|James Booker's 1976 album Junco Partner, released on producer Joe Boyd's Hannibal label|
Booker was a certifiable musical genius, one of the few keyboard players who could transcend the great Nicky Hopkins, and so he would have seemed to be an ideal replacement. Yet after a brief fling with Booker, Garcia and Kahn took the prudent road with the talented but safe Keith Godchaux on piano, and the path for the Garcia Band was set for the next two decades. The reasons were probably as much commercial as musical, but the two shows with James Booker illustrate the ways in which Jerry Garcia's professional priorities had evolved by 1976.
The Jerry Garcia Band with Nicky Hopkins, 1975
The Grateful Dead had stopped touring in October of 1974, and Jerry Garcia immediately stepped up his performances with Merl Saunders. By the end of 1974, Garcia and Saunders were performing under the name Legion Of Mary, along with John Kahn, drummer Ron Tutt and saxophonist Martin Fierro. This appears to have been no casual arrangement--whenever Tutt was not available, and a different drummer sat in, the ensemble used the name 'Garcia-Saunders,' not Legion Of Mary. Nonetheless, by the middle of 1975, Garcia seemed to have wanted to move in a different direction, and stopped playing with Merl Saunders and Martin Fierro.
Garcia, Kahn and Tutt formed a band with legendary rock pianist Nicky Hopkins. Hopkins, due to ill health, had largely played sessions in London during the 60s rather than tour, and as a result had recorded with The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Kinks and numerous others. By the end of the 60s, Hopkins had set out on the road with the Jeff Beck Group, later touring with Quicksilver Messenger Service and The Rolling Stones as well. Music aside, one of the attractions of playing with Jerry Garcia for Hopkins and Tutt was that it would never be a full-time job, leaving them free for studio work and other touring opportunities (Tutt was Elvis's drummer).
By the middle of 1975, although the Grateful Dead were recording an album, they no longer had any income from touring. Furthermore, Garcia was driving the train on the Grateful Dead Movie, and that was an expensive project. Thus while Garcia was always anxious to perform live, he had a specific reason to maximize his concert revenue. Naming his group The Jerry Garcia Band was in contrast to his historic practices, but it seemed to be a prudent financial move. No doubt professionals like Kahn, Tutt and Hopkins recognized that naming the group after Garcia was a sound fiscal decision. Apparently, corporate papers exist which have the quartet as partners in the Jerry Garcia Band, an indicator that the band name was no casual choice.
The Jerry Garcia Band with Nicky Hopkins, as they were billed, played what I believe to be a fairly lucrative Eastern and Midwestern tour in the Fall of 1975. As a sign of Garcia's seriousness, he broke from previous practices, and performed a few of his own well-known numbers (like "Friend Of The Devil" and "Sugaree") to anchor the shows for the more casual fans. Hopkins piano was a distinct change from the funky organ of Merl Saunders, and Hopkins allowed Garcia to introduce a wider variety of American musical styles, including classic 50s and 60s R&B, rock and New Orleans tunes.
However, as we all know, despite Hopkins' musical fluency, he was simply not equipped for the hard touring that Garcia, Kahn and Tutt were comfortable with. By the end of the year, the perpetually unstable Hopkins was erratic on stage, due to problems with various substances and his own poor health. Although the Garcia Band played out their scheduled dates with Hopkins through New Year's Eve, it is plain in retrospect that they must have been planning to replace Hopkins for some time. Hopkins had a lucrative session career, so if anything he would have actually made more money after being pushed aside. In any case, after a New Year's Eve show at Keystone Berkeley on December 31, 1975, Hopkins was out of the Jerry Garcia Band. It appears that his projected replacement was James Booker.
Who Was James Booker?
New Orleans is a city of music, and as such it is a city of legendary piano players. The list is long and stellar: Jelly Roll Morton, Professor Longhair, Fats Domino and Mac Rebennack (Dr. John) are just a few of the greater names amongst New Orleans pianists. James Booker (1939-1982), obscure though he is, ranks just as highly in the pantheon of New Orleans pianists as those names, at least amongst experts and his fellow musicians. His "career" is so strange that its a sign of his amazing talent that he is even known at all.
Booker was classically schooled in piano, played organ in the church, loved jazz and honky tonked at night, so even as a teenager he could play all styles brilliantly. He made his recording debut in 1954, at age 15, with a few singles. The music industry was very different in the 1950s, particularly in New Orleans. Records were just marketing devices to get musicians on the road, and the musicians themselves made little from recording, even if their record companies did. The young but prodigiously talented Booker became known as a player who could play in anybody's style, as well or better than the originals. Thus Booker recorded the piano parts for many classic sides by the likes of Fats Domino, Huey "Piano" Smith and Lloyd Price, while those musicians were touring. Booker's role was well-known amongst New Orleans musicians, but of course obscure to the general public.
