David Booker is one of the few Denver performers who could complain about playing too many shows--but that's the last thing he'd do. A singer-songwriter and guitarist with the ideal name for someone with a heavily inked calendar, Booker describes his credo as "telephone by day, microphone by night." In other words, he's as serious about landing a date as he is about playing it. For proof, listen as he tallies up his hires for an upcoming month: "I've got 1, 2, 3... There's a double here, so that's 11 and 12... I was canceled here but I got the money for it, so that's 19... That one's not paid, so that doesn't count... That's 26, 27, 28 gigs out of 31 days. Ha."
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."
After moving to Denver in 1981, Booker got the chance to hang out with plenty of other blues and rock greats. "Rufus Thomas, I backed him for a few nights," Booker says, pointing to a snapshot of himself with the man behind "Do the Funky Chicken" and other soulful favorites. "What a thrill. And Bo Diddley: I backed him, too. It's incredible stuff, really. I mean, you can't make up memories like these. But I really prefer to stay in the present."
According to Booker, a large part of what helps him look forward rather than back is his workmanlike approach to performing. "You've got to give out to your audience," he notes. "Some of these jazz players around town, they're just so wrapped up in themselves that they're boring people. Ten choruses on 'Good Bait' is not what people want to hear. They want to hear maybe one chorus, and get a little show, and some acknowledgment that the audience is there. And don't look like your audience. Because they're gonna think, 'Well, he dresses like me, he must have the same record collection. He can play Springsteen and Jimmy Buffet.'
"I don't go to gigs in baseball caps, shorts or T-shirts," he points out. "I might wear one with a jacket, but we've got the hats and the suspenders and the vintage ties. And don't underestimate your audience, either. If it's only ten people but you're having fun, those ten people will be there at the end of the night. But it works the other way, too. Sometimes you have to realize that it's one of those nights and you're flogging a dead horse."
Such evenings are part of every musician's life, but Booker is able to keep them in perspective. "If you're in a rockabilly band, you want to be playing to a sea of pompadours and dancers. Well, I can play a rockabilly show to some old folks eating pizza at Bourbon Street, and when I'm done, they'll be clapping. I've done my job, I've sold a couple of CDs and I lived to fight another day. And occasionally we get the really nice gigs, so the enthusiasm is still there."
A showcase at LoDo's Redfish puts Booker's philosophy to the test, and he passes it with flying colors. By contrast with the previous night's performance, when the Swing-tette appeared before 400 often airborne teens at a Boulder dance hall, Booker and his associates are faced with a respectable but hardly overflowing weeknight audience seated at tables and booths. But the musicians, nicely decked out in Thirties-era threads, are able to keep the crowd content. All eyes and ears are directed to the stage, and a few newcomers to hand-to-hand dancing are inspired enough to try their luck at the Lindy Hop. Another patron stands inches away from the stage, his grinning face in arms reach of Scruggs's horn as the band delivers a greasy, authentic set of jump-blues covers and Booker originals. The wonderfully down-home music is a few steps closer to the indigoed nitty gritty than the frenzied jive put forth by many neo-swing faves, and therein lies its charm. After the men wrap up the set with a rollicking version of Big Joe Turners's "Shake, Rattle & Roll," a handsome woman in a sleek cocktail dress slips a bill into the band's tip jar before gliding out of the building. She obviously realizes that the Swing-tette has given her more than her money's worth.
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For Booker, such gestures are a sign that he's doing something right. He occasionally complains that he has trouble getting bookings at some of the more upscale swing clubs in town, but as he heads into his third decade as a Denver entertainer, he insists that "I'm not at all bitter. In fact, I'm more enthused than ever about what the future holds. I've got a lot to be thankful for. I came over here almost twenty years ago with two suitcases and a few albums, and was living in somebody's basement. For three months, I couldn't get any work, my money was running out, and I was thinking, 'I've got to go back.' But then I gave it one more try. I hit the street, found something, and one thing led to another. I see people who come out and say, 'Man, I used to see you in back in '82; now I'm a lawyer and I've got a fifteen-year-old kid.' And obviously they've grown out of it, but now their kids are coming out to see me and I'm playing to a second generation of people. It's amazing, really, that I've been able to do that and have a platform. And I still have people who come up to me and remember me, and it's very nice.
"But no matter how many CDs you put out," he adds, "you've still got people who don't know who you are. And you've still got to get on that phone."
David Booker. 8 p.m. Thursday, July 30, Mead Street Station, 3625 West 32nd Avenue, 433-2138; 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday, July 31 and August 1, Breckenridge Brewery, 2220 Blake Street, 297-3644; 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, August 5, Trios Enoteca, 1730 Wynkoop, 293-2887.