Jazz Piano Genius James Booker’s Mysterious Knoxville Concert

In The Scruffy Citizen by Jack Neelyleave a COMMENT

Earlier this year a couple of readers alerted me to an electronic curiosity making the rounds. James Booker, who died in 1983 at the age of 43, was a genius of jazz piano, one of those musicians other musicians speak of with awe. He was never a superstar, never had a hit song, but he had a brilliant, tetched style you can’t mistake for anyone else’s.

His exuberant persona naturally spawned nicknames, the Piano Pope, the Ivory Emperor, the Bronze Liberace. The Bayou Maharajah is the name of a recent documentary film that aims to raise his stature in the history of American music.

In life he was better known in Europe than he was in the United States. He spent most of his life in New Orleans, and sometimes got in trouble, especially with dangerous drugs.

He wore an eye patch with a star on it. What happened to his left eye was always a matter or speculation, but the story was that he stiffed the wrong mobster. He didn’t tour all that much in America. I didn’t know he ever performed in Knoxville, unless it was when he was touring with Dr. John, who did a couple of shows at the Civic Coliseum in the mid-’70s. But now, making the rounds, is a 43-minute YouTube audio-only recording identified only by “World’s Fair Knoxville, Tennessee, 1982.”

And what you hear is James Booker himself, having a great time playing piano. He opens with his own lush, reckless version of “Blue Skies,” and hardly stops before he’s playing a manic New Orleans barrelhouse version of “The Man I Love.” It sounds like about three people are playing the piano furiously. Then it’s on to “Baby Face.” All songs that were half a century old when he played them, but nobody ever played them like this. Then “Angel Eyes,” which he sings, or growls, and then plays an instrumental version of “You Go to My Head,” which evolves into “These Foolish Things” as if they were the same song. (Someone out there hears “Autumn in New York” in there as well.)

Later on he plays Hank Williams’ “Your Cheatin’ Heart.”

The clip hasn’t exactly gone viral, with not quite 2,000 views, but it has elicited a good deal of interest from Booker fans.

It’s hard to guess at the venue, or the circumstances. It sounds like an indoor space, not the Tennessee Amphitheatre, where the big mainstream daily shows were, not the Folklife Festival, the little campground-like spot on the hill, where several not-quite-forgotten country and blues legends performed. Certainly not the Strohaus or the Down Under Pub. It sounds like there may be as few as half a dozen people applauding, but they sound tickled to be there. Maybe it’s just a sound-check.

Could it be the Flamingo Lounge, which was on the top floor of the Candy Factory? They featured live jazz, I recall. But I don’t think so. It sounds like a late-night place with nothing going on but Booker’s performance.

Maybe it was even off-site. The L&N Hotel had a piano and a tolerance for jazz, as did a couple of places downtown.

I’ve found no account of it in the papers. Was there anybody who wrote for the papers in 1982 who would have recognized his name? REM played in a bar here that year, and they didn’t make the papers, either.

In recent weeks, posts have suggested a deflating rumor that this recording wasn’t really in Knoxville at all, but at the Maple Leaf Bar, Booker’s favorite haunt in New Orleans. One seasoned witness says the piano sounds like the one he played at the Maple Leaf, and that in 1982, the last full year of his life, Booker wasn’t traveling much. Which would make a World’s Fair appearance all the more interesting.

I’d be ready to believe almost anything about the World’s Fair. I remember the day Jerry Lee Lewis showed up unannounced at the Strohaus and played for a startled lunch crowd. I was working outside that day, and had to content myself with eyewitness reports. With my own eyes I saw Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee playing for about eight befuddled people on the sidewalk. And there was the afternoon the B-52s showed up as tourists who wanted to see the China pavilion. On any given day, the most memorable event of the day was only occasionally the one that made headlines.

If anyone has any memory of a James Booker performance in Knoxville, in or out of the World’s Fair, please be in touch.

He wouldn’t be the last Booker to record some old songs in Knoxville. This other Booker we know more about. Bob Booker was one of the leaders of the civil-rights movement of the early 1960s, then an elected politician, then longtime leader of the Beck Cultural Exchange Center, a newspaper columnist, author, and chronicler of Knoxville’s previously overlooked black history and culture. He has a whole six-lane concrete bridge named for him, but that’s not nearly enough. Soaring somewhere past 80, he figures he has time to squeeze in at least one more career. Hence, Bob Booker has released his debut album, Doing It My Way, on CD. I talk to Bob pretty regularly, and it was a surprise to me.

Anyone who remembers Booker’s time on City Council, or, long before that, in the state Legislature, might have guessed he had a rich baritone singing voice, and he proves it with this one. He’s gotten encouragement from folks who’ve witnessed the octogenarian author singing in bars like Marie’s Olde Towne Tavern on North Central.

You’d expect old songs from a historian, and he provides them, a few R&B standards like “The Great Pretender,” “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” and “Since I Met You Baby,” but there’s more pop music of the ’50s and ’60s, including some Sinatra, as the title suggests—and also pop country of the Nashville Sound era, like “For the Good Times” and “Make the World Go Away.” I’m not sure he’s bound
for the Grammys, but those who feel themselves feeling the burden of the years, it might present a new challenge.

Jack Neely is the director of the Knoxville History Project, a nonprofit devoted to exploring, disseminating, and celebrating Knoxville's cultural heritage. He’s also one of the most popular and influential writers in the area, known for his books and columns. The Scruffy Citizen surveys the city of Knoxville's life and culture in the context of its history, with emphasis on what makes it unique and how its past continues to affect and inform its future.

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