JAMES BOOKER: TAKE MY BLACK HEART BACK TO NEW ORLEANS
The making of Bayou Maharajah
By Lily Keber
Reading time 24 Minutes
James Carroll Booker III
James Carroll Booker III was one of the finest musicians to ever sit at a keyboard. Period. His innovations, his technical expertise, his wealth of musical understanding are all mindboggling. He was born in 1939, died in 1983, and in those short forty-three years played licks that have never been played before or after. Harry Connick Jr.---his one and only student---called him “the greatest musician who has ever played.” Allen Toussaint called him a genius. His friend and running partner Dr. John called him “the best Black, gay, one-eyed piano genius New Orleans has ever produced.” Booker called himself The New Orleans Earthquake, the Piano Prince, Little Chopin In Living Color, the Black Liberace and The Bayou Maharajah.
I borrowed that last nickname and made a film about James Booker called Bayou Maharajah. It’s a ninety-three minute exploration into the man and the music. But the funny thing about Booker is that the only thing you can know definitively about him is the music. The man himself remains a mystery.
Some facts are known, of course. At age 14, he had a local hit named Hambone. At 21, he recorded a bouncy organ ditty called Gonzo. Gonzo charted well and is reportedly where Hunter S. Thompson picked up the name. Booker played piano on Fats Domino records (Yes, you heard me right. Meaning that the piano that you think is Fats Domino is actually James Booker). He recorded early numbers with Little Richard when they were both still in their teens. Booker played with Ringo Starr, Geoff and Maria Muldaur, Lloyd Price, Lionel Hampton, and every single artist from New Orleans you’ve ever heard of. He had a brief solo career in the mid-1970s, traveled across America and Europe, then came back to New Orleans and never left again.
By most accounts, James Booker was gay. He was probably bi-polar, possibly schizophrenic. He was a life-long drug addict and alcoholic. He was depressive. By his mid-20s, all his close family had died. I’ve never met anyone who was in a relationship with him or could testify that he had a committed partner. But given his mental state, I can imagine that holding down a relationship would have been difficult. If there’s one thing that people who knew him agree on, it’s that James Booker was a loner who longed to be in love.
I moved to New Orleans in 2006. It was a surreal time in a surreal place. A year after the storm (local shorthand for Hurricane Katrina), broken houses still perched in trees, mud caked cars were still upside down in overgrown lots. Helicopters overhead, army jeeps in the streets, MPs and state police. Residents displaced to cities they had never heard of were losing their houses in New Orleans simply because they weren’t there to mow their lawns. The streets and bars were filled with young white activists, aging Black Panthers, military guys from who knows where.
I had no plan and no money so I started bartending. I loved it. Vaughan’s Lounge was a perfect place to learn the city. Located in the 9th Ward (though at some point someone started calling it The Bywater, a foreshadowing of the gentrification to come), Vaughan’s was at the cross-section of a city laying bare all the hypocrisy and lingering racism of American politics. Black people from the Lower 9th came there to drink because all their bars had been washed away. White people from Chalmette came to drink because all their bars had been washed away, too. People with no electricity came to collect their thoughts. Locals used it as an office, took phone calls there, ate plate lunches, and washed them down with a beer. People struggling through the stress of losing their houses, their savings, their family members, their family photos, their entire lives came and convened with friends and strangers who had lost the same things.
And the soundtrack of all this was the jukebox. Not one of these new bullshit internet jukeboxes that take all your money and don’t have anything you actually want to hear on it. This was a vintage beauty, the kind with neon lights and bubbles and tracklists scotch-taped onto plastic placards. Cindy, the owner of the bar, picks all the music herself. In New Orleans, what’s offered on the jukebox is a direct reflection of the people who own the bar and the people frequent the bar. Vaughan’s jukebox had all the classics from New Orleans, Motown, 50’s R&B, the blues, jazz, salsa and, yes, even country. And crucially, it had James Booker on it.