Thus many classic New Orleans players were best known for records on which James Booker had played. That isn't to say that the likes of Domino, Smith, Price and others didn't invent their own styles, which they certainly did. It's just that Booker was so talented he could embrace and enlarge any other pianist's work, and so in many ways Booker embodied the New Orleans rock and roll era. In the early 60s, Booker started to tour a little bit, including some steady touring with Roy Hamilton, most famous for the hit "Don't Let Go." However, various problems got the better of Booker, and he ended up in the notorious Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, Louisiana.
You know the lyrics to "Viola Lee Blues," when Jerry, Phil and Bob sing "some got six months/some got one solid year"? When James Booker does his 'theme song' "Junco Partner," about Angola Prison, and sings "six months ain't no sentence/one year ain't no time," it's a different thing entirely. Booker did time in Angola, and he knew those guys "doing 99." Booker got out of Angola in 1970, much the worse for wear, and music had moved away from New Orleans. Booker struggled along, mostly living with his mother and having various brushes with the law. He had become an underground legend amongst musicians and record collectors, but most thought he was still in jail or dead.
Booker began to surface in the early 70s. With some of his problems under control, Booker started to play some sessions and gigs, and musicians absolutely raved about him. In late 1975, legendary producer Joe Boyd (of Fairport Convention fame) heard him at a session and asked if he knew "Junco Partner." Booker's ad hoc performance was so impressive that Boyd and his engineer signed him on the spot, and Booker recorded his first album in February 1976. It was Booker's first true album, as far as I know, and his first recording under his own name in about 15 years. The Junco Partner album was released on Boyd's Hannibal label late in 1976, and it's a remarkable record. Booker plays piano, organ and sings, he puts out so much music that he needs no other band members.
How Booker actually ended up playing with Jerry Garcia is anyone's guess, but I think Ron Tutt was the likely culprit. Booker was playing sessions of various sorts in the South, and Tutt was well connected in Memphis and Dallas, so he must have heard the legends from other musicians, since Boyd had not yet recorded the album. Booker had apparently recorded in Los Angeles with Dr. John's band in Los Angeles in 1973, and Tutt may have heard about that. Hopkins had been a brilliant musician who could improvise across a broad palette of American piano styles, but Booker was a guy who had helped invent those styles. Since the Jerry Garcia Band didn't rehearse much and was not really a full time engagement, the attraction of an underground legend must have been too much to resist. Since Booker's rehearsal was on January 7, 1976, and he must have had to fly out to California, his arrival had to have been planned well before the last show with Hopkins.
|The Hayward Daily Review listing for Sophie's in Palo Alto, on 260 S. Calfornia Avenue, from Dec 26, 1975. The Garcia Brothers were a local blues/rock band, and featured neither Tiff nor Jerry|
Sophie's was a former Purity Supermarket in Palo Alto's "old" downtown. Prior to Stanford University, California Avenue was the main street of the town of Mayfield, notorious for its saloons. When Leland Stanford purchased the land for the University, he offered to let Mayfield become the 'college town' on the condition it close its saloons. The town refused, and Stanford and his partner Timothy Hopkins purchased a large tract of land just North of Mayfield, and the saloon-less town of Palo Alto was born in 1892. When Prohibition came, Mayfield had little choice but to merge with Palo Alto, but there was always a little bit of rivalry between the two parts of town.
In 1975, there were still no bars in downtown Palo Alto--the ghost of Leland Stanford would have been proud--so it's not surprising that the new club was in the former Mayfield area. Sophie's opened in late 1975. I have never found out who owned or operated the club. In 1975, Palo Alto was still just a college town suburb, well-to-do perhaps, but not wealthy. Silicon Valley had begun sprouting, but while the seeds of Apple Computer and the like were forming, at the time neither Palo Alto nor the South Bay was exceptionally expensive. As a result, Sophie's was used by Jerry Garcia and others as a club where he could try out a new band lineup quietly. The first booked gig with Hopkins was scheduled at Sophie's (September 18, 1975), though I'm not certain it was played.
In any case, The Jerry Garcia Band played a few shows at Sophie's in 1975 and '76, and then it was sold to Freddie Herrera and Bobby Corona, and it became The Keystone Palo Alto. The reign of Keystone Palo Alto (1977-86) was during the period when Palo Alto and Silicon Valley were booming. Entertainment in the South Bay started to become big business, and Palo Alto was harder to use for trying out new bands. The Catalyst in Santa Cruz, further South, took over the role of the out-of-town club that had been filled by Sophie's. In early 1976, however, Garcia could try out a new band lineup very discreetly. I do not know how the January 9-10 shows were booked, whether they were billed as the Jerry Garcia Band with James Booker, or James Booker with Jerry Garcia and Friends, or anything else. I know of no reviews of the shows nor eyewitness accounts, but fortunately we do have tapes of the rehearsal and both shows, and they are very revealing.
