Musings on the Most Ridiculous Band I Can't Stop Listening To

Tag: james booker

A Starr And Some Stars

Spencer, happily back in the Comment Section after a season wandering in the Yukon, brings to our attention this nugget from ’73. Ringo Starr’s third solo album, cleverly titled Ringo, features just about every killer in the contemporary music industry: Steve Cropper, most of The Band, Harry Nilsson, Nicky Hopkins, and three fellows from Liverpool. None of them play on this tune, though; it’s a second-rate ensemble: Klaus Voorman and Jim Keltner are the rhythm section, our man James Booker on piano, and T Rex’s Marc Bolan on crunchy rock star guitar in your left ear.

OBLIGATORY DEAD CONNECTION: Tom Scott, who played the sax solo on the studio version of Estimated Prophet, doing the horn arrangements.

Also: guess how many tracks on the album James Booker plays on? Go ahead. Guess.

Also also: The video says the song’s name is Have You Seen My Baby, but that’s wrong. The song’s name is Hold On, which is a very common thing to name a song. I bet there’s a bunch of songs named Hold On.

Holy shit.

Uncontrollable Pianist

I didn’t know you played the piano, Mr. Davis.

“You a dumb motherfucker, motherfucker.”

I know.

“I’m a trained fucking musician. Not one of those little pop stars learned how to play guitar from the fucking radio. I went to fucking Julliard. Course I know how to play the fucking piano. I can play just about everything.”

Why didn’t you ever make a record where you played all the instruments? Like Prince used to do?

“Too much fucking work.”

Sure. Who were some of your favorite piano players?

“Ahmad Jamal could play some shit. Make your dick stand up. Monk. I liked listening to Monk more than playing with him. You’d be soloing and he’d comp under you with those weird fucking chords God gave him. Monk thought that shit was funny. It was. I laughed when he did it to other people. Not when he did it to me. Bill Evans. Quiet little motherfucker. I liked that about him. Most piano players got fucking opinions. Bill shut the fuck up. Made his playing better in my opinion.”

Did you ever play with James Booker?

“What, you think all black people know each other?”

No, I think all musical geniuses know each other.

“Well fucking played.”

Thank you, sir.

“Yeah, I knew him. I hired that crazy n—-r.”

I am begging you not to use that word.

“You want me to talk about James fucking Booker without saying ‘crazy n—-r?’ That’s what the motherfucker was. If James Booker wasn’t a crazy n—-r, then there ain’t no such thing.”

I would be fine with that. Wait. You hired him?

“Yeah. ’72. Got rid of Herbie and Keith. Needed a new piano player. Heard this cat and his sound. I was interested. Booked him for a weekend to try him out. Club up in Boston, nice place, treat me with respect. Motherfucker misses six planes in a row. Anybody can miss a plane. Takes a special motherfucker to miss six. Finally gets here. Calls from the airport. I send someone to get him. He ain’t there. Motherfucker took a bus hostage.”

How do you take a bus hostage?

“How the fuck should I know? Maybe like in that movie with the motherfucker and the bitch and the bus.”


“You starting to understand me. That’s good. I like that.”

What happened next?

“I go down to pick him up at the police station. He accuses me of being CIA.”

What did you do?

“Slapped him like a bitch.”

Not a shock.

“Police was cheering me on. I throw his wig on him, put him in the car, get him loaded, and we make the date on time.”

How’d it go?

“He lasted twenty minutes.”


“I call off Honky Tonk. Band starts to play, but this motherfucker goes into Goodnight Irene. Starts singing. I don’t know where the fuck he got a mic. I got two guitar players, a bass player, a drummer, a percussion man, and two horns in my band. This motherfucker’s playing more than all of us put together. No room for anything else.”

James tended to do that.

“Then he took his dick out and put it on the conga drum.”

Oh no.

“Goes back to the piano and plays some more. He ain’t listening to me. I was getting angry. Then he starts making homosexual advances at a waiter. Asking to see the waiter’s butthole.”

“Aw, man, you hired that crazy bastard, too?”

“Too? Why didn’t you warn me, you Mexican motherfucker?”

“You hired him three years before I did.”

“Motherfucker, we both got time machines.”

“Oh, yeah. Oops.”

Dead And Gone, I May Be Dead And Gone

A little more Jerry Band featuring James Booker. This is from the (short) rehearsal a day or two before the weekend shows. The mix is more helpful on this one, especially through headphones–Garcia is panned hard right and Booker’s all the way on the left–but holy shit it does not work. The sound is beautiful but doomed, like a supermodel falling down an elevator shaft.

Also: James Booker may or may not know he is at a rehearsal, as he appears to address an imaginary audience several times.

Always A Dead Connection

Like so many other things, this was John Kahn’s fault. You will recall that in October of ’74, the Grateful Dead pulled the ol’ “fake retirement” trick–one of the hoariest gimmicks in show biz–and now Garcia had no touring money coming in. This is suboptimal for a man with three children and a mortgage, and so Garcia ramped up the Jerry Band. Whereas before, he stuck mostly to the Bay Area and played with locals, now he would take to the road and get some of that sweet, sweet East Coast cash. Those coffers ain’t gonna replenish themselves.

First, he put together the Legion of Mary–his best solo band, hands down–which was Kahn on bass (of course), Merl Saunders on organ and terrible vocals, Martin Fierro on out-of-tune saxophone, and the Greatest Drummer of All Time™ Ronnie Tutt. Sadly, this combo proved short-lived; Garcia fired Saunders and Fierro (not personally, of course; he let Parish make the calls) and added legendary British pianist Nicky Hopkins. Those big, brutish block chords in Sympathy for the Devil? That was Nicky.

But Nicky wasn’t a road dog like Garcia was: he was unhealthy since he was a kid, and he drank too damn much. He was a chatty drunk, too, and would introduce songs for ten minutes. Plus, according to Ronnie Tutt, he had bad time. (What Ronnie Tutt thought of Garcia’s time, he has kept to himself all these years.) A new keyboardist was needed. Someone reliable, professional, a real team player.

So Garcia hired an insane junkie.

James Booker’s tenure with the Jerry Band lasted a weekend, which makes him the Anthony Scaramucci of the JGB. Quite frankly, I can’t believe Garcia kept him on for the second night. Go listen to the show. Booker overpowers Garcia, and Kahn, with the deluge of music coming from his piano and, even more hilariously, refuses to listen to Garcia in the slightest. Booker cuts off his solos, goes into verses when Garcia starts singing the chorus, and at least once takes over the lead vocal halfway through the song. Also: the tunes end when James Booker says they end, and that’s it. (Every song. Every single song ends with Garcia trying to finish up the song but Booker keeps playing, or he’ll just ripcord out of the song while Garcia is soloing away merrily in the background.)

Was he amused? Pissed? I bet Garcia was pissed. I’ll bet his eyes got darker and darker throughout the evening, and that he made fun of Kahn for the suggestion for years afterwards.

Anyway, this is the 1/9/76 show. There was a second show the following night, and then James Booker was bundled back onto a plane bound for New Orleans. Garcia called up Keith and Mrs. Donna Jean and never hired any geniuses ever again.