Bayou Maharaja: James Booker, the tragic genius of New Orleans

'It's Ray Charles on the level of Chopin'

Roisin O'Connor
Tuesday 28 June 2016 08:10 BST
James Booker
James Booker (Anton Corbijn)

There were plenty of characters hanging around New Orleans in the 20th century - there still are - so it says something that piano legend James Booker managed to earn a reputation as “the best black, gay, one-eyed junkie piano genius New Orleans has ever produced”. [Dr. John]

Bayou Maharajah: The Tragic Genius of James Booker traces the life of the self-proclaimed 'Black Liberace' - from the early years he spent as a chart-topping child prodigy - to his notorious solo career where he toured America and Europe.

Watch an exclusive excerpt from the film below:

While there were few recordings of Booker’s own music made during his short life, he inspired several of the greatest artists to emerge out of New Orleans in the 20th century, and continues to do so today. And his discography has increased since his death, thanks to the release of several live recordings that were originally taped at the Maple Leaf Bar in New Orleans.

Director and producer Lily Keber trawled European archives for concert footage, discovered new audio recordings (like an unreleased 1974 session produced) and inherited a rare reel-to-reel interview from a Swiss fan.

"There's nobody that could even remotely come close to his playing ability," Harry Connick Jr, a close friend of Booker’s, tells Keber. ”I've played Chopin Etudes, I've done the whole thing, but there is nothing harder than James.”

Joshua Paxton told an interviewer in 2013: “From a musician’s perspective or piano player’s perspective, he matters because he figured out how to do things no one had ever done before, at least in a rhythm-and-blues context.... Basically he figured out ways to do a lot of stuff at the same time and make the piano sound like an entire band.

“It’s Ray Charles on the level of Chopin. It’s all the soul, all the groove, and all the technique in the universe packed into one unbelievable player ... I can now say with certainty that it’s a pianistic experience unlike any other."

But this genius was often overshadowed by Booker’s erratic behaviour; he once appeared on a stage in New Orleans wearing a nappy fastened with a gold pin, from which he pulled out a .357 Magnum, held it to his own head and told the audience: "If somebody doesn’t give me some cocaine right now, I’m going to fucking pull the trigger.”

There are myriad explanations for how he lost his eye, from a story that he sold it to a tourist, to an attack of vengeful drug dealers, to Dr. John's explanation: “something to do with Jackie Kennedy”.

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His drug addiction was reportedly sparked as young as nine, when he was knocked down by an ambulance and given morphine to ease the pain of a broken leg. This moment was traced by Booker himself, when, writing the song ‘Papa Was a Rascal’, he sang: ‘When I was a young boy at the age of nine/I met a sweet Russian woman and I made her mine.’ Lily Keber believes that the “sweet Russian woman” refers to heroin.

Booker increasingly suffered from severe depression and paranoia as his addiction worsened, and he became obsessed over what he believed were “plots” against him.

“I feel like there was no realm in which Booker was in control, except the music,” Keber says in the documentary. “It seemed like the whole world could be crumbling around him, or his relation to reality, but as long as he was sitting in front of the piano, he was in charge of something.”

Bayou Maharaja is released via Cadiz music on 26 August 2016 - new cinema screenings are taking place from July 2016

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