I’d never even heard of James Booker
I’d never heard of James Booker. I would play his music on the jukebox and it made no sense to me. Vaughan’s has one of his Live at the Maple Leaf Bar albums. To me, the songs seemed to have no beginning, no end, no verses. Just stream of consciousness solo piano streaming out of a barely in-tune upright. His “Sunny Side Of The Street” felt effortlessly innocent and joyful. But I wouldn’t want to meet his “Taste Of Honey” alone in a back alley. Other tracks had bizarre names like “Piano Salad” and “Little Coquette.” Even with all this, though, it wasn’t the music that initially captured my attention: it was the stories.
New Orleans is a town of misfits and dropouts. (Where else could a man like David Ferrie not raise suspicion?) But even in the quotidian freak show that is the Crescent City, Booker stood out. With his star-studded eyepatch, rail-thin figure, complex drug habit and shaky mental health, Booker was a cut above. Locals relish telling about the time they saw him playing a show at Tipitina’s, only to stop and put a gun to his head, refusing to play another note until someone brought him more cocaine. Or the time he was playing at Rosy’s and spilled honey all over the keys of the only Steinway in town. Or how District Attorney Harry Connick Sr. would bail Booker out of jail in exchange for piano lessons for his son. Or how sometimes he wouldn’t play at all, choosing to spend the whole gig expounding on his conspiracy theories instead.
But in the same breath, that barfly at Vaughan’s would close their eyes and remember what he sounded like. That rainy afternoon at Lu & Charlie’s where he played without pause for two hours, seamlessly flowing from Rachmaninoff to gospel to Fats Domino to Barbara Streisand. Or that time during intermission at the Toulouse Theater where he spontaneously changed keys mid-song to match the pitch of a truck honking outside. Or one time backstage when they watched him play a Jimmy Smith song on organ… then watched him play the entire song backward just for fun.
Nobody who saw James Booker play live forgot that experience. It was either the best show they’ve ever seen in their life or the worst. Either way, Booker was a man who made an impression.
I was 24 at the time, calling myself a filmmaker even though I hadn’t yet made a film. I naively thought: “I’ll make a documentary about this guy,” having no idea of the journey I was setting up for myself. The resulting film would take three years to make, another three and a half to release, would involve me climbing through attics, drive for hours with directions told to me over the phone by someone I’d never met, and run errands for people so they’d let me film them. I interviewed sixty people on camera and probably twice that off. I tracked down people on the internet, looked them up in the yellow pages, introduced myself to strangers at coffee shops and grocery stores. I talked to celebrities and former junkies, musicians and moms. I got cussed out by a few people over the phone and by email. I lost friends and relationships. I gained weight, lost weight. I got grey hair and wrinkles. I stressed about money, ran up credit card debt, drove the same used car for ten years. I felt simultaneously the most loved and the most alone I’ve ever felt in my life. That said, people were very gracious and generous with me. I was a first-time filmmaker with no track record and not even from New Orleans. But because I was making a film about a person they loved dearly, they invited me into their world, loaned me photos, showed me their Super 8 films, fed me dinner, and donated money.
But not without vetting me first. This vetting took place in a variety of ways. The first time I met Mac Rebennack (better known to the world as Dr. John), he was playing at Preservation Hall in the French Quarter. After the set, I walked up to him and nervously introduced myself. I’m sure I sounded like a bumbling idiot. My memory of the conversation something like: “mynameis lilykeber andimafilmmaker andim makingafilmabout BOOKER.” Followed by what felt like a very long stare. But something about that worked because a few days later I was sitting with him eating gumbo. I tried to explain my very nascent idea of what the film was about. Followed by another long stare. Me: “and uh ifyoueverfeellikedoinganinterview thatwouldbe uh yknow uh great”. Mac: “Can’t do an interview tomorrow. Going fishing.” Me: “oh thatsok yknow like we can like do it later or whenever.” Mac: “Nah. Are you coming fishing or what? Do you fish?” Me: “Of course!” (It’s probably worth noting here that I don’t know how to fish.) So the next day I met Mac and his friends and we headed south towards the bayou. I knew no one in the car. It wasn’t until several hours later that I found out this was an overnight fishing trip. With the last drop of reception on my cellphone I called my boyfriend to let him know that I wasn’t quite sure when I’d be back or who I was with or where exactly I was going. But I was with Mac Rebennack, so I was sure everything would be fine.
