The Gulf Coast Conundrum: James Booker and The Lost Paramount Tapes February 25, 2019 16:21
Words by Josh Hettermann
As technology and society have evolved, art has become increasingly omnipresent in our daily lives. Regardless of whether the audience is millions of fans or a mere few hundred, 21st century technological platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Spotify allow musicians and visual artists a constant opportunity to promote and share their work. Its easy to forget that as recently as 20 years ago, artists had to rely on traditional grassroots methods to get their work out to the public. Robert Johnson is considered the King of the Delta Blues and had a profound influence on musical deities such as BB King, the Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix. The remarkable aspect of Johnson’s legacy, though, is that his now fabled raw recordings were released to the public for the first time in 1961, close to 25 years after he unceremoniously passed away. Other famed artists such as Blaze Foley, Johann Sebastian Bach and Vincent Van Gogh belong in the same category by the sheer nature that their work became widely celebrated well after their time.
James Booker undoubtedly belongs in this category of artists whose work flew well under the radar during their careers. Unlike the aforementioned creatives, though, Booker has yet to achieve the due credit he deserves. The August 2018 vinyl release of his criminally underrated record The Lost Paramount Tapes should be celebrated as a monumental musical achievement.
Born in 1939 in the historically African American and poverty stricken 9th ward of New Orleans that has produced musical legends such as Fats Domino and the prominent Batiste family, James Carroll Booker III showed an early knack for the piano and honed his skills by playing in local Baptist churches and also as an understudy of the iconic blues pianist Tuts Washington. After a decade of working tirelessly as a session musician, Booker recorded his first studio album The Lost Paramount Tapes at the famed Paramount Studios in Hollywood in 1973 with a talented supporting cast that included band members of New Orleans’ own icon Dr. John. Somehow, the master tapes for these sessions were lost soon after these sessions. Fortunately for us, the recordings were unearthed in 1992 and released in CD form the next year without much fanfare or publicity. At the time, Booker had been dead for close to 10 years after succumbing to heart failure due to years of chronic alcohol and heroine abuse in 1983 at the relatively young age of 43.
Listen to JoJo Hermann's podcast on The Lost Paramount Tapes here:
Forgive my wordy preamble. I’ve only included it because it is almost unfathomable to me that someone as mercurial and supremely talented as James Booker could possibly be so underserved and undiscovered in today’s music world. The recent resurgence of vinyl record production has blessed music fans all over the world with the opportunity to discover music they may have never had the chance to listen to before. The Lost Paramount Tapes is a perfect example of this. It was remastered and released on vinyl in August 2018 and is without a doubt a musical masterpiece. By blending elements of boogie-woogie, blues and roots rock, in conjunction with Booker’s visceral and impassioned efforts on the keys, the record is a standout production from start to finish and is Booker’s magnum opus. The second track, “Feel So Bad,” utilizes sturdy percussion and scintillating piano playing from the man himself to create an infectious groove. “Junco Partner” is undoubtedly influenced by the cajun rhythms of Booker’s hometown. The highlight of the disc, though, comes in the instrumental track “African Gumbo.” Booker pays homage to ragtime greats like Scott Joplin with a sustained, funky rhythmic sequence highlighted by excellent guitar work and irresistible saxophone playing by fellow NOLA legend David Lastie. While every single track packs a substantial punch, Booker and his band contributed their own take on the epic T-Bone Walker blues standard “Stormy Monday,” a piece immortalized just two years prior on the Allman Brothers Band’s iconic 1971 Live at Fillmore East record.
Records like James Booker’s The Lost Paramount Tapes will never top the charts and will undoubtedly never get the credit they truly deserve. “Junco Partner #2,” the most popular track from the disc, has an unremarkable 65,000 plays on Spotify. Despite this, the legacy and influence of artists like Booker is palpable. John “JoJo” Hermann, celebrated by fans and keys enthusiasts alike as the longtime pianist and contributing vocalist for Widespread Panic, recently dedicated a whole episode of his podcast Key’d In to the record. His influence on Hermann’s prose and sound is readily apparent even to novice fans of the group. Plato once said that “Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything.” James Booker embodied those incredibly wise words on The Lost Paramount Tapes, and it is a shame that he is not around to witness his art’s profound impact that continues to this day.
Stream The Lost Paramount Tapes here via Spotify: