JAMES BOOKER, LIKE SO MANY LARGER-THAN-LIFE performers, had several nicknames. The Black Liberace, the Piano Wizard, Lil’ Booker, and the Piano Prince of New Orleans. Lily Keber just calls him “Booker,” and talks of him as if he were a distant authority, temporarily away on business.
Keber has been working for over three years on her documentary of Booker, and while the film could just as easily take his last name for a title, she knows as well as anyone that the key to self-promotion is evocative language. Bayou Maharajah proposes to be a down-to-earth film about a stratospheric talent, a man whose intimidating complications have left him mostly lost to caricature rather than comprehension.
Keber has another adjective she keeps coming back to when discussing Booker: monster. A monster on the piano, a monster genius. But his supernatural prowess on the keys came twinned with an equally imposing addiction to alcohol and drugs and unstable mental health. Booker, the gregarious monster, ate up adoration, audiences, and all the slack his friends and peers would provide.
After a long lifetime of visits to Charity Hospital, Booker died of renal failure waiting on the line at the institution. Thirty years after his death, Booker remains an outsized legend in his hometown and in the minds of people who knew him well, but is mostly a footnote in the nationwide consciousness of modern R&B. This is what drove Keber to take up this project in the first place, and what made it easy to convince local demigods like Dr. John, Irma Thomas, Johnny Vidacovich, Harry Connick, Jr., Cosimo Matassa, and Bunny Matthews to share their own stories.
“Booker himself opened these doors for me. Not only in New Orleans, but around the world. And when people who know him find out I’m doing this movie, their faces light up,” Keber said. “A lot of people who knew him and loved him wanted to see his legacy live on. [Professor Longhair] has a Jazz Fest stage named after him and Mac [Rebennack] is in the Rock and Roll hall of fame, but Booker’s best albums are out of print.”
Of course, separating truth from fiction can be difficult, especially forty years on. Keber has sought out corroboration, but knows that pinning down any New Orleans musician with a fondness for drugs can be difficult. For instance, there are dozens of versions of the story of how Booker lost his left eye—leading to his adoption of a star-studded eye patch—many of which probably started with Booker himself.
“My job with something like this is to lay all the cards on the table and let the audience make up its mind. I try to show as many sides as possible so that the audience can decide,” she said. “But it’s very complicated, and part of my challenge has been, how do you make a through line with it?” Reducing sixty hours of interviews and balancing them with performance footage and long lost photos has been a labor of love, but in the process Keber has become a sort of magnet for Booker memories and memorabilia.
“It’s been totally intimidating, becoming the custodian of this man’s life, just a really heavy responsibility. How I portray him in the film will affect how people think about him,” she said. Though the process has led her to a deeper appreciation of Booker’s music and life, Bayou Maharajah is not about her personal experience or the first step in being a lifetime archivist. It’s an introductory to intermediate course in the cacophony and calamity that Booker personified, one that she hopes will spur interest nationwide.
We are definitely more sympathetic in this day and age to troubled genius, and Booker had a surplus. As Lee Madere says in the trailer, “Being a black, gay, one-eyed heroin addict—that carries a lot of negatives. “ In addition to the headline hardships, Booker dealt unsuccessfully for most of his life with a mental illness that Keber believes was at the least severe bi-polar disorder, if not full on schizophrenia. Unfortunately, at the time, his peers were more inclined to chalk it up to side effects of the drugs.
Booker was often burning bridges and attempting to rebuild them. In the less-educated, hold-your-liquor mindset of the seventies, Booker’s true troubles may have been overlooked by casual fans and acquaintances.
As if being addicted and addled weren’t enough, Booker was also openly gay, or, at least, “as out as you could be then,” Keber said. But it’s not clear if this was a struggle or fight for him or just another aspect of Being James Booker. “He was certainly flamboyant with the wigs, and capes, and almost cross-dressing. But I don’t know if he was mentally stable enough to have a relationship. But even having a long-term friendship was hard for him, so I don’t know.”
It surprised Keber how much Booker’s homosexuality colored some conversations she had and even closed some doors. She’s chosen to not to diplomatically edit around it. “Even in 2013 saying someone is gay is going to ruffle some feathers […] And I don’t want to hit anybody upside the head with it, but I definitely felt I had to make a stand with it.”
Bayou Maharajah isn’t simply an exploration of what made James Booker different. It’s a film about what makes him impressive, and Keber promises a full portion of concert footage, previously unseen photos, and new-to-you audio. The best representative for Booker is really the Prince himself. I asked her what question she would ask him if she could get him on camera.
“It would probably be a request. ‘Will you play me “Sunnyside [of the Street]?”’ There are so many questions I have that I think I could only ask him to sit down and play because all the answers are in the music. Because that was his mode of expression.”
WATCH THE TRAILER
Ryan Sparks is the editor of Southern Glossary. Follow him on twitter.