In fact, everything was fine. The trip was during the oil spill so it was a strange time to be in southern Louisiana. But there we sat on the boat, fishing. Mac’s stories drifted from Etta James to Van Morrison and beyond. As we finally headed back to land, he asked me what I wanted to know about Booker. And then we set a time for the interview. (Addendum: Everyone on board caught a fish except me. But they gave me one to take home as a consolation prize.)
Other vetting was more formal. Allen Toussaint once texted to ask if I would like to come to “breakfast, lunch, dinner or high tea.” (I chose lunch. I still regret not choosing high tea.) He didn’t say much so I had to make the bulk of the conversation. In retrospect, I suspect that was intentional. Like many people, I think A.T. wanted to know what kind of film I was making. Was I making a film about a glorified junkie or was I telling the story of one of America’s finest piano players? Was I just a music nerd or did I have soul, too?
No one ever asked if I had gone to film school or if I had made a film before. People were testing me on whether I could make conversation, tell a joke, keep up with the references they were throwing at me. It’s a very distinctly New Orleans method of character vetting.
Going to Europe for research was even more of a trip. I never had much money to make the film and was always barely scraping by on rent. So I convinced my boyfriend to come along as sound guy/schlepper and booked a trip that included five countries in ten days. With a film crew of two. Planes, trains, automobiles, busses, cafes, jazz clubs. I met people in person who I’d only chatted with via messenger or email, had a brief check-in over a coffee or beer, then sat down to interview them on camera where ever we could find quiet corner. I interviewed one piano player on a train on the way to his next gig, our filming interrupted by passengers opening and closing windows, train officials checking our tickets and announcements crackling over the loud speakers. There was so much going on that I didn’t notice my camera bag in the shot until months later. Oh well.
One of the lucky breaks of the film was meeting Helga. She lives in southern Germany and describes the week that Booker stayed with her as one of the highlights of her life. I met her because a piano player in the U.S. gave me an email address for a German road manager who gave me an email address for an East German blues fan who gave me an email address for a West German blues fan who gave me a phone number for a former president of a German blues association who gave me a phone number for Helga. This is how movies get made.
We stayed in Helga’s town for two days. The night before we left, Helga had a dream in which Booker told her: “Take my black heart back to New Orleans.” So she got up, found a black wooden heart necklace and put it in a tiny bag filled with gold star confetti. I took this bag back to New Orleans. And when the film finally premiered, I carried it onstage with me for luck.
After I met Helga
After I met Helga, it took another two years to finish the film. Despite all the interviews and information I had collected, there was still a void in the movie where Booker’s personality should be. Everyone I interviewed had known a different Booker. To some, he was a highly literate philosopher and conversationalist. To others, he was a feeble addict teetering between methadone, heroin and the abyss. Some people knew a cagey, distant performer. Others saw a Booker who was the perennial class clown, a coyote Trickster character who still enjoyed playing pranks and having a laugh. The more people swore that they knew the ‘real’ Booker, the more I felt that no one had known the ‘real’ Booker at all.
I have a sequence in the film where several people give their different versions of how he lost his right eye. They’re contradictory, some utterly wild. Everyone swears that Booker himself told them the version of the story they know. To me, the Truth we learn from that sequence is not how he lost the eye, but the fact that Booker was so adept at self-mythologizing.
How do you tell the story of a man who is a mystery? If you leave it a mystery, will the audience feel gipped? If you try to answer the mystery, does it destroy something crucial along the way? And what if you get it wrong? I had a dead man’s legacy in my hands, so I felt a heavy responsibility to get the story right. There was never any point in the editing process where I was confident that the film would come together. I edited sequences, then scrapped them. Tried other approaches and scrapped those, too.
