James Booker, “Bayou Maharajah”

James Booker (Photo by Anton Corbijn)

Film about funky pianist will be shown Feb. 7

By Joe Dizney

New Orleans is a piano kind of city, and no one has ever played the piano there, or perhaps anywhere, like James Carroll Booker III. Booker was the funkiest branch on the family tree of New Orleans’ piano masters, stretching back from Jelly Roll Morton, Tuts Washington and Professor Longhair to Ellis Marsalis, Allen Toussaint, Dr. John and beyond.

James Booker (Photo by Anton Corbijn)

James Booker (Photo by Anton Corbijn)

Lily Keber, the director of the 2013 documentary, Bayou Maharajah: The Tragic Genius of James Booker, which screens at Dogwood in Beacon at 8 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 7, first encountered the musician while tending bar at Vaughan’s Lounge in the Bywater neighborhood. Asking around about him, she heard some rather strange stories.

“I began to notice that the more bizarre a James Booker story was, the more likely it was to be true,” she recalls.

Here are just a few:

  • “Baby” Booker was the son and grandson of piano-playing Baptist ministers, a child prodigy of sorts playing organ in his father’s church and skilled equally in Bach, Chopin, Ray Charles, Errol Garner, Tuts Washington and Liberace.
  • His 1960 organ instrumental Gonzo (which reached No. 43 on the Billboard charts) reputedly furnished Hunter S. Thompson with a name for his journalistic raison d’etre.
  • Booker gave Dr. John keyboard tips after the good doctor lost a guitar-playing finger in a barroom gun skirmish. John later employed Booker in his touring band. The Doctor also famously described Booker as “the best black, gay, one-eyed junkie piano genius New Orleans has ever produced.”
  • A lifelong petty criminal, Booker taught the young Harry Connick, Jr., to play as repayment to Harry’s father, the New Orleans district attorney Harry Connick, Sr., for “legal counsel” and negotiating an abbreviated jail term.
  • His signature star eyepatch allegedly memorialized an eye lost to Beatle Ringo Starr’s bodyguard. (He was a studio and touring sideman for Ringo among others, including The Doobie Brothers, Labelle, Maria Muldaur and Jerry Garcia.)
  • Cartoonist Bunny Matthews likened having Booker over to your place as “the entire Bacchus parade marching through your living room.” Booker was known to make the rounds of his Crescent City haunts in full police regalia.
  • Allen Toussaint, who knew Booker since childhood, once commented: “There is a word that is thrown around so loosely for certain people who have done well in life — they call them geniuses. If the word is applicable to anyone, the person who comes to mind is James Booker.”

Booker died of renal failure — the result of a lifetime of drug and alcohol abuse — in November 1983, waiting unattended in a wheelchair in the emergency room of Charity Hospital; a tragic end to an epic, almost mythic life.

Lily Keber (photo provided)

Lily Keber (photo provided)

“Booker personifies New Orleans in a lot of ways — funky, he does things his own way, even to his own detriment,” says Keber. “If New Orleans would get its act together, sure we’d have industry, maybe even a vibrant economy, but who’d want to live here? Booker is the same way. You could just look at him and listen to him and know that there is no one else on earth who has ever, or will ever, be like him. That he existed at all is a comfort to me.”

James Carroll Booker III performing at the 1978 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. (Photo by Michael P. Smith) 

James Carroll Booker III performing at the 1978 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. (Photo by Michael P. Smith)

The documentary, which was named “Best Southern Film” by Oxford American and “Best Louisiana Feature” at the New Orleans’ Film Festival, will be released commercially and for streaming in April. Dogwood is located at 47 E. Main St. For more information about the film, visit bayoumaharajah.com.


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