In one of the first scenes of Bayou Maharajah: The Tragic Genius of James Booker, a new documentary about the brilliant New Orleans musician James Booker, the pianist deliberates over his career. “There is no guarantee that I will reach the peak that is preserved for me. I might get cheated out of it; I might cheat myself out of it.” That self-fulfilling prophecy hangs heavy over Bayou Maharajah, which screens this weekend as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Sound + Vision series. It also couches an interesting question: Why don’t more people know who James Booker is?
In many ways, the outline of Booker’s story feels familiar: a child prodigy who started training classically at 12 and by 15 released his own recording. By 16 he was playing clubs, and shortly thereafter was backing up headline acts including Little Richard, Aretha Franklin, Fats Domino, and Bobby Bland. Booker's star seemed destined to rise.
“I know the word genius is thrown around quite loosely,” says producer Allen Toussaint in the film, “but I considered Booker a genius.” Watching Booker’s fingers ripple over the keys, it's hard to disagree. Booker’s flamboyance, magnetism, and sheer talent should have made him a nationally-recognized artist. But they didn't. For the entirety of his career, Booker meandered between success and failure, between playing the European festival circuit and barely scraping by. Drugs and alcohol shadowed Booker wherever he went until he passed away of an overdose in 1983. He was 44 years old.
Some called Booker the Piano Prince; the governor of Louisiana once called him the Ivory Emperor. Booker fancied himself the Black Liberace. Superficially, the last comparison is apt: both men were closeted, preternaturally gifted musicians with a taste for flare. But in a thousand other ways, the two couldn't have been more different. Liberace managed his public persona with the meticulousness of a watchmaker; Booker disappeared for weeks at a time and showed up to recording sessions so far gone that he'd have to be carried and propped up at the piano. Liberace was a perfectionist of a performer; Booker was constantly derailed by phobias and mental instability: he passed on important New York shows because he disliked traveling. “You might have to go the Maple Leaf [a New Orleans club where Booker regularly performed] five or six times,” says Scott Billington, VP of Rounder Records, “before you heard a great James Booker show. But when you heard that…it was worth all the waiting. It was worth all the times he talked, or walked around and stared at the ceiling. It would just blow your mind. There was no better music on the planet.”
Incorporating beautiful archival footage and interviews with Dr. John and other Big Easy contemporaries, director Lily Keber offers an intimate but nuanced sketch of James Booker—one that sheds plenty of light to enrapture us, but leaves just enough dark corners to maintain a shroud of mystery about the pianist. Bayou Maharajah never settles on exactly who cheated Booker out of celebrity—maybe that's a question too broad for any film to answer. Keber offers something else here: an opportunity for the Ivory Emperor to posthumously earn the wide recognition he never found in life.
Ahead of the screenings this weekend, I spoke with director Lily Keber over the phone.
How'd you first hear about James Booker? I’d never heard of Booker before I moved to New Orleans but I knew Dr. John and all the big names. I was bartending at a dive bar in the 9th Ward and we’d play [Booker] on the jukebox. The first thing I remember thinking was that it didn't make sense. I’d never heard music like it and I didn't really know how to listen to it. It’s not standard pop fare that has a beginning, middle, and end, you know?
Is he remembered in New Orleans? He’s still very much alive; he’s still very much an active presence in New Orleans. People talk about him all the time. Not only his music, but he himself had such an impact on so many people. Everyone in New Orleans has a Booker story and they’re all without exception absolutely crazy—they’re all bizarre. The combination of hearing the stories about him and hearing his music—I didn't know where to put him or how to place him. Nothing about him made sense. As an outsider coming to New Orleans, finding this presence, which is so important here and really unknown outside the Parish limits, was really striking to me.
As a transplant to New Orleans, did you learn about the city through Booker? Absolutely. I really feel that in a lot of ways, and other people have said this as well, Booker personifies a lot of the soul of this city. In the same way that New Orleans is funky, and talented, and tragic, and completely unexpected from one instance to the next, Booker was also all those things. He couldn't have come from anywhere else. He had moments of intense beauty followed by utter existential isolationism, back to back. Bob Dylan once said that in New Orleans you turn the corner and just about anything could be happening. It’s the same feeling of being intensely in the moment.
