Producer Scott Billington remembers being in the studio with James Booker.

Classified cover

In many music documentaries, live performances grind the narrative to a halt, and as good as the performances may be, they leave viewers with the suspicion that they’re why the movie exists - to show them, and that the whole project is an extended, very public act of fandom. When Lily Keber’s Bayou Maharajah: The Tragic Genius of James Booker screened at this year’s New Orleans Film Festival, the vibe was far less indulgent. Sequences of Booker in concert were more than See? Look! Wasn’t he great?! moments. They gave the film emotional gravity, and were so charged that they earned applause from the audience in the theater 30 to 40 years after they actually happened. Keber’s film helped refuel the legend of the troubled New Orleans piano player, as did the re-release of Classified, his 1982 album made at age 42 just months before he died. 

Scott Billington produced the album for Rounder Records, and while he had produced a few albums before Classified, it was only his second full-fledged session after one with Gatemouth Brown. That resulted in the Grammy-winning Alright Again!, so “I was feeling pretty good about myself as a record producer and how to organize a session and bring out the best in a recording session,” he says. “But I wasn’t ready for Booker at all. The artists I’d worked with before were professional entertainers, so even their lowest point was a relatively high level of musicianship, of conveying emotion in a song - something they could summon when they needed it because that’s what they did for a living. Booker was so much about being in the moment and feeling, and he had issues with addiction and personality problems. But I’ve come to understand so much more in the years that have passed since then. You can’t just tell somebody to be their best in the recording studio. The more talented an artist is, the more they have to give, the harder it is to get.” He later found sessions with Solomon Burke and Charlie Rich challenging, but Booker was the most extreme.

Billington scheduled the session at Ultrasonic six months before it took place, and during that time Booker and his band — Red Tyler, Johnny Vidacovich, and James Singleton — were hot. They had a number of songs they frequently played at The Maple Leaf seemingly in preparation for the sessions, and Billington and Booker talked periodically about songs as well. Then a couple of weeks before the sessions, he had breakdown and ended up in Baptist Hospital. He emerged weakened and seemingly distracted, but Booker wanted to go ahead with the recording. His behavior seemed to contradict that when he finally arrived, though. “We started playing one of the songs he had rehearsed with the band, Paul Gayten and Annie Laurie’s song, ‘If You’re Lonely,’ Billington says. “We eventually got a pretty good take, but he never got all the lyrics the way he wanted them to be, and I could see that he was frustrated that whatever he wanted, he wasn’t getting it. His response to that was to shut down entirely. He seemed disinterested in everything around him. He wouldn’t communicate with the other musicians or with me. We finally called it a day that day after eight or nine hours in the studio.” The change of mood from the one that Booker had shown in the months leading up to it took Billington by surprise, and the musicians as well to a lesser degree. “I don’t think anybody who knew Booker very long was very surprised by what he might do.”

In Bayou Maharajah, Billington tells the oft-repeated story of Booker’s false teeth falling out on to his keyboard during a take, and Booker getting his face down to scoop them back into his mouth while playing. Billington insists the story’s true, and the result of his upper plate being lost by Baptist Hospital. Booker had a spare, unfitted upper plate in his sock drawer, the byproduct of a dentist putting the star on the wrong tooth and having to do it again. He had to use that plate for the session, but it had never been properly fitted. 

The second day started better. Booker decided that he wanted Cyril Neville and Earl King in the studio, so they were called and came over. King demoed a new song for Booker on the piano while Neville offered moral support. At one point, Booker wanted to record Allen Toussaint’s “Viva La Money,” so Toussaint’s office dictated the lyrics over the phone. Unfortunately, anxiety or other demons got the best of him and he withdrew again. “He stopped talking to anybody,” Billington says. “At one point, Red and I had to pick him up and carry him back to the piano bench.” Billington told Booker that if he didn’t tighten up, he’d have to cancel the sessions, and that relit Booker’s fire, but only partly. 

“For the rest of the day he played, but it was this cat and mouse game with the other musicians. He wouldn’t tell us what it was, what key it was in, when he was going to start, so we kept the tape rolling.” The day did include a keeper take of “Angel Eyes,” along with a medley of “Tico Tico,” “Papa Was a Rascal,” and “So Swell When You’re Well” that wasn’t included on the original release but is now on the reissued Classified.

