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.
AD: Once you got hooked what were your next moves?
Lily Keber: I did research, but there wasn’t a ton of research really to be done. There wasn’t a lot on Google. There weren’t a lot albums to listen to. There wasn’t a lot online. I definitely read what I could and read the books that I could and started putting together who the characters were in the story. And then I just started calling them. New Orleans is a people based town where it’s not strange just to call someone out of the blue. MySpace was the thing then. So I would MySpace people or run into them in the coffee shop and just start talking. Talking a lot and getting a better sense of what the story was or really who I should be talking to.
When I went and interviewed people, it’s not like I knew the answers to the questions that I was asking. I had to really ask questions because I didn’t know the answer, which I think makes for more interesting interviews. I found the story as I interviewed people. So I would get a little bit of money and use that to get some interviews. And from those interviews I would put together a trailer. Then I’d get a little more money and then film a little more and make a trailer and work sample. And that was it. I probably did interviews for a year and half. Then I felt like I had enough stuff put together to go to Europe. So then I came over here to Europe and backpacked for a week and filmed stuff. The whole process was a real learning experience. Not only about filmmaking, because I’d never made a film before, but also about who Booker was.
AD: At what point did you figure out you needed to go to Europe? Obviously the story lends itself to that.
Lily Keber: Exactly. Probably pretty early from the fact that my favorite of his recordings were all European. The ones I would come back to were the ones recorded over here. And the fact that he was clearly taken — he won awards over here. He never won awards in America. I guess I knew pretty early that it would be a part of the story. But it took a while to get enough cash to be able to do it. I probably knew. I just didn’t know how to go about it.
There were a lot of people to talk to, but it was very much like ask one person who’d ask someone else who’d ask someone else. When we got over here, people would start to put in a good word. [Laughs] I remember we were in Northern Germany. The Germans are such people that plan way in advance. You have to make an appointment with someone and they put in their calendar months in advance. We were in Northern Germany at the very end and we were going to go down to France and have a day or two to sit. It was Easter. That’s what it was. And my parents were here. So we said let’s go and have Easter. Take a few days to recover. And then right then found – “Oh no, no, no, there’s this woman that you have to talk to in Germany.”
So I called her out of the blue. And she’s like, “Oh yes of course come see me.” And I said “Okay but can we see you tomorrow.” And she said yes and we ended up staying with her for days and getting recordings of his that no one had ever heard before. Photos of him that no one had ever seen. She’s the German that’s in the film, Helga Pfund.
AD: I was going to ask where you found her.
Lily Keber: It was so funny. George Winston had told us that we should talk to this German dude because he was a tour manager. So we called him and in fact he was not the tour manager but he referred us to someone else who was like, “This woman in the blues fan club. She’s the woman you need to talk to.” So I called her and she’s like, “No, actually, no. But I know the woman!” And so she called. You know, it’s like six degrees of separation. And none of them knew me whatsoever. Then when I talked to Helga, she even said–she didn’t speak much English, so we would talk in a mix of English and French–she said right off the bat, “There were two men in my life, my husband and James Booker.” [Laughs] She still remains pretty obsessed with him. Those two days spent with Helga were some of the craziest and most random two days of my life.
AD: And illuminating, I’m sure.
Lily Keber: Yeah. It’s also funny. I think she works really well in the film. But when we had her longer–when we had more of her stories, people were like, “No, no, no. That German woman, you’ve got to take her out.” They hated her. When we cut her down short how she is now, people love her and just want to see more.
But I did that whole interview in German. I don’t speak a word of German. But I just knew that her English was too limited. I spent a whole day with her hearing her stories. So then I said, “I’m going to interview you. I’ll ask you the questions in English and you respond in German.” So I asked her the first question, which was, “What’s your name and tell me about James Booker.” And then she talked for half an hour. [Laughs] And I had no idea but judging from body language I just kept letting her talk. And then half an hour later I said, “Cool, so then what happened?” And then she talked for another half an hour. [Laughs] And I didn’t have any idea what she was saying. And it wasn’t until I got back to the states and found someone to translate it.
And the Germans fall in love with her, too. They say she’s got a great turn of phrase. She uses a lot of slang. So it’s just funny. I had no idea whether it was a great interview or terrible interview. She could have been talking about anything. But, she’s so sweet. Oh my god, and that night, we ended up staying over an extra day to get the photos that she had of James Booker in the film copied. She picked me up in the morning and she said she’d had a dream that James Booker said, “Take my black heart back to New Orleans.” So she’d found this little black wooden heart. A pendant that you hang on a necklace. And she had filled it with all these little gold stars. Gold star confetti. I said, “Helga, you know that Black and Gold are the colors of New Orleans, right?” And she had no idea. It was so moving for her. So she gave it to me and she gave me some lilacs and gave us stuff and gave us stuff. And when I premiered the film in New Orleans at the Civic I brought that little heart with me because it was so–I don’t know–it was emblematic.
