Fans of James Booker, classic New Orleans-style piano and outrageousness generally, brace yourselves for exclusive clips of The Bayou Maharajah, the acclaimed Booker documentary that’s to be made available as a DVD. Booker, hailed by New Orleans legend Dr John as “the best black, gay, one-eyed junkie piano genius New Orleans has ever produced”, recorded between 1954 and his death in 1983, although the quirkiness of his technique and the vagaries of his lifestyle meant he was far less acclaimed, or even employed, in his lifetime than he ought to have been.
“The best black, gay, one-eyed junkie piano genius New Orleans ever produced.”
On the piano, Booker translated a virtuosity that once shocked no greater an authority than Arthur Rubinstein through the filters of New Orleans jazz and R&B. He played with Aretha Franklin, Fats Domino, Wilson Picket, Dizzy Gillespie, Ringo Starr, Jerry Garcia and many more.
Interviewees in the documentary include Dr John, Irma Thomas, the late Allen Toussaint, Harry Connick Jr – who took lessons with Booker – and actor Hugh Laurie, whose 2011 piano blues album Let Them Talk paid tribute to Booker among others.
The film contains extraordinary insights into Booker’s life, and his powerful strange music. “My first encounter was at [storied black music radio station] WMRI when he was 12, and I was 13,” recalls Allen Toussaint. “He was fly even then.”
“I think our movie is important for a lot of reasons,” director Lily Keber tells MOJO. “It's important because James Booker was a genius. It’s important because there is still progress to be made in respect of mental health treatment, the war on drugs, equal rights and tolerance in this country. It’s important because, as we have seen recently, there are simply no peers to replace guys like Allen Toussaint and Cosimo Matassa when they go. And it’s important for the reason Ernie K-Doe said: ‘I'm not sure but I’m almost positive that all music came from New Orleans.’”
In an exclusive montage of clips from the documentary, here’s some more of what Toussaint had to say about Booker…
Plus, some insights from Booker’s student, Harry Connick Jr…
And here’s the man himself in action…