In a town where both death and the past are less final than most anywhere else in the U.S., Booker’s genius at the piano and his flamboyant eccentricity fueled the legend that keeps him alive in people’s minds 30 years after his death.
Lily Keber’s film Bayou Maharajah: The Tragic Genius of James Booker successfully fires on two cylinders at once, varnishing Booker’s legend while fleshing out his unretouched life story. Booker’s musical brilliance allowed for a career that crested above all of New Orleans’ great cultural waves of the past 50 years. A secret weapon in the city’s great rhythm and blues era, he was all over the road and in the studio for others, finding his own niche in the early ’60s with the pop hit instrumental “Gonzo.” But “Gonzo,” as with all Booker’s other Peacock 45s, had a double entendre title reference to heroin (see also “Smacksie” and “Big Nick”), refracting the underground life he was living with an addiction that would undo every professional opportunity his genius provided.
The next wave Booker rode came in the ’70s, when local folkies, hippies and scholars organized Jazz Fest to proffer critical acclaim for local artists like Booker, celebrating the New Orleans-ness and eccentricities that did not afford them the international success of hit makers like Fats Domino (think also Professor Longhair and Snooks Eaglin).
It is at this point in Booker’s history that Keber was able to marshal most of her resources. Current interviews with artists like Dr. John and Harry Connick Jr., stalwart sidemen like Johnny Vidacovich, and journalist/mavens like Bunny Matthews—all of whom matured in that era—combine to paint an artist’s rendering of self-destructive genius. To this mix is added a trove of overseas concert footage and interviews from the late ’70s that capture the flesh and blood. Here too the most dramatic arc of Booker’s life is tracked: He tours the European and GAS countries to a superstar’s acclaim, then returns home like a Cinderella whose clock has struck midnight, and within five years he is dead.
Keber’s directorial style lets this robust story tell itself. Though, for example, she can employ quick cuts to humorously show the many tales told about the loss of Booker’s eye, she takes her time in the service of his artistry, languorously letting footage of performances play out in their entirety. The color close-ups of Booker live in Montreaux are almost a living brain scan, as styles and influences jump out of him like fireworks. Keber captures the rhythm of the city sooner in her career than many new jacks. .And though the film’s history is not complete—Booker had meaningful tenures with the Beale Streeter Earl Forrest in Houston, and with the R&B/pop star Lloyd Price in New York, among others—the absence of these trees does not keep you from seeing the forest.
Keber has done enough to tell a complete story, that of an untreated paranoid whose lifelong need for self-medication upended a parade of professional opportunities. Whatever else we don’t know is “different day, same stuff.” Post-Katrina New Orleans is today one degree further separated from its golden era, but with Bayou Maharajah, Keber gives us a piece of modern expression, one that makes us better informed and more deeply touched by the iconic figure we only thought we knew.Aaron Fuchs has reissued Booker sides and other New Orleans essentials on his Tuff City label. Lily Keber’s Bayou Maharajah will close the New Orleans Film Festival at the Civic Theater on October 17.