Tumultuous Life of Legendary New Orleans Pianist James Booker Explored in New Film

James Booker
Getty Images

Harry Connick Jr. deciphers the work of his piano mentor James Booker in Lily Keber's film "Bayou Maharajah: The Tragic Genius of James Booker," that receives its world premiere today at SXSW. He explains in the film that Booker's left hand begins with Chopin, leaving the right hand to work with octaves, rolled notes and ragtime.

"Its impossible to understand. He did things that were impossible to play," Connick told Billboard during a press junket for the film "When Angels Sing." "I had firsthand access to sit next to him from the time I was 7. I had teeny hands, but by the time I was 14, I was able to start transcribing and my brain was just mature enough where I was able to comprehend what he was doing.

"There are very few pianists who cannot be transcribed. He is one of them. It's a reason his 'Sunny Side of the Street' sounds like no other."

Keber, a first-time director, heard Booker's music on the jukebox at Vaughan's Lounge in New Orleans, famous for its weekly Thursday night shows by trumpeter Kermit Ruffins. Unlike so much of the city's other music that connects with Caribbean rhythms, Booker's music dips and dives between European classical and the city's rock 'n roll.

"The music on the jukebox didn't make sense, the stories people told didn't make sense," says Keber, who moved to New Orleans about four years ago after a post-college internship in Kentucky. "I thought: 'Who is this guy?' As I looked into it, it was even more confusing and complex."

Booker's life story is told in "Bayou Maharajah." How he learned saxophone prior to the piano, played Bach and Chopin at an early age and received pointers from Tuts Washington; recorded "Doin' the Hambone" when he was 14; picking up session work soon thereafter; and how he scored his first R&B hit with "Gonzo." As its written today, the two greatest and most inventive New Orleans pianists since World War II are Professor Longhair and Booker -- everything starts with them.

Then there's the other stuff -- substance abuse, a prison term, paranoia and questions about how to deal with his homosexuality. He was still a great side musician, working with everyone from Smiley Lewis to Aretha Franklin to Dr. John to Ringo Starr in the 1960s and early '70s.

"Booker's problem was that he shot himself in the foot so many times, and it comes out in the film," says Don Williams, who owns Booker's life rights and publishing. "That doesn't discount the fact he was a genius at the keyboard. He deserves to be acknowledged for what he did."

When Keber called potential talking heads, she says, "so often the first question was 'is this about the drugs and all the crazy stuff?' I showed there would be a balance (in the film). I didn't realize how much he means to certain people, especially piano players. They see his memory largely forgotten and want to see his legacy preserved. Once I got Dr. John and Allen Toussaint, then it was set."

Williams, who also owns the life rights and music to Professor Longhair and guitarist Earl King, was immediately impressed with Keber. He assigned the Booker rights to her free of charge.

For three years and through three Kickstarter campaigns that would raise more than $22,000, Keber searched high and low for Booker recordings, anecdotes and footage. An indication of how little he did in the U.S. is told by the fact that she has less than three minutes of performance footage from the States.

She was on a constant hunt for audio recordings of Booker speaking so "he could speak for himself as much as possible," she says. After the film wrapped, she landed two more interviews -- "on 10th generation cassettes."

"I wanted the structure to resemble a Booker medley, seamlessly going from song to song, thought to thought, but without traditional logic," she says. "The man is a mystery. It's about asking questions, not necessarily answering them."

Two men who provided support and commentary were the two producers of Booker's solo albums released in the United States, Joe Boyd (famous for discovering Nick Drake and Hannibal Records) and Rounder Records' Scott Billington. Boyd produced "Junco Partner" in 1975 after a legendary Booker performance at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival; Billington made Classified in 1982 at the tail end of his five-year run of shows at the Maple Leaf Bar in New Orleans' Uptown section. (A Los Angeles session in 1973 resulted in Booker running off with the master tapes).

Boyd had met and worked with Booker on a session for Maria Muldaur -- Dr. John had brought him along. Geoff Muldaur, at a subsequent session, wanted a New Orleans piano player and Boyd decided Booker was the guy. He then decided he wanted to make a record with Booker.

"It was a strange atmosphere," Boyd says. "The New York guys are all hyper-cool, understated, not showing any emotion, and Booker is flying all over the place. He was hopped up on something. I finally said 'let's take a break' and they cleared the room, and John Wood and I were trying to get his attention while he was pounding the piano keys into oblivion.

"I was no expert on New Orleans rock 'n' roll or R&B, or the songs you see on [producer] Cosimo Matassa compilations, but one of the tunes I knew came from New Orleans was a song Eric Von Schmidt used to do at Club 47 [in Cambridge, MA]. It just came to me as I was trying to distract Booker. 'You know 'Junco Partner?'' 'Know it,' he says, 'that's my theme song.' And he proceeds to play and sing it. It was mesmerizing."

Boyd's response to Booker's playing was to suggest that they record him solo with just the piano. Booker was having no part of it, insisting that he have a band behind him, even though Boyd was offering a $1,000 advance. (Shortly thereafter he would start Hannibal Records, which would be bought by Ryko and then Warner music).

Two week later, Boyd remembers, Booker called. "About that thousand dollars..." Booker said he would do the record with a single proviso: That Boyd provide him with a candelabra. (At one point, Booker referred to himself as the black Liberace.)

Once the recording was finished, Boyd attempted to get it released on Island, which had handled several of his other productions, but they delayed it a few years and put it out on the sister label Antilles. It received little attention and eventually Boyd released it on Hannibal.

"Booker was a very sensitive and very fragile man, a very sweet guy," Boyd remembers.

Less than a decade later, when Billington was attempting to make a record with Booker, he found "a sad and lonely person. I was 32 when I made that record, not having the full understanding of where he was coming from and what he had to offer. He may have been scared, doing an album on his own. He was a very fragile human being, so immensely talented.

"The more talented someone is, the larger the gift is, the harder it is to capture in the studio. Charlie Rich, Solomon Burke -- it's not always easy to summon the spirit on command. Booker was harder than anyone else."

Yet everyone involved in Booker's life takes their hat off to Keber and what she was able to do with his life story. The fact that she was making the film got Billington to dig out the session tapes of Classified and listen to them for the first time in 20 years. Licensing issues for overseas recordings make a soundtrack a dicey proposition, but Billington is thinking that once the film is released, an expanded edition of Classified would make sense.

"Lily is the first person I've known who said 'I'm going to do this film' and managed to follow through," says Billington, Rounder Records VP of A&R.

Two nights after Keber drove into Austin from New Orleans, she threw a small party at Red 7 and hired a pianist, Hassan Allen, who could work in a Booker vein. The pianist grew up in Compton, Calif., was classically trained and had spent the last eight years living in New Orleans, where he was trying to devote himself to the music of the 19th century -- but he couldn't avoid the ragtimes and R&B of his ancestors.

Allen played the music of Fats Waller, Jelly Roll Morton and Scott Joplin, though he said his heart was with Ravel. Booker, he said, was an artist he had been running from his whole life. The morning after the gig would have been his eighth day in Austin, but he no longer had anywhere to stay. He was taking his pay to bus station, picking his next home when he got there. It sounds like Booker has caught up to him.