My solution was to burn a candle. I hung up a James Booker tour poster, burned a candle from the Santeria store and made a solemn promise to James Booker’s spirit: if he would guide me in the creative aspects, I would see the film through to the end and handle the financial side of things.
He kept up his end of the bargain. I found an excellent editor. Then found another! It’s unconventional to have two editors on one project, but in our case it created a fun dynamic. We fought and laughed and pulled all-nighters and ate lunches together. I spent Mardi Gras Day 2013 inside editing (by New Orleans standards, this is sacrilege). The last day before the film was due at its festival premiere, my tiny crew of four worked thirty hours straight only to emerge from our dark editing caves like vampires into the sunlight.
It’s hard to talk about what happened next. The short version is that the film festivals broke me. For three years, I had put up with people slamming doors in my face and telling me the film was impossible to make and questioning whether I would ever finish it. I put up with being broke, buying my groceries on a credit card so I could afford to pay other people. I questioned whether I had a right to make this film and wondered what would happen if I got the story wrong. But I put all that aside and focused on making a great movie. I naively thought that if I made a quality film it would find its own way in the world.
Instead, I discovered that no one in the film world wanted a documentary about an unknown dead piano player made by a first-time director. It was unsellable. To make matters worse, I had stuffed the film full of Booker’s music, showcasing his unparalleled talent. This meant lots of music to clear. Which meant more money had to be shelled out to pay for all that music. I vividly remember a small party we hosted for the film premiere, intended to entice film buyers. None of them showed up. And when I went to the ATM to get cash to pay for the piano player, I found all my accounts overdrawn. I had gone from infinite hope to complete despair in the course of a few hours. It would end up taking me longer to pay the music rights than it did to make the actual film. I have since sworn that I will never make another music film (Bobbie Gentry being the only exception).
The salvation was that I like the film. I’ve seen it a thousand times and still enjoy it. And the film has succeeded in bringing Booker’s legacy back to the forefront. Albums have been reissued, a website launched and a discography written. His music will pass on to the next generation. So although every year at tax time I have to be reminded that the film is a financial disaster, I hope that if my investors will forgive me then James Booker will too.
I don’t listen to much Booker anymore. It’s not that we had a falling out; we’ve just gone our separate ways. Music fans will still excitedly ask me what my favorite album is. How can I tell them that I don’t have one? How can I tell them what his music means to me? I’ve been at birthday parties when a playlist of Booker comes on. Without asking, I go to the stereo and change it. Booker is music I can only listen to alone. When James Booker sings, he is vomiting out all the heartbreak, all the hope, all the love, all the hurt and disappointment and devastation and joy and nostalgia for loved ones gone and faith in a life beyond that one person could feel in a lifetime. His is a wider spectrum of emotion. And he channels each and every one of those feelings into each and every song.
I’m not saying I managed to bring all that into the film. But I can say honestly that I felt every one of those emotions while making it.
I must add this: Had Vaughan’s jukebox not been filled with local music, nor the bar filled with locals who love that music, this journey would never have happened. I never would have heard of James Booker. I would have never known how deeply his music affected every person who experienced it. I’m rabidly against internet jukeboxes and will go to my grave howling against the encroaching mainstream. Without this connection to local traditions--local music, local food, local dance--everything that makes New Orleans will vanish. There will be no future generation of James Booker's or Dr. Johns or Allen Toussaints. The same goes for all our other musical cities as well. Think about that the next time you’re pushing that button on the jukebox.
Lily Keber is a filmmaker and educator based in New Orleans. Bayou Maharajah, her documentary on James Booker, has won many awards, including the Oxford American Award for Best Southern Film and Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities’ Documentary Of The Year. Her films have covered the Department of Homeland Security's policy of family detention, prison conditions in Gaza and the deteriorating environment of the Gulf Coast. Lily is currently in post-production on Buckjumping, a documentary on New Orleans dance culture and Apres Nous, a cultural portrait of southern Louisiana told entirely in French. http://www.lilykeber.com/