AD: She’s got so much spirit, it’s easy to see why they were kindred.
Lily Keber: That was a really beautiful thing about making this film is that there were so many stories like that along the way. So many stories and just great moments. And people being so generous and opening their hearts, their homes, their record collections, their books, and their photos. Everything. But it’s all because James Booker made such an impression on people when they met him. And that impression really, really stays.
AD: It’s very clear that he made a powerful impression on a lot of people. One of the things that I was going to ask you about was — this is such a New Orleans story — but why else would the D.A. of New Orleans allow this black, gay junkie to give his son piano lessons, other than the fact that he was this amazing, charismatic person?
Lily Keber: He had an incredible personality. And an incredible talent. So it makes it that much more bittersweet [laughs] that he didn’t make it. Well he didn’t make it in the terms that our capitalist society defines making it.
AD: Yeah, I mean, Allen Toussaint says that you’re a genius and the Rolling Stones want you to play on their boat and Hunter S. Thompson created a whole style of journalism based on a song that you wrote and yet nobody knows who you are.
Lily Keber: Yes, but those are the things that matter ultimately. And we know that, and yet somehow we let album sales get in the way of that. But I think that it’s also why Booker’s story resonates with people and why musicians and artistic people like the film. Or it’s one thing that a lot of people take away from the film. That the artistic struggle is not easy but there are — Booker, he wouldn’t compromise. He couldn’t compromise. He was who he was and he created the art that he created. And that is commendable. It doesn’t make it easier, but he never compromised that. [Laughs]
James Booker :: Gonzo (1960)
AD: One of the people that you interviewed was Cosimo Matassa. Without giving away too much, what was his take on Booker? He was working with him in the real early days.
Lily Keber: Cos – for one the story of interviewing Cos was incredible. For me he’s this huge towering figure. He should be living in a penthouse suite. And when I finally found him he was upstairs from the grocery store that his family owns in the French Quarter. And he was upstairs doing the accounts and answering phones. I’m like, are you fucking kidding me?
AD: He’s the Godfather of New Orleans Rock n Roll.
Lily Keber: Where else would you find Cosimo Matassa than above Cosimo’s Grocery Store in the Quarter. Sadly, the interview was pretty short. I started off and said, “Cos you’ve done all these incredible things.” And his response was, “I don’t know. It was no big deal.” [Laughs] To some of us it was kind of big deal. Kind of the biggest deal.
But his take on Booker was that he was easy to work with. He was reliable. He would show up and do a good job. And Booker could be that. Cos worked with him when he was younger. And as a side man, especially in his younger days, he could do an excellent job. He said the only time he remembered him not showing up was that some musician, I think from Houston, was coming to play. As Cosimo said, the dude had assaulted him in the past. So, when Booker found out who the gig was with beforehand, he didn’t show up. And he called him later and was like, “Is that dude gone?” And Cos said, “Yea, he’s gone.” And so Booker came in the next one.
Which is also a sad story, really. So many stories that people would tell about him – they like it because he was wild and unpredictable and he could still get away with it – but a lot of them really have a sadness to them.
Cos also told a story about a friend who came to New Orleans. I can’t remember if he was just a friend or a talent buyer. And he told his friend, “Go see Booker, but make sure you see him twice. Make sure you see him more than once. Because you can’t judge what he’s capable of from any one night. You have to see him in multiple contexts.”
There’s also a little line he said, “His music isn’t ready for public consumption.” [Laughs] Yeah, sweet.
AD: You mention how early on Booker was very dependable and it seems like his family was very supportive of his career. To what extent do you feel like his trajectory would have been different had his mother and sister not died when he was so young?
Lily Keber: That’s hard to say. There’s also very little known about his family life. Even his nieces and nephew, who are his only surviving relatives, even they don’t know a lot about that. Because it was their mom who died so young. I think that he needed a lot of support and he needed a real safe haven. Their passing – I think that it threw him to the wolves. He didn’t have that support anymore. And certainly the two of them dying so close together fed a lot of his conspiracy theories for the rest of his life.
Also there’s the question – I don’t know exactly what his mental illness was – but a lot of mental illness like that starts to come out in your mid-twenties anyway. So, maybe it was just bad timing. Maybe some of that would have come out later. I have all my family. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be an orphan by your mid-twenties. And also to lose a sister. That was his whole support network. He had three aunts after that but I know that his whole family was very deeply religious and I think a lot of his lifestyle choices didn’t go down well with them. Again I have no idea what his home life was but I think that even if he had family alive after that they weren’t necessary family that he could be himself around.
AD: His mom was the one who emancipated him to be able to perform, right?
