James Booker :: Return of The Bayou Maharajah

In July of 1978, James Carroll Booker III sat down at a grand piano in a large concert hall in Montreux, Switzerland and played “True.” The video of this performance is spellbinding, if not galvanizing — equal parts Crescent City grit and classically trained sorcery. Midway through the song, after an otherworldly flourish of keys, Booker shoots a glance towards his fans (and the lens), as if to say, “Top that.” A few minutes later, as the last note rings out, the crowd stands and roars in affirmation of his sentiment. There was no match for the enigmatic New Orleans maestro on that night. He was at the top of his game, performing to a rapt audience in exactly the world-class venue his rare talent deserved.

Allen Toussaint called James Booker a “genius.” Dr. John said he was "the best black, gay, one-eyed junkie piano genius New Orleans has ever produced." Mick and Keith wanted him to play at their after party. Hunter S. Thompson named his writing style after his song, “Gonzo.” Lily Keber fell in love with his story while working behind the bar at Vaughan’s Lounge in the far reaches of the Bywater. Before long she was deep in the catacombs of Booker’s tragic legend, piecing together what eventually became Bayou Maharajah.

We caught up with Keber awhile back to chat about the film. She was —fittingly–in Europe. Read on to learn more about Booker and the making of Bayou Maharajah. Oh, and good news, as of today, the film is streaming on Netflix. Finally, the Black Liberace is getting another moment in the spotlight to strut his stuff.

James Booker :: True (Live at Montreux), July 1978]

Aquarium Drunkard: You became interested in Booker while working as a bartender at Vaughan’s. What were some of the stories that drew you in?

Lily Keber: The first stories that I heard were some of the typical James Booker stories. Throwing up on a piano. Holding a gun to his head and saying he wouldn’t play another note until someone brought him some cocaine. A lot of crazy sex stories - the wild side of life. But I think maybe it was because everyone understood what an incredible player he was. Most of the stories were at the end of his life. People remembered a lot of stuff at the Maple Leaf, more than the Toulouse Theater.

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