“That shows off the band really well because you could hear that they really knew how to follow him,” Billington says. “There are a few little errors from his lack of communication with anybody, but with the editing tools today, we were able to get around them pretty well. There’s a beautiful slow blues, ‘I’m Not Sayin’’ - or we called it that because we didn’t know what it was. It’s very unusual Booker. He’s not relying on his virtuosic left hand to make it work; he’s letting the rhythm section do that. It’s more like listening to Thelonious Monk with incredible right hand things going on.”

Billington didn’t get much sleep that night. By his count, he had two keepers, and only one day left to get an album’s worth of material. He went into the studio early on the last day to see if there were any winners he might have missed, and he found Booker waiting for him at the door. He was ready and eager to play. Billington attributes the new attitude to a good meal and a good night’s sleep, but he’s not sure. Whatever, he got Booker in and to the piano, where for two hours Booker played on his own and produced a number of solo tracks that appear on the reissue including “Warsaw Concerto,” “Theme from The Godfather,” and a comic version of Roger Miller’s “King of the Road.” The rest of the band showed up at noon as scheduled and in less than three hours, they cut the remainder of the album. 

The sessions ended as unpredictably as they had started. Billington writes in the CD’s liner notes:

Booker’s focus began to drift. He asked me if I would pay him. Knowing that we had a record, I agreed and wrote him his check for $3000. He returned to the piano bench for a few more songs, but then abruptly stopped playing, resting his forearms on the piano. He asked, “What time does the bank close?”

When he was told three o’clock, he got up and left, and that was it. Today Billington doesn’t regret that decision. “I knew when I paid him that could happen,” he says. “He was done.” In effect, the album was cut that day, which Billington now suspects was par for the course. He’d heard that the Joe Boyd-produced Junco Partner was cut in one day as well in 1976. Today he thinks the way to have recorded Booker was in a series of sessions over months instead of days. “His performances were such a stream of consciousness approach to music, and that can be an elusive thing in the studio.” 

It’s easy to hear about Booker’s behavior and the way the session ended and suspect that the whole thing was little more than a way to grab an easy few thousand dollars, but Billington doesn’t think so. Booker was proud of the album, he says, and afterwards called him periodically to talk about future records. He participated in the promotion of album, did some interviews, and played an album-release party. “This was a period in his life when he really was trying to get it together,” Billington says. “I think he’d reached some sort of epiphany and didn’t want to be some sort of lonely, drug-addled freak.” At the same time, his health was really shaky. “He was taking Antibuse which would make you sick if you drink alcohol, but then he’d drink alcohol anyway. In the morning he’d wake up and I imagine say to himself, I’ve got to get my act together; I can’t go on like this, but at midnight he’d be drinking a tumbler of gin.”

   

Today, it’s hard to imagine a company cutting an album with an artist who had pretty much sworn off touring as Booker had, and Billington agrees that Classified is the product of a very different time in the music business. At the time, there were fewer album reviews, so good ones meant more and translated to sales, and touring was less crucial. Rounder’s philosophy was a little different at the time as well. “If we could make a great record, that was enough,” he says.

Because of the leftover tracks that had minor flaws or didn’t fit the voice of Classified, the album was a natural to be reissued and expanded. The original tapes had to be baked to stabilize them, but once that had happened, they could be transferred to digital and tweaked in ways that they should have been in the first place had the situation been different. He cleaned up the Booker medley and took some of the dated elements out of the sound. The original mix was done by John Nagy, who had recently been working on George Thorogood and the Destroyers albums, and some of the decisions he made on Classified are a product of that experience. “The drums have a ’70s, ‘80s rock ’n’ roll sound with a gate on the snare drum, and this engineer’s inclination was to make the piano much brighter, as you would on a rock ’n’ roll record so it cuts through everything else that’s going on,” Billington says. “It’s not a bad sounding record, but I think we made it sound much more natural this time.” 

Classified isn’t the recording Billington turns to for Booker at his best. He has a cassette of a board recording of a show at Rosy’s that does that for him. Nonetheless, the experience deepened Billington’s appreciation of Booker. He was astonished at the fluidity and breadth of his musical imagination during the solo piano session, during which he sat in the studio instead of the control room at Booker’s request. “I didn’t appreciate the depth of his talents before the sessions,” he says.