Don’t be embarrassed if you don’t know the name James Booker. Just be glad that somebody does, and they made a great documentary about him. Through Lily Keber’s Bayou Maharajah, her first doc feature, we get the inside story on one of America’s greatest unknown musicians. Though it is a little bit longer than it needed to be, the narrative of the feature sticks to the most important elements of the story, and mainly focuses on Booker’s amazing music.
James Booker was a complicated man-his understanding of music, regardless of genre, puts even some of the most well-versed musicians to shame. I’m definitely not an expert when it comes to the New Orleans scene, but Allen Toussaint and Dr. John both are, and they describe Booker as a “genius.” It doesn’t take long listening to his music to hear what they’re talking about. He had the ability to mix ragtime, blues, classical, and anything else he could think of into his music. The flow was seamless, and as soon as he thought of something his hands knew how to play it.
That kind of brilliance usually comes at a cost, unfortunately, and Booker was no stranger to drug abuse. He spent some time in jail, did the rehab thing, tried his hand at a regular job-but he had some powerful demons to battle. He did achieve some success, in Europe, before he eventually succumbed to his maladies. I’m grateful for that, even though I didn’t know him myself. It happens all too often that amazing musicians are either forced to give up because they’re broke, or live a life of squalor until generations later hear their music and appreciate it. Booker won the Montreux Grand Prix for best jazz album for his 1977 release New Orleans Piano Wizard: Live!, beating Ray Charles. When he returned to the States from overseas, the audiences that revered his genius and loved him were nowhere to be found.
Keber does a good job of using found footage to let Booker tell his own story as much as possible. For a guy that is relatively obscure to most people, there seems to be a good amount of clips from which she could pick and choose. There’s an awesome clip where he’s in a green room talking with someone about a record he put out and how by lying in the liner notes on the back about what Booker was paid, the producer sabotaged his career. He was a big conspiracy theorist, which may have had something to do with the mental issues he was dealing with from an early age.
It really breaks my heart when I read stories or see documentaries about people so talented that go unappreciated in their own time. Dr. John called Booker “the best black, gay, one-eyed junkie piano genius New Orleans has ever produced.” Now that his story is out there, it’s our responsibility to make sure music lovers everywhere know about this brave creative powerhouse and share his unbelievable music with the world.
Bayou Maharajah played a couple film festivals last year, including South By Southwest. Friday May 2nd will be your first chance to see it in Chicago as part of the Chicago International Movies & Music Festival where it plays at 7pm at The Society For The Arts. You can get your tickets here. Keber’s telling of Booker’s story is one of the most interesting the festival has to offer, and I definitely wouldn’t miss it if I were you.
If you want to hear more music by James Booker, you can find some great recordings on Spotify!