The late James Booker, known as “The Piano Prince of New Orleans” and other grand epithets, was a conspiracy enthusiast and applause junkie who sometimes dressed in drag. A man on the edge and a virtuoso, Booker is the subject of Lily Keber’s documentary “Bayou Maharajah: The Tragic Genius Of James Booker.”
The mythology surrounding Booker is as enormous as his talent. Booker, who wore an eye patch, did little to dispel the rumors swirling around him. How did he lose his eye? Depending on the person asked, the answers include a fight in Angola State Pen (where he served time following a heroin bust), Jackie Kennedy, a record company dispute and a fight with Ringo Starr. Born in New Orleans in December 1939, Booker performed as a child prodigy at various establishments, including the legendary Dew Drop Inn. From ages 16 to 20, Booker was an in-demand piano player who toured with several musicians.
Unfortunately, his spiral into drug and alcohol addiction was rapid. It fueled paranoia and made him a prima donna. Although he never felt valued at home, he found an appreciative audience in Europe. But his erratic behavior eroded that following.
Booker died waiting to see a doctor at Charity Hospital in New Orleans at 43.
In addition to vintage performance footage, “Bayou Maharajah: The Tragic Genius Of James Booker” includes several interviews with Booker himself. The doc is augmented by interviews with those who knew and worked with him, including Allen Toussaint, Charles Neville, Harry Connick Jr., historian Douglas Brinkley, actor/musician Hugh Laurie and many others.
Although Booker, who was at work on his own autobiography, is quoted as saying that “the James Booker story does not need elaboration,” we can be grateful to Lily Keber for bringing his story to the screen.