Spiders on the Keys

Article excerpt

MUSIC.

Years ago, I went to New Orleans' fabled Thirteenth Ward--"uptown," in local parlance--to hang with and interview the Neville Brothers on their turf. They weren't exactly hot then. Like most top-flight New Orleans musicians, and indeed like the Crescent City itself, they'd cycled through ups and downs of popularity so many times they must've thought they were on a loop-de-loop. And after twenty or thirty years of the biz, they'd done so many interviews that heralded them as The Next Big Rediscovery that they must have been more than a little bored with the whole process. Still, they were polite at first, then gradually warmed up as they realized I knew something about their music and its history and the fruitful environment that is New Orleans, the only truly Caribbean city (with the possible exception of the verty different Miami) on the North American mainland.

So we talked, in a tumble of anecdotes and asides, about what Art Neville kept calling the "gumbo" of the place--the spicy cultural ingredients that gave birth first to some of jazz's most vibrant idioms, then to some of the most influential strains of rhythm and blues and early rock and roll. There are the traditions of local Indian cultures that still show through at Mardi Gras, with its tribes and street fests and sturdy sense of community and communal creation of culture, and the stories about Indianas hiding run-away slaves; the "Spanish tinge" that Jelly Roll Morton so famously pointed to in his (and the city's) music, derived from a combination of Mexican marching bands and the ongoing infiltration of Cuban rhythms via local composers like Louis Moreau Gottschalk; the calypso and other Caribbean elements that journeyed across the seas via sailors, immigrants, radio and records; the opulent European high-culture support systems for classical formats and dances, which were rapidly annexed to popular culture as musicians moved between playing high-society functions and less posh bashes; and so on.

Inevitably, James Booker--a high school pal of Art's who'd shared a band with him called the Rhythmaires--came up. From the Nevilles' mix of reverence, disappointment and humor as they unfolded tales of his preternatural musical insights and recurrent bouts of mental instability, far-reaching talent and self-destructiveness, it was clear that for them, as for so many New Orleans types, Booker represented one of the fullest flowerings of the prodigally lush garden of delights that grows in the Big Easy. (Ironically, as far as I can tell--there's no index, and I haven't read it cover to cover--he's barely mentioned in the recently published, seemingly solid Musical Gumbo: The Music of New Orleans by Grace Lichtenstein and Laura Dankner.)

James Carroll Booker III was both a wonder and an engima, even to the people who knew him best. His parents, both musicians themselves, made sure he took lessons until he was 12, and he interpolated classical pieces into his music all his life. The year before he stopped his studies, he'd started playing blues and gospel organ for a local radio station; two years later, he cut his first single. He studied music for a while at Southern University, and was famous among musicians for being able to hear any piece of music and play it back instantly -- backward or forward. He contributed uncredited piano on recording dates for the likes of Fats Domino, Little Richard, Wilson Pickett, Bobby "Blue" Bland and the Coasters. (Many local pianists, including Art Neville and allen Toussaint, substituted in the studio for New Orleans hitmakers like Fats or Larry Williams when they were on the road--or, better still, impersonated them on tour, as Booker did for Huey "Piano" Smith.)

This man who dubbed himself "The Black Liberace," who refused to record his first album unless his piano sprouted candelabra, toured with chitlin-circuit stars like B.B. King and Joe Tex. He was also a drunk and a drug abuser who was busted more than a couple of times, who served a year for heroin possession, who never let his employers rest easy about whether he'd show up for a gig or what he'd do if he did. …