 2013 in Austin, Texas. You can watch the trailer here: http://www.bayoumaharajah.com/
Shoofly Magazine offers us a fabulous write-up detailing the influence of James Booker in New Orleans. https://www.bslshoofly.com/archives/booker-the-bay-and-finally-the-truth-about-how-he-lost-his-eye
The Guardian provides a great summary of Lily Keber’s documentary and further details on the life of James Booker: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2013/nov/20/james-booker-tragic-piano-genius
Dig this article? Check out the full catalog of Setting the Record Straight, by Angela Quinn, here:
If you have a request for an artist you’d like to see featured in this series, please email Angela at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for reading to the end!