- Music, Culture, Minorities, and Human Interest
â€˜Bayou Maharajahâ€™ explores the life and music of New Orleans piano legend James Booker, described as "the best black, gay, one-eyed junkie piano genius New Orleans has ever produced". A brilliant pianist, his eccentricities and showmanship belied a life of struggle and isolation. Interviews with friends and musicians trace Bookerâ€™s rise from child prodigy to acclaimed session pianist, from his solo career and infamous personal life to his controversial death and continuing legacy.
- Show treatment
Switzerland, 1978. The concert hall is packed with howling fans who came to Zurich see the Boogie Woogie and Ragtime contest. Piano players from across Europe had been playing for hours, hoping to make it to the finals and win a chance to record an album. Midway through the evening, a tall, rail-thin man dressed somberly except for the shining sequined star on his eye patch takes the stage. He makes a run of the keyboard and the crowd silences. For the next hour, they will be held spellbound as he takes them from the highs of Sunny Side of the Street to the deepest, darkest lows of Black Night is Falling, from Sinatra to Percy Mayfield to Ray Charles- with a little Bach and Chopin thrown in for good measure. At the end of his set, he is promptly declared the winner and the contest is closed. Five years later, he would be dead at age 43- unknown and broke in his hometown New Orleans.
James Booker: even 28 years after his death, just the mention of his name is enough to leave any musician in New Orleans shaking his head in reverence- and confusion. Keyboard Magazine described Booker as â€œRay Charles on the level of Chopin.â€ Harry Connick Jr. called him â€œthe greatest musician Iâ€™ve ever heard, period.â€ The Huffington Post described his music as â€œunrivaled.â€ His 1967 hit Gonzo, a Billboard Top 10 single, lent its name to Hunter S. Thompsonâ€™s infamous brand of journalism.
Heâ€™s been called a lot of things: tragic genius, unreliable lunatic, hopeless addict, mentally-unstable con artist. He called himself the Ivory Emperor, the Black Liberace, The Piano Prince of New Orleans, Little Chopin in Living Color, the Bayou Maharajah. When audiences went to a James Booker show, they never knew what they would getâ€”the flamboyant, over-the-top homosexual Booker with an Afro and sequined eye patch, flirting with the audience while he played? Or the brooding, nodding-out Booker whose rants on drugs and the CIA would run off the clientele? If the audience was lucky, they might just get the contemplative James Booker whose medleys and technical skills would shatter the convention of genre, push the limits of what is possible with two hands on a keyboard, and offer up melodies that soared to such heights and depths of emotion that the piano and man seemed to be united as one musical instrument.
From the mid-1950s until his death in 1983, James Booker could play circles around any piano player in the world. His students included Harry Connick Jr. and Dr. John. He played with dozens of top-name acts, including B.B. King, Aretha Franklin, Ringo Starr, The Doobie Brothers, Little Richard, Ray Charles, Earl King, Joe Tex and many others. Yet because of his almost maddeningly diverse repertoire and sometimes-bizarre stage presence, this unparalleled musical genius has dropped from popular memory.
Bayou Maharajah takes Bookerâ€™s music as its central theme and expands outward, exploring the main themes his life brings into question: the mystery of the creative process, the isolation of artist in society, the ability of art to order and transcend the quotidian.
Bayou Maharajah begins with the opening refrain of the Lloyd Price Orchestraâ€™s Soulful Waltz. Itâ€™s an uptempo, sixties pop orchestra featuring a wailing James Booker on organ. Images of Booker appear on screen including photographs, album covers, and posters. Snippets of interviews introduce highlights of Bookerâ€™s life, personality, music, and early death. The intro ends with a video segment from Norway. Booker, wearing a flamboyantly-embroidered shirt and an arm cast to support a broken elbow, introduces himself- then dives into an unrelenting, unforgettable medley of funk, European classical canon, rock, and pop tunes seamlessly stitched together in a manner unique to his musical genius. At the end of the medley, the audience- momentarily stunned into silence- erupts into wild applause, enthralled by Bookerâ€™s musical dexterity and electric stage presence.
The Mystery of James Booker
In addition to being an incomparable musician, James Bookerâ€™s personality and presence left an indelible mark on those who met him. His visual appearance itself was striking- rail thin, a snappy dresser, and, above all, sporting an eye patch decorated with sequined or gold stars. Booker was intensely intelligent- a child prodigy on the piano, a skilled linguist, a gifted student, a conversationalist who could converse on any subject. Yet his intellect fed an isolation and paranoia that grew to dominate his energies in later years. Many friends recount how even a casual mention of the CIA would drive him from the room.
