Radio news

Black Liberace

Tuesday 4th February 2014, 11.30am on BBC Radio 4

Record producer Joe Boyd gives his personal take on the brilliant - but troubled - New Orleans piano player James Booker, aka the ‘Black Liberace’.

New Orleans pianist Dr John once called Booker "the best black, gay, junkie piano player New Orleans has ever produced”, but despite being considered by some to be one of the greatest pianists in popular music of the last century he remains little remembered outside his home city. Classically trained in piano and a child prodigy, Booker had his first hit record as a teenager, toured with the likes of Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin and played on sessions with Fats Domino and Little Richard. But it was as a solo performer that he really came into his own. 

When record producer Joe Boyd met Booker at a session in the 1970s he realised the player's technical virtuosity and his potential to captivate an audience. He asked Booker if he'd to record an album on his own, without a band. The pianist was cautious, but eventually agreed to record Junco Partner, on one condition, he had a candelabra on the piano. The reason, he said, 'cos I'm the Black Liberace baby!'Liberace may have been one of his idols, but Booker's styles were wide and varied. He not only mastered but also transformed the New Orleans piano style mixing Chopin, Liszt and Rachmaninoff with jazz, blues, stride, gospel and boogie-woogie. He played like he had four hands and made the piano sound like a whole band. But he died aged 43 after a life of drug and alcohol abuse, alone in the emergency waiting room of the hospital in which he'd been born.

Featuring interviews with pianist and singer Dr John who was taught by Booker, and New Orleans pianist Allen Toussaint, as well as Booker's manager John Parsons and producer Scott Billington, we hear about the turbulent life in music of this overlooked piano genius.