News Column

Musical Genius Getting His Due

July 28, 2013


Who is your tailor's tailor? Where does the gourmet chef go to eat? Or in this case, who is the piano player that Harry Connick Jr., Dr. John, actor/pianist Hugh Laurie and many other top musicians swear is the greatest keyboard ace ever to tickle the ivories?

It's a guy you may never have heard of: James Booker, an eccentric, one-eyed, troubled visionary genius known variously as "the black Liberace," "the piano prince of New Orleans" and "the bayou maharajah" and widely considered to be one of the half-dozen greatest musicians ever to come out of a town that is famous for great musicians.

Booker, who died in 1983, was too erratic and beset by personal demons to ever establish much of a career for himself outside of The Big Easy. But as a new documentary, "Bayou Maharajah: The Tragic Genius of James Booker," attests, he cast a long shadow.

"I would say, as a musician and as a person, he was someone unlike anyone else who ever walked the planet," said director and co- producer Lily Keber, for whom the film has been a labor of love.

Financed partly by a Kickstarter campaign (Keber got more than $18,000) and premiered in March at the SXSW Festival, Keber's film features interviews with Connick, Laurie, Dr. John, Allen Toussaint, Charles Neville and many others, as well as rare footage of Booker and a huge helping of his music on the soundtrack. The film is getting its New York premiere today and Monday at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

It was on a jukebox at Vaughan's Lounge, a well-known New Orleans music joint (it's been featured in the show "Treme") that Keber - then working as a bartender - got her first earful of Booker. "I would play him there, and then, combined with all the stories about him, it's a bit overwhelming," Keber said.

The stories about Booker, widely circuited in New Orleans, are like stories about Don Juan or Billy the Kid: each more fantastic than the last, a few of them possibly even true. Did Booker actually sneak dozens of marijuana cigarettes through Checkpoint Charlie into East Germany concealed in his Afro wig? Did he actually use pseudonyms like Rupert Finkelstein and O.D. Slycop? There are at least a dozen stories about how he lost his eye: mobsters, record company thugs, falls from stairs and windows, CIA agents.

It doesn't help that Booker himself, during his life, told many and contradictory tales about himself and his escapades.

"Booker loved the fact that all these stories existed," Keber said. "He was a trickster character. He's remembered as the class clown, the person who could get away with stuff, even with the nuns."

What is not disputed is his music. Booker, born in 1939 in New Orleans, was recognized early on as a genius by no less than Arthur Rubinstein. "I could never play that ... never at that tempo," Rubinstein said after hearing the teenaged pianist. Classically trained, jazz and funk influenced, Booker could and did play everything - often morphing from Chopin into Ray Charles into a spiritual, as bewildered audiences struggled to keep up. And underlying everything was a pulsing, throbbing, deeply funky groove that was uniquely Booker.

"It's so technically advanced, yet so funky and soulful," Keber said. "That in itself is a rare combination."

Nor did Booker ever lack admirers: Ringo Starr, John Mayall, The Doobie Brothers and Patti Labelle all used him as a sideman on albums. Journalist Hunter S. Thompson named an entire genre of writing after his favorite Booker song: "Gonzo." A school kid named Harry Connick Jr. begged his father, New Orleans district attorney Harry Connick Sr., for piano lessons from the master.

But Booker had issues. Bipolar at a time when mental illness was less well understood, black and gay at a time when both were deeply stigmatized, a drug addict who spent time at Louisiana's notorious Angola prison, Booker didn't walk an easy path. He died of complications from heroin and alcohol abuse in the waiting room of a New Orleans charity hospital.

His music, however, remains. Also, his reputation - growing all the time, thanks to proteges like Connick who have talked him up at gigs and in interviews. This documentary may make his public larger still.

"I can't think of any musician who better exemplifies New Orleans," Keber says. "He was born here and died here, he was crazy and beautiful, he had moments of transcendent beauty followed by devastating tragedy. Very much like the city. You never know what's going to happen."




WHAT: "Bayou Maharajah: The Tragic Genius of James Booker"

WHEN: 8:15 p.m. Sunday, 3:45 pm. Monday

WHERE: Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, 144 W. 65th St., Manhattan. 212-875-5600.

HOW MUCH: $13 for adults, $9 for students


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