James Booker Documentary, “Bayou Maharajah”
By Martin Jones
“The best black, gay, one-eyed junkie piano genius New Orleans has ever produced.” That’s how Dr John has described James Booker.
Booker is consistently referenced as a significant influence by New Orleans musicians. He played with the likes of Little Richard, Aretha Franklin, Freddie King, Wilson Pickett, Fats Domino and Bobby Bland.
And yet, outside of New Orleans, he remains relatively obscure.
Filmmaker Lily Keber has decided to change all that with her revealing new documentary, Bayou Maharajah: The Tragic Genius Of James Booker.
Read the Rhythms Q&A with Lily:
Has a biographical documentary about James Booker been attempted before? What did you hope you could add that hadn’t already been explored?
David Kunian- a renown DJ on New Orleans’ local station WWOZ- made a great radio documentary about James Booker, but this is the first video documentary. So to me, I felt that there was a lot that needed to be explored. For one, Booker is hardly known outside of New Orleans and a few die-hard fans. Despite the fact that he is a legend to these people, the fact that he taught Harry Connick, Jr. and Dr. John, that he played with dozens of top-tier musicians and is revered and remembered by all of them, or the fact that his approach to piano is so advanced that there are only a handful of people in the world who can play it, Booker still seemed to be on the verge of being forgotten. A musician of this caliber with this kind of crazy unique story is just too special to fall prey the vacuum of time. First and foremost, this film is designed to spotlight his life and music and legacy.
That said, the film is about more than just James Booker. His life raises questions about our culture, about the role of the arts in a capitalist society, self-destruction, creativity, sexuality, memory, intelligence. I’m always fascinated to show the film to new audiences because people react so differently to the material. This is especially true with the footage of Booker himself talking: 10 people can watch the same clip and come away with 10 different interpretations of it. I love that.
In your piece in the media kit, you seemed initially more attracted by the myth and legend surrounding Booker than by his music. Can you recall the first time his music really connected with you?
That’s very true. I’m not a musician myself, so for a long time I didn’t realize just how unique and technically-advanced his musical style is. For me, I connected with the emotion of the music first.
Ironically, ‘Sunny Side Of The Street’ was one of the first songs that I grew obsessed with. But then I found his ballads. Each one is in itself a study on the depths of human emotion. But heard together, they are a brilliant ode to the entire spectrum of human experience- from the sweet sentimentality of Sunny Side to the bitter, soul-ravaging loneliness of Black Night. And he would play these back to back on a live gig. To go from Let Them Talk’s testament to the power of love straight into Please Send Me Someone To Love’s utter existential loneliness and abandon.. I mean, wow. I can’t think of any other single performer who can pull off such range of honest, piercing emotional expression.
You’ve put a LOT of Booker himself in the film, which seems to be increasingly uncommon with modern docos. His voice, his image, his playing is everywhere. Was that a deliberate agenda, to give audiences a lot of Booker himself?
Was it deliberate? Well, yes and no. Booker is a very illusive character. As we show in the film, much of the “confusement” (as Dr. John would say) about Booker’s life comes from Booker himself. He would tell endlessly conflicting versions of the same event. In interviews, he would evade questions or just spin tales. I think part of this stems from his mental instability and paranoia, but part of it is just that he was a cagey guy. Part of it is probably also that he enjoyed creating his own mythology and enjoyed messing with people. What this does, though, is make it impossible to say which of his stories are true and which are fabrication. So rather than have Lily Keber decide which versions are true and which are exaggerations, I decided that it is more interesting and engaging to let the audience decide for themselves. We set up very early on in the film that Booker is a trickster and not a reliable narrator. So whether or not you decide to believe what he says in the film, well, that’s up to you.
For someone who was relatively obscure, there is a lot of documentation of him.. a lot of photographs and recorded interviews and performances. Were they easy to track down and was there more than you expected to find?
Ha. I wish! In fact, finding this stuff was probably the hardest part of all. It’s easy to find people around New Orleans who still remember Booker- everyone in New Orleans has a Booker tale- but finding the photos and the interviews was a different story. I can’t tell you how many people lost their pictures in the flood or had a boyfriend throw out their boxes or pawned the piano or somehow just lost their Booker memorabilia along the way. The majority of the New Orleans photos come from just one guy- Jim Scheurich- who was a close friend of Booker and who took very good care of his negatives. Because Booker trusted Sheurich, this cache of photos reveals a different, very personal side to him.
Beyond Jim, though, I really have to thank the Europeans. Playing in Europe was the highpoint of Booker’s career. It was the first place he was really taken seriously and, in turn, he began to take himself more seriously. Better yet, the Europeans knew that what they were hearing was very special, so they filmed him and recorded him and took pictures. I traveled to Europe in search of people who remembered him and, to their credit, people were very generous in letting me use their materials. I had Germans climbing in their attic after long-forgotten Super 8 films and Brits I never even met sending me their photos. I’m very grateful to these people for trusting me with their artifacts. But, as I said, Booker means a great deal to his fans.
I’d imagine that once you started asking, you must have recorded some fantastic stories about Booker. Where there any that missed the cut that you wish you’d had space to include?
Oh God, tons! There is enough great material from the footage on the cutting room floor to make a whole nother film! Unfortunately, most of the cut stories probably aren’t permissible for print. There’s some pretty gnarly stuff.
What is the main impression you hope people walk away from Bayou Maharajah with?
Booker’s life story is very complicated. As I said, everyone takes away something different. Some musicians who’ve watched the film are really touched by Booker’s struggle to make a living. Others are shocked at our culture’s insensitivity to difference. Or for unmarketable greatness, for that matter. For me personally, making this film about Booker’s life changed how I act as an audience member. For old timers in New Orleans (or those who visited it in their youth), the film often makes them regret that they didn’t take the time to appreciate Booker while he was living. There are a lot of things that people can take from this film, but ultimately I hope that it makes people take the time to appreciate the artistic output that surrounds us.
From Australia’s premiere roots magazine, Rhythms. 21 years old and still going strong, now in digital form for iPad at Apple Newsstand and rhythms.com.au
(Booker photo by Anton Corbijn)