Reviving James Booker, The ‘Piano Prince Of New Orleans’
Every day in New Orleans, Lily Keber rolls out of bed and walks to a flat, minor office building to meet her muse. Keber makes a cup of coffee with chicory, hooks up her computer and waits for what sounds like a dozen spiders to crawl across a piano.
Keber is making Bayou Maharajah, a documentary about James Booker: the Piano Prince of New Orleans; the black, gay, one-eyed junkie; the tutor of Dr. John and Harry Connick Jr.; the man who first called his fingers “spiders on the keys.”
“James Booker was one of our country’s greatest piano players,” Keber says. “You can find musicians who are good at classical. And you can find musicians who are good at street music. But it’s a special breed who can master both.”
A classical-music prodigy as a child, Booker grew up to originate a style of piano playing that few can emulate. Everything from his delivery of Chopin‘s “Minute Waltz” to his rendition of “Black Night” highlighted his talent: spiders on the keys, heart on his sleeve.
But in a town where soul queen Irma Thomas stands next to you at the dry cleaner and Dr. John turns up at the grocery store, people often take their musical legends for granted. Sometimes it takes an outsider like Lily Keber to remind everyone that genius is rare. Keber was born in North Carolina and schooled in Georgia. She moved to New Orleans just a few years ago.
“I knew Dr. John, I knew Irma Thomas, I knew The Meters. I knew the big names. And I didn’t know James Booker at all. I had never heard the name,” Keber says. “So when it eventually started to dawn on me that he was a real guy and he really did play this amazing music that’s coming out of the jukebox, that sort of floored me.”
Filmmaker Lily Keber with the poster for her upcoming documentary, Bayou Maharajah.
Perhaps the biggest challenge to Keber’s project is that James Booker is unavailable for comment. He died almost 30 years ago, before Keber was born.
“Many people have described him as a great conversationalist. And he loved people,” Keber says. “But then, if I ask them, ‘What was his family like?’ they don’t know anything. ‘How did he learn how to play piano?’ They don’t know anything. He could talk about anything in the world, except himself.”