By Isa Jones
By Mary Willson
By Brian Turk
By Drew AIles
By Taylor Boylston
By Bree Davies
By Emerald O'Brien
Attentiveness has a lot to do with Booker's busy schedule; "I'm always on red alert to get the gigs," he confirms. But so is flexibility. Booker, 51, is ready, willing and able to perform solo, as part of a duo or a trio, or as the frontman for the Swing-tette, a loose-limbed ensemble that features guitarist Larry Pate, stand-up bassist David Martin, drummer Eugene Smith, pianist Ralph Dafermo, tenor saxophonist John Scruggs and trumpeter Steve Wiest. Moreover, he doesn't mind switching from one format to another if it means a few more bucks in his pocket, and he sees no reason to apologize for doing so.
"A lot of people are not working because they're not willing to compromise," says Booker, whose charming accent has not lost the flavor of his country of origin, England. "And I admire that. But for me, the idea is to keep working and to pay the bills. I have to be maybe 60 percent businessman and 40 percent musician. And with me playing guitar and singing, I've chosen a style of music that is bookable, and it's rootsy and acceptable. A kid with ripped jeans and a woolly hat, he couldn't play it; he doesn't want to play it, because it's not him. If you're in some thrash band, you can't go and play the gigs I play. I do lounge gigs and cocktail-type situations and hotel lobbies and make a couple hundred bucks on a Sunday. I mean, what else am I gonna do--sit around flipping channels? No, I'll go play another gig, because that's what I do. I'm a musician."
Over the years, Booker has made many different kinds of music, but most of them have had a connection to the blues. He led the Alleygators, a swamp blues act, for several years, and on his most recent CD, a back-porchy little gem entitled Take Out Your False Teeth Mama!, he shows that he knows his way around blues of an acoustic stripe. As for the Swing-tette, it's a throwback to the Red Hot Blues Band, an early Eighties outfit led by Booker (then known as "The Captain") that drew large crowds eager for a dose of R&B into Straight Johnsons and other bygone bars. Changing trends have made the sound popular again, and Booker is determined to capitalize on them.
"This swing thing is happening and I have every right to be involved with it," he declares. "Because back in 1982, we were doing that same jump blues way back then. And fortunately, I haven't had to change my style that much to get back to it. I just broke out an old song list from the old band, added a few songs to it, and now we've got the Swing-tette. I haven't been skipping around too much from this to start with. I've pretty much been sticking straight to my guns. I'm not that much of a philanderer."
Perhaps not, but when Booker was a seven-year old growing up in his hometown of Manchester, the music that first turned his head wasn't blues but skiffle--specifically Lonnie Donnegan's biggest smash, "Rock Island Line." Subsequent exposure to Elvis Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel" convinced him that he needed to rock, and after learning a few chords from his older brother, he was off and running. At 14, he performed his first show, banging out "Blue Suede Shoes" in his school auditorium, and a few years later, he was waist deep in the U.K. music scene of the early Sixties.
A man-sized mural on the wall outside Booker's office door pays tribute to some of the musicians he encountered during this period, including the late Sonny Boy Williamson. (In addition to a photo of himself with Williamson, Booker prizes a framed scrap of paper that includes the signatures of both Williamson and Chester Burnette, aka Howlin' Wolf.) Booker also rubbed shoulders with younger artists who played important roles in the so-called British Invasion. "I auditioned with Jeff Beck," Booker recalls. "I took the train to Noel Redding's house, Beck picked me up in a red Mustang with Cozy Powell in the front, and we listened to a Buddy Guy eight-track on the way out. They took me to this huge house, with a room filled with Marshall stacks. I plugged in and was quaking in the knees when we jammed. An hour later, I'm back on the train to London wondering what the hell is going on, still shaking. That's heavyweight stuff, isn't it? It's unbelievable."