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James Carroll Booker III was born on December 17, 1939 in New Orleans, LA. Booker’s father and grandfather were both Baptist ministers and both played piano as well. His sister’s music teacher taught James some scales on piano but it was clear early on this child had a special gift for the piano. Booker began performing classical music at the age of six and studied classical music until he was twelve. Booker had perfect pitch, instant music recall, and a photographic memory in sight reading. He was able to listen to Chopin, Erroll Garner and Liberace and play back their solos from memory. Booker also learned some piano from family friend Tuts Washington. James notes Ray Charles and Professor Longhair among his influences.
James’ sister had her own gospel show on WMRY in New Orleans and she brought him along one time for an audition. Booker impressed them so much he was given his own show at the age of eleven playing blues and gospel piano. At the age of fourteen he cut a few records for Imperial Records. Though they didn’t sell well Booker was so talented the company used him to fill in and over dub piano parts for different artists including Fats Domino. In the late 1950s he toured and played with Amos Milburn, Joe Tex, Shirley and Lee, Earl King, Bobby Blue Bland, Junior Parker and Smiley Lewis among others. Booker recorded his first hit in 1960 titled ‘Gonzo’ and it hit number three on the R&B charts and number 43 on the US Billboard charts. He continued to tour and make music throughout the ‘60s with artists like B.B. King, Aretha Franklin, King Curtis, T Bone Walker, Ringo Starr, Wilson Pickett and Little Richard. James’ career really took off in the mid 1970s after a performance at the 1975 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival that earned him a record deal on Island Records. The album was entitled ‘Junco Partner’ and Booker followed that by touring with the Jerry Garcia Band in 1976.
In 1977 James went to Europe and made a few records including ‘New Orleans Piano Wizard: Live!’ at a boogie woogie piano contest in Zurich, Switzerland. In ’78 he played the Nice and Montreux Jazz festivals. Booker returned home to New Orleans and ended his career as the house piano player at the Maple Leaf Bar. His most notable record of this period was ‘Resurrection of the Bayou Maharajah’. James Booker passed away in 1983 leaving a legacy as one of the best New Orleans musicians who ever lived. Many musicians have made tributes to Booker including former friend and student Harry Connick Jr as well as Dr. John, Henry Butler and a CD tribute to Booker released in 2003. The Piano Prince of New Orleans aka Bayou Maharajah will long be remembered.
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