James Booker: Producer Scott Billington on the enigmatic “Bayou Maharaja” (Part 2)

This post is a continuation of my last post by the same title. We were discussing the genius and legacy of James Booker with renown roots music producer Scott Billington, who produced Booker’s last album, Classified, and through Rounder Records is re-issuing it with previously unreleased tracks. I’ve heard the entire album and would recommend that anyone who is a fan of authentic New Orleans or blues music should have this in their collection. Also, important to note, there is a new documentary awaiting distribution which should also help in bringing a wider audience to this 20th Century unheralded piano genius, “The Bayou Maharaja: The Tragic Genius of James Booker”. The trailer is below the interview. For this post we continue with our conversation with Scott about the art of producing and the art of producing an album with someone as enigmatic as James Booker.

Rootnotemusic: In the liner notes you talked about that this was one of your earliest producing experiences. How did you come to that experience, how did you end up there at that age?

Scott Billington: Well, I was probably really naïve in thinking that I could just walk up to James Booker and say ‘Hey you want to make a record?’ and he would say ‘Sure!’

Rootnotemusic: So you had heard him play at the Maple Leaf and were like ‘I gotta make a record with this guy.’

Scott:  Yeah. Soon after I first heard Booker, we [Rounder Records] put out a record he had made in Switzerland, a beautiful record, and we called it New Orleans Piano Prince Live. And then I heard him at the Maple Leaf. My friend Tom Smith, a writer from Connecticut, says ‘man you gotta hear this guy he’s playing in the window of a laundromat.’ The Maple Leaf had washing machines in the back at the time. It wasn’t the iconic club it is today, but it was on its way. 

Rootnotemusic: Wow, so New Orleans, a laundromat with a piano player!

Scott: Yeah and the first night I heard him it was one of those mind-blowing nights. I did that a lot back then. And I was so fortunate to have the owners of Rounder Records behind me on these things. And winning the Grammy with [Clarence] “Gatemouth” Brown a couple of years before changed a lot for me. It gave me a certain credibility not only with the musicians but with Rounder, because that was their first Grammy was Gatemouth…So Johnny Adams, Irma Thomas, James Booker… I just approached them. The writer Jeff Hannish would often introduce me to people.

Rootnotemusic: That was your music. That was the beginning of your career.

Scott: Yes. As I wrote [in the liner notes] producing ‘Gatemouth’ Brown and producing James Booker were two totally different things. With Gatemouth, I could say ‘let’s work on this song now….okay horn players, let’s talk about the chart on this one’.

Rootnotemusic: Sounds like there was some sanity.

Scott: Exactly. And process. I wish I had the time and money to keep recording him [Booker]. Just leave it open, like ‘Booker, can you come by tomorrow at the studio at 8 in the evening?’ I think it would have been like The Maple Leaf bar, eventually he would have come in a focused state of mind. That happened to a degree in one of our three days in the studio. The last day he rose to the occasion. Red Taylor, the sax player, said ‘boy it’s like trying to capture the wind.’ And I learned a lot about that. Producing can mean so many different things.

Rootnotemusic: Even back then? Because I know today within the hip-hop world or pop world, there are so many things that a producer means.

Scott: For me it often meant working with the artist and providing them with whatever they needed to make the record. Sometimes that might be an arranger, sometimes it might songs, or putting together the right musicians. Or with Johnny Adams working on different concepts for each record, ‘okay let’s do a Percy Mayfield songbook next time.’ Let’s get this particular vibe. Or let’s work with Dr. Lonnie Smith on the Hammond organ. Let’s make a swingin’ Hammond organ record. Especially when someone keeps making records, you’ve got to do something that makes each new record stand out from the one before. They can’t all be the same or people just get bored…just finding new settings for a diamond each time.

Rootnotemusic: Did you have, with all these different styles that James Booker played, did you have familiarity with all these different styles?

Scott: Somewhat. I knew what I was getting into just from his shows. But I definitely went into with the idea that ‘okay we’re going to make a New Orleans piano record.’

Rootnotemusic: Sure.

Scott: So I was pushing him sometimes toward doing Professor Longhair songs, or “Lawdy Miss Clawdy.” So I was perhaps a little myopic in my own vision for what he could be and not really comprehending the full scope of what he was capable of doing.

Rootnotemusic: But he just took off with that.

Scott: We tried to give the sessions some structure, because he chose a number of songs that he wanted to record, that he had not recorded, before going into the sessions. “If You’re Lonely” was the only one that made it onto here. He’d been performing some of these songs at the Maple Leaf at his gig every week with the band that’s on the record. But he had certainly played on enough recording sessions to know how a recording session would run. And I don’t know whether he got scared because he wanted to be his best and felt like he wasn’t going to get it or there was pressure from me or perhaps he was just enjoying the attention.

Rootnotemusic: Hmmm acting out?

Scott: Yeah, acting out. His addiction was somewhat under control at that time. He wasn’t doing heroin anymore. He was using the antabuse and alcohol.

Rootnotemusic: But using alcohol to self-medicate…

Scott: He was just frail. He would drink and then he would take the antabuse and then he would get sick. He was a skinny little guy. Psychologically, I don’t know. After the sessions, he started calling me. It’s like he was really reaching out for some connection there too.

Rootnotemusic: It’s really sad, especially the way he died. I could see why they called him the “Tragic Genius,” I mean the way he died was so tragic. For me it encompasses New Orleans because New Orleans has a tragic aspect to it. the poverty, the lack of infrastructure, but yet it’s this magical place that puts out this amazing music that is so distinct from anywhere. There is nowhere that has that sound.

Scott: But Booker was really sort of middle class in his upbringing. He was in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi for a while where he studied classical music. His sister was a classical pianist. And he went to Southern University for a little while. He was smart, educated.

Rootnotemusic: I read the story about him working for City Hall.

Scott: Well he was a very good typist, he could look at a column of figures and be able to tell right away ‘no no this is wrong’. So he was very good at going over some of these records. and being very accurate.  He was really trying at that point, after the record came out. Putting on a three-piece suit, going to City Hall every day. It didn’t last long. His supervisor ultimately had to let him go.

Rootnotemusic: So heartbreaking. There is something about him that for me just really gets to me, fascinates me.

Scott: The emotion in the music… It’s rare to put for someone to put that much in there and have so many other people feel it.

Rootnotemusic: I hope that with this album he gets his due. I think if people hear this record, it could be some of the best music they’ve ever heard. I remember the first time I heard James Booker, maybe over 10 years ago. I heard the song “African Gumbo” on a compilation record and I just heard that and had to listen to it over and over again. I was like “Who is this James Booker?” I found out the album and bought it and for me it was one of my first introductions not just to roots music but to New Orleans music. Finding out who is this character who is considered a genius that no one has heard about?

Billington: But once people hear him, they are fans. Doesn’t matter what kind of music they like. He played on so many sessions over the years too – Aretha Franklin, Doobie Brothers, Maria Muldaur, Ringo Starr, T-Bone Walker. Lily does a pretty good job of getting that across in the movie too. I was cleaning out my records a few months ago and found this 45 on Manticore Records by Little Richard and one side is a version Little Liza Jane and Booker is credited as composer of one of the songs and it’s Booker playing the organ on the record!



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