James Booker

New Orleans native James C. Booker had a successful career as a session player and solo act, but his life was filled with turmoil and addictions. An unconventional piano virtuoso, Booker held a weekly gig at the Maple Leaf Bar. A lifelong drug addict and alcoholic, he was found dead in the waiting room of Charity Hospital in 1983.

Excerpts from an interview with New Orleans filmmaker Lily Keber, director of the Booker documentary "Bayou Maharajah," provide more insight into Booker's tragic addictions:

Kyle Willshire: When did Booker get addicted to heroin?

Lily Keber: His only hit, Gonzo, is a drug reference. By the time he was 17 he was using.

KW: Why? Was it the stereotypical musician’s tale?

LK: His parents were pretty straight laced. His father was a minister. He didn't grow up on the street. He went to Catholic school. He was emancipated at 17 so he could play at the Dew Drop. So yeah. It was his exposure to the scene.

KW: Before his death, did Booker's addictions ever seriously affect his musical ability?

LK: No. Nothing affected his playing. That's the super-human thing about Booker. Sometimes he wouldn't show up, or wouldn't go onstage. Or threaten to shoot himself in the head unless someone brought him coke. So everyone would wait while someone went and got it. Sometimes he'd be playing and start singing and it was awful.

KW: Did Booker's death cause an increased awareness of the problems heroin presented to the neighborhood or was it more inconsequential?

LK: Booker dying made Dr. John quit. He quit on Booker's birthday. If there is a silver lining to Booker's death it's that Mac is still around.

KW: How long was Booker an alcoholic?

LK: His whole life. He tried to stop drinking at one point. Took antabuse in the morning, but would drink on it at night and vomit. He tried to quit heroin many times, but only drinking once.

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