One of the subjects you touch on briefly in the film is Booker's sexuality. We don't meet any of his lovers, and we never hear about his intimate life. Why is that? For one, he was very guarded. Even people that were close to him didn't know whether or not he was gay. At the time—even in the 70s of the French Quarter—it wasn't entirely safe to be out. Booker was about as out as you could be then. But also, by the sheer fact that he was bipolar and mentally unstable, I don’t know for a fact that he could have sustained a long term relationship.
There’s no doubt in my mind that he was gay. This is the aspect of the film that I’ve gotten the most pushback for from potential funders, and people who might’ve been involved in the film and weren’t. It’s interesting to me because the African Americans in the film, across the board, have no issue with it. It’s basically the young white guys he was playing with that won’t admit that he might’ve been gay. It’s the reverse of what we usually hear—that homosexuality in the African American community is more stigmatized. In New Orleans, it’s the opposite.
It is important to know that he was a gay artist—especially for young gay, artistic people. It’s important to have role models and I don’t want anyone walking away from the film unsure of which way he swung. But if I could sit down with Booker today and ask him to describe himself, I don’t know if that’s a label he’d use.
Why do you think commercial success eluded Booker? Was he looking for that? It's not just that he didn’t get ahead because he was black in a racist society--he didn’t do himself any favors. He totally shot himself in the foot. If we asked Booker, he would say that he wanted to be a success. He would say that he wanted to be known. He wanted to be on the same level as Liberace. But he certainly didn’t behave and make decisions of someone who had that as their top priority.
It’s also a very New Orleans type approach and outlook on the world: Ultimately, if you have food and friends and a steady gig and enough money to pay the rent, what else do you really need? It’s a question that I think a lot about as a documentary film maker myself. Is the most important thing to make an artistic expression that we really like? Or is the most important thing to get famous? I don’t entirely know the answer for myself, and I don’t think Booker knew either.
After finishing the film I felt like I'd learned a lot about Booker, but he remained a fairly elusive character--like I still didn't really know him. Do you feel like you have an idea of who James Booker really was? That was a goal in editing. How do you tell a story about a mystery without destroying the mystery? The deeper you dig, the more mysterious he gets. Do I feel like I know him? No, I don’t think I know who he was at his core. But now I pay much more attention to his lyrics. At the onset, his lyrics seem like William Burroughs-esque mashups, but in fact they’re quite autobiographical. I can listen to his songs and get a depth of emotion. I know a lot of facts about him, but I don’t know what it would really be like to sit here and have a conversation with him.
Of all his performances, which are your favorite? There’s a song called "Come in My House," and Booker does a version of it in Switzerland on the Rounder Records rerelease. There are some instrumental sections of that that are—good God—it’s just beautiful music. I don’t know how anyone can listen to that and not be stunned. There’s another fantastic song called “Since I Fell For You” and it’s from his Leipzig concert. It’s a very mellow, quiet, melancholy and sweet song. It’s a love song, but it’s really more like a broken-hearted song. I listen to that a lot. And then there’s his version of "People Get Ready" from Blues and Ragtime. It’s the closest for me to a spiritual song. I've always envied people who have that spirituality or belief in the unknown and that’s the only song that I’ve ever heard that’s moved me spiritually.
One of my favorite segments of the film is when everyone recounts all the tall tales they'd heard about Booker's bad eye. What's the best story you've heard? My favorite story is that he had a glass eye and that he sold it to a tourist for $1500. It’s just so Booker. Who else could get away with that? It’s ridiculous.
One of Keber's favorite Booker tracks, "Since I Fell For You" performed live at Leipzig
Bayou Maharajah: The Tragic Genius of James Booker will be screening in New York this Sunday and Monday. For more information, visit the Sound + Vision film series page here or the film's website here.