James Booker ‘At Onkel Pö’s Carnegie Hall / Hamburg 1976, Vol. 1’ 2LP/CD (Jazzline) 5/5

Such is the notoriety and respect for James Booker, a film directed by Lily Keber called ‘Bayou Maharajah’ was beautifully put together incorporating many interviewees like Charles Neville, who remarks that Booker’s “rhythms flowed like an ocean” and Allen Toussaint who calls him “a true genius”. It is a most enlightening story and winner of the New Orleans Film Festival 2013 for its account on the life of “The Piano Prince”, from his studio debut aged 14 with “Doin’ the Hambone” through the chart hit “Gonzo” (a song about heroin) in 1960, playing piano on some Little Richard records and raising awareness of Booker’s ability to even play tenor and alto saxophone. It looked at his spells in a psychiatric hospital, Acid and Heroin addiction, jail term in 1970 to the success of his performance at the Jazz and Heritage Festival in 1975, before a remarkable spell of success in Europe from 1976, with the one-eyed, piano virtuoso, tagged with a variety of nicknames like the “Ivory Emperor” and the self-dubbed “Black Liberace” until his untimely death in his birth place of New Orleans aged 43 years.

There is much written and documented about James. Sad though, as British musician and writer Keith Shadwick points out, “his recorded legacy remains meagre for the size of talent”, with just six albums released prior to his death. A number which thankfully increased afterwards, albeit posthumously, and why recordings like this previously unreleased Onkel Pö’s performance will be a welcome addition to all with a fondness for Rhythm & Blues, that space where gospel, jazz and the blues collide, and at a time when he was very much revered by European ears.

Sagitarian, James C. Booker, is a visual mix between the eccentricity of Booty Collins and the story-teller that was Gil Scott-Heron. The flair and bravado of the former twinned with the social awareness and attitude of 70s climate depicted through the latter. He rode the musical waves through Europe at a time when he was unappreciated back home in New Orleans and when his refusal to work in New York limited Stateside options. On the 70s recording timeline we start with a 1973/4 studio recording later known as ‘The Lost Paramount Tapes’, which was in fact ‘lost’ until its first release in 1992, would be the forbearer to his first official studio release in 1976, ‘Junco Partner’, the same year his visit to Hamberg’s Onkel Pö’s Carnegie Hall on October 27, provides the platform for this definitive new release; the 15-tracks of volume 1, recorded by NDR (famed for their Jazzworkshop series) under the sharp attention of recording engineer, Wolfgang Henrich, in “The Cave of Eppendorf” – a place of legendary status, not only for jazz, rock and blues, but also for comedy and where the Piano Blues would be embraced.

The mood of the people after the 1976 Federal elections in October would have been mixed and a night out would have been a welcome distraction. Before them that night Booker’s voice and a piano would lead them through several popular pieces, a selection from his own repertoire and a huge helping of the unfamiliar. We hear, to be expected, ‘Junco Partner’ through the set after ‘All By Myself’ and ‘Ain’t Nobody’s Business’, which are favourites. We also hear his take on the very popular ‘Please Send Me Someone To Love’. All presented by lyrically assertive Booker, rewarding the crowd that night and the listeners to this release with a snapshot of extravagance from New Orleans – the birthplace of Blues Hall of Fame inductee, and influence, Professor Longhair. We welcome not the unstable performer that could be very hit or miss on any given night but someone focused and willing to give it his all – a special recording of a night when everything came together and produced remarkable music.

Having now spent time with three Onkel Pö’s releases, one is overwhelmed by the sound quality reproduced here. The packaging and effort put in to these releases by Joachim Becker must be appreciated, and although many might consider their collection of any of the artists represented might be sufficient, urge you to visit this exceptional Jazzline series.

Will we be treated to a ’76 version of his take on Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready” on volume 2? Or ‘Papa Was a Rascal’ with those Booker lyrics “There was a sweet white woman down in Savanna GA. She made love to my daddy in front of the KKK.” We can but patiently wait. Whatever volume 2 unfolds, it will be as special an addition to volume 1 as it would be to his body of works.

Steve Williams