Lily Keber: Yeah, and his mom played. His sister — Bettie Jean — he would always say his sister was a much better musician. And the people I’ve met have confirmed that she was a really great musician.
AD: It’s hard to imagine being out on the road and having no family to call and talk to.
Lily Keber: So then your friends and your colleagues become that family. So when people tell stories about him calling from the road. Who else is he gonna call? He had to rely really heavily on those friendships. It seems like he burned bridges. He would burn through friendships, too.
James Booker :: Tico Tico (The Lost Paramount Tapes, 1973)
AD: The paranoia thing – one of the ways that worked was his whole habit of taking the tapes with him. One of the sessions that Joe Boyd mentions with Bernard Purdie and James Jamerson – did you ever hear anything from that?
Lily Keber: I think that that might be the Geoff Muldaur album. That’s definitely the Geoff Muldaur album because I talked to Geoff and he had an incredible take on that session that I really, really wish I could have filmed and included in Bayou Maharajah.
AD: What about the Sea-Saint sessions? There are a few tracks on Youtube, is there anything else there that will ever see the light of day?
Lily Keber: Not from Sea-Saint. From Sea-Saint those four songs that are available are the only things that are available because the story goes that they came back loaded and Allen Toussaint got so frustrated that he just cancelled it then and there. When I asked Allen about that he said he had no recollection of it. Allen didn’t like to talk bad about people so whether or not he had a recollection, he certainly wasn’t going to say anything.
So those four songs are the only thing from Sea-Saint. There was a previous session that he did for Atlantic. There’s an unpublished session with Atlantic that I found that’s never seen the light of day. But I think that one – Atlantic had a fire and lost a lot of stuff. There was one that was recorded before then that I’ve never found. And it could have been lost in the fire.
James Booker :: So Swell When You’re Well (Sea Saint Studios, May 1975)
AD: Who was on the Atlantic session that you found?
Lily Keber: The one that I found was solo. But he even talked about recording for Atlantic beforehand. I think he called it ‘ragtime.’ It was a trio. [Laughs] You know.
AD: I found a guy on YouTube that has recordings of him playing at Aaron Neville’s Christmas party.
Lily Keber: Yeah, but then, Jack, a what’s his name – the sound guy from Toulouse Theater. He’s got hours and hours and hours. He says that Christmas party is actually his Toulouse Theater stuff. It’s hard to shuffle through all those bootleg recordings. Also, Leiber & Stoller. Which one’s still living? Lieber or Stoller? So the one who’s still living, I talked with him. He’s got a bunch of stuff. Booker taught piano to his nephew and lived with him for a while. And he’s got recordings of it that he offered me. But he’s really old, so his assistants are trying to catalog stuff and they haven’t even digitized it yet. That was another one of those “Are you kidding? The Leiber & Stoller?”
AD: One of the many other musicians that he played with was Jerry Garcia. Did those sessions ever come up?
Lily Keber: You can find those online. I would call that dueling junkies. [Laughs] I mean, I’m not a Deadhead, so it didn’t mean a lot for me. But I’d be playing that stuff and someone would walk through the room and just stop. Like can’t take another step. “Are you kidding me? That’s Booker and Garcia?” They can tell just from the guitar tone. So for people who like it, that’s absolutely gold. I think it’s funny, there are parts where Booker’s playing and he’s calling out the chords. And it’s like, I think that Jerry Garcia probably knows this song.
James Booker with Jerry Garcia :: Slowly But Surely (Palo Alto Rehearsals, January 7, 1976)
AD: I read somewhere that the show basically ended up being Garcia backing up Booker and they were like, “This isn’t gonna work anymore.”
Lily Keber: Maybe he didn’t know the stature of who he was playing with, but he definitely was treating him like a backing band. Which is funny.
AD: What was the most surprising thing you learned throughout this process. You basically uncovered every Booker rock there was to uncover.
Lily Keber: The most surprising thing for me was that Harry Connick, Jr. is one of our greatest living piano players. I didn’t know that. He’s fucking incredible. But that was just a personal discovery. I think something – I don’t know if this is the most surprising – but something I learned about Booker along the way, is that for one, he really is an artist in his own right. For example, his lyrics, I don’t think that people give him nearly enough credit for his lyrics. Maybe because you can’t understand him or maybe because they’re very coded. I think that people would sort of just write them off as ravings of a mad man. But as I got to know more about him and his biography, I found that his lyrics were really personal. I think he had an amazing ability to take a cover song and make it personal. To make it sound like he wrote that. You know, the version of “True” in the film, at Montreux, I can’t listen to any other version now. There’s a lot of songs like that. After listening to Booker’s, everything else sounds pale. “Junco Partner.” Everyone has covered that song. For me he brings such a depth to it. His covers are incredible, but I feel like people don’t give him enough credit as a songwriter as well. words / j steele