James Booker III was born in New Orleans in December, 17 1939. He was classically trained on piano from the age of six, at which time his astounding talents were already evident, and he was considered a child prodigy. He found his way into the local music scene as a young teenager recording his first single, Doin' the Hambone, at fourteen. Although it failed commercially, Booker got extensive studio work as a result, including uncredited 'ghost' piano tracks for Fats Domino. Throughout high school, booker played regularly with many local and regional bands, while still maintaining an excellent academic record.
After graduating, Booker hit the road with Joe Tex, and spent the next several years gigging with various bands including Earl King, Dee Clark and Huey 'Piano' Smith and the Clowns (actually replacing Huey who preferred not to tour). In 1960, Booker recorded what would be his most commercially successful song, the organ-driven instrumental 'Gonzo'. Despite reaching number 10 on the Billboard R&B charts, the single failed to spawn a successful solo career for Booker, who spent the rest of the decade backing up many obscure acts and several better-known ones, including Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin.
In 1970, Booker was arrested on drug charges, and went to prison for several years. Upon his release, he spent some moderately successful years in New York and los Angeles. He performed and recorded with such diverse artists as Ringo Starr, T-Bone Walker, Jerry Garcia, Lionel Hampton and even Dr. John, who'd been an informal student of Booker's several years earlier. At some point during this period, he lost his left eye. There are varied stories as to how this happened: a street fight over a financial dispute, a prison brawl, or the use of a dirty syringe. Ultimately no one knows for sure.
Booker retuned to New Orleans in 1975, and played a highly successful solo set at the Jazz and Heritage Festival that same year. That performance proved to be a turning point in his career, leading to a European tour and a recording contract with Island Records. The resulting album, Junco Partner, featured Booker in top form, showcasing his talents on a solo piano and vocal set that includes originals, standards, R&B covers, and even his take on a Chopin Waltz. Although the album’s sales were limited, it was critically acclaimed both domestically and abroad, and announced the presence of a major talent.
Booker made many European tours in the late seventies, cutting a handful of live albums which are regarded as his best recorded work. His blistering performance at the 1977 Boogie Woogie and Ragtime Piano Contest in Zurich is captured on the CD New Orleans Piano Wizards Live! Two equally outstanding albums made during this period for German labels are now out of print.
After returning from Europe in 1978, Booker took a turn for the worse. His drug problem, which he'd controlled for several years, came back in full force. With the return of the habit came erratic behaviour and paranoia. Local folklore is rife with stories of him passing out onstage, soliciting drugs from the audience, and stopping in mid-song to rant about the CIA, to name but a few tamer examples. In 1982, he recorded what would be his last album, Classified, which, despite some fine moments, lack the brilliance of his earlier work.
He seemed to be getting himself together by 1983. He played regular gigs, worked a day job at New Orleans City Hall, and gave occasional piano lessons to another local child prodigy named Harry Connick, Jr. But on November 8, 1983, Booker suffered what appeared to be heart and lung failure, and died while awaiting attention at a local hospital.