In striking contrast to the direct honesty in his music, Bookerâ€”the manâ€”is shrouded in mystery. Even close friends knew little about his family or upbringing. Though openly and flamboyantly homosexual in his stage presence, Booker had fewâ€”if anyâ€”boyfriends; if he had a partner, not even his closest friends knew it. The story of how he lost his eye is similarly vague and obscure. The most common versionâ€”and one that Booker, himself, often toldâ€”centers around Ringo Starr and unpaid session work. Other versions range from jealous lovers in Angola State Prison to drug dealers in Harlem to Ronald Reagan.
In the film, friends, fellow musicians, and schoolmates give first-hand accounts of Bookerâ€™s early music career and personality. Filmed interviews, archival images of New Orleans, and photos of Booker with other musicians fill the screen. Songs include his Top 10 hit Gonzo and samples of his work as a sideman playing with Joe Tex, Lloyd Price, The Coasters, and others.
James Bookerâ€™s music is known for its stunning range of repertoire; medleys could start with Rachmaninoff, dip into gospel, visit a Fats Domino hit and end with Taste of Honey. Any and all music could come from his fingers at a momentâ€™s notice. His technical skills were so advanced that he could seamlessly blend any song or melody that came into his head; one friend tells a story of Booker spontaneously changing key to match the frequency of a car honking nearby.
Pianists Josh Paxton, Ronald Markham, Tom McDermott, Dr. John, and George Winston explain and demonstrate Bookerâ€™s playing style, innovations, and technique. They provide a basic background in New Orleansâ€™ distinct piano tradition dating back two centuries and the influence of its Afro-Caribbean syncopations and street rhythms.
Other musicians- bassists, percussionists, and singers- talk about what it was like to play behind Booker, how his musical genius revealed itself in concert, and how his signature musical innovations distinguish him from the scores of piano players in music history. Concert footage of Booker playing in France in 1978 follows, allowing the viewer to watch Booker employ the techniques just explained.
The Tragic Genius
Despite the technical wizardry of his music, James Bookerâ€™s life was plagued by drug use, loneliness, and an inability to function fully in society. Hit by a speeding ambulance at the age of 9, Booker was given morphine for the pain, an action that he would point to as his introduction to narcotics. All his immediate family was dead by the time he was 28, an emotional scar that drove him deeper into his drug use. Despite the intense emotion in his music, Booker never knew the joy of love or close intimacy.
On November 8, 1983, James Carroll Booker III was pronounced dead in a wheelchair in the waiting room of Charity Hospital in New Orleans. The cause of death was intestinal bleeding. No one knows who brought him to Charity or why they left him. Some stories say that while drinking at a bar, he collapsed and the bar patrons paid for a taxi. Others say he was poisoned with a low grade of cocaine. Some say that while unconscious at Charity, a nurse saw his eye patch and mistakenly put him in a line for the eye doctor, sealing his fate. Like so much in Bookerâ€™s life, the truth of what happened is obscured by the vagaries of neglect and a haze of drug use.
The section ends with the song True. In this video from Montreux Jazz Festival, James Booker is a musician in full command of his audience and his craft. Traditionally a love song, in Bookerâ€™s hands it becomes a hauntingly lonely ballad. The lines â€˜You know you just donâ€™t love meâ€™ and â€˜Everybody knows/ Iâ€™m crazyâ€™ ring out across an enraptured Swiss audience.
James Booker is a singular figure in the history of American music. His intellect and force of personality burned an indelible mark on those who met him, and his music continues to stun musicians across the globe. The film ends with friends and scholars reflecting on Bookerâ€™s place in the American musical cannon, his struggle to reconcile his world view to that of the society around him, and on the unique lessons his life can teach us.
The song People Get Ready plays while footage from Bookerâ€™s funeral is intercut with evocative scenes of classic colonial New Orleans and interviews. The film ends with a single star wipe, a reference to Bookerâ€™s chosen emblem.
Includes a motion-graphics animation of Bookerâ€™s song Papa Was a Rascal.
- in production
- Lily Keber ... Director
- Eric Laws ... Sound Recordist, Assistant Editor
- Ted Moree ... Assistant Editor
- David S. White ... Director of Photography
- Tim Watson ... Editor
- Aimee Toldeano ... Editor
- Prod. Co.
- Mairzy Doats Productions
- United States
- Years of Production
- New Orleans
- Prod. Partners
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