The Jerry Garcia Band with James Booker, January 9-10, 1976
Although extremely ragged, the Garcia/Booker shows are fascinating in light of the period of transition that they established for the Garcia Band. It goes without saying that the band was under-rehearsed, but Garcia himself would probably not have seen that as a negative. More interestingly, Booker and Garcia share the lead vocal duties equally. Had this lineup been an ongoing proposition, it would have been a real band, regardless of Jerry Garcia's name on the marquee. While there are a couple of Garcia standards, his songs seem to be chosen to capitalize on Booker's musical strengths. Songs like "Tore Up Over You," "All By Myself" and "Let It Rock" seem well chosen for a band with a New Orleans piano legend.
The problem with Booker and the Garcia Band, ironically enough, is that Booker simply dominates the sound. Booker's left hand is so powerful that there is hardly room for Kahn, and his right hand is golden, so Garcia has a difficult time finding space to play. Booker had probably been playing by himself for so long that he had stopped leaving room for other musicians, but it's very rare that a piano player can simply step all over both Jerry Garcia and John Kahn. Now, granted, the music is very ragged, but the sound simply comes pouring out of Booker's piano. Booker plays fine organ, too, although in a style very far from Merl Saunders. On organ, Booker sounds like Art Neville of the Funky Meters. This isn't surprising, since Booker had ghosted for Neville on many of his early 60s singles while Art was on the road.
Fascinating as the sound of Booker and the Garcia might have been, however, there's no way to get around the fact that the ensemble doesn't work. Garcia ends up backing up James Booker on most numbers, and Booker kind of dominates Garcia even when Garcia is leading the song. According to Joe Boyd's liner notes for Junco Partner, while Booker was a very nice man, he was extremely erratic and hard to work with, and after the Hopkins experience, I think Garcia and Kahn decided that they had had enough of geniuses. Thus it seems that Garcia, Kahn and Tutt had toyed with replacing the legendary Nicky Hopkins with an even greater legend, who might arguably have been a better player, but Booker's instability would have been trying and financially unsound. Thus, after the quiet Sophie's gigs, Keith and Donna Godchaux joined the Jerry Garcia Band, debuting at the Keystone Berkeley on January 26, 1976.
James Booker recorded his Junco Partner album with Joe Boyd in February of 1976. It was released in November of that year. It's a remarkable album, because Booker simply does not need a band, even a great one. Booker made one more album, and was on a few recordings, but he couldn't get past his many problems and he died in 1982. However, thanks to Boyd, Booker's legend rose to the surface and there is recorded evidence of his talent, so his legacy was resurrected, as it should be. However, almost all accounts of Booker's history leave out the flirtation with Garcia. I wouldn't be surprised if the well-connected Boyd had had a hand in connecting Booker with Garcia as well, but it's a peculiar episode in Garcia's history that deserves greater reflection.
Garcia and Kahn turned to Keith and Donna Godchaux. I can recall being in the dorms in Berkeley back in Jnauary 1976, when the Jerry Garcia Band was booked at Keystone Berkeley, and my friends with fake IDs attended the show. The shows were barely advertised, and in fact I think we only knew about them from seeing it on the marquee. We knew nothing about the Booker shows, and there was never any mention of the Garcia Band in the press, so until Keith and Donna walked on stage with Garcia, they had no idea who was going to fill the keyboard chair. Although the 1976-78 Jerry Garcia Band made some fine music, many Deadheads, myself included, found it frustrating that Keith Godchaux was the piano player for both the Dead and the JGB. He could handle both chairs, but it meant that Garcia's range of musical canvases was going to be shrunk.
I think Garcia wanted stability in the Jerry Garcia Band, and stability that made economic sense as well. Garcia and Kahn had tried genius twice, with Hopkins and Booker, and they seemed to have given in to reality and chosen reliability. As a fan, I wished even at the time that he had chosen a reliable pro who wasn't in the Dead, just for variety--Mark Naftalin, Bill Payne and Larry Knechtel all come to mind--but Garcia needed an easier road in order to keep all his many balls safely in the air. It's telling also that Keith could play in a very jazzy style, as he had the previous year when Garcia sat in with Keith and Donna, playing 20 minute jazz songs and the like. Now, Keith and Donna were playing in a more New Orleans/Honky Tonk style that had been laid out by Hopkins and Booker, which Godchaux handled reliably.
One other overlooked attraction of the Godchauxs to Garcia was actually Donna Godchaux. We tend to dismiss her, it being a boys club and all, but in fact from 1976 onwards Garcia had female vocalists in the band the majority of the time. Donna's vocals added a lot to the sound of the Garcia Band, allowing Jerry to take on certain numbers that wouldn't have worked as well with him as the sole vocalist. So it may be that Garcia was looking to get Donna into the band as much as Keith, but in any case after two strikes at genius, Garcia seemed interested in swinging at a safer pitch. The two-date James Booker experiment remains as a curiously forgotten fork in the Jerry Garcia Band, a final ride down the Genius Highway before a U-Turn back towards more conventional territory.