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.

Images

The Piano Prince From New Orleans

The Piano Prince From New Orleans

Front cover to James Booker's 1976 album "The Piano Prince From New Orleans." Image Courtesy of Private Record Collector. View File Details Page

The Neville Brothers on Booker

The Neville Brothers on Booker

"In 1983 James Booker expired in a waiting room at Charity Hospital. He was a troubled man, but the city of New Orleans, birthplace of a slew of piano players who changed the world of sound, has never produced anyone better than James Booker." -- Cyril Neville, "The Brothers Neville" "At High Mass, James played the pipe organ with such authority, you'd think he was born in another century. Played the shit like he was Bach's illegitimate son. Booker taught me so much." --Art Neville, "The Brothers Neville" "James was a regular kid until he got hit by one of those Ghostbusters high speed ambulances... After that ambulance accident, Booker's mind was never the same." -- Art Neville, "The Brothers Neville" Image: Front cover of the Neville Brothers "Family Groove." Courtesy of Private Record Collector. View File Details Page

Dr. John on James Booker

Dr. John on James Booker

"There were just too many things Booker did that were so outrageously beautiful that I just can't see how he ended up like he did. I consider him to be a genius. If I was ever blessed to meet one, James Carroll Booker was." -- Mac Rebennack (Dr. John), "Under the Hoodoo Moon" Image: Front cover of Dr. John's "GRIS-gris" Image Courtesy of Private Record Collector. View File Details Page

Nightclubs

Nightclubs

This November 4, 1983 nightclub listing shows Booker scheduled to play at the Maple Leaf Bar on Monday, November 7, 1983. Less than a day after his final performance on Oak Street, James C. Booker was dead. Image Courtesy of The Times-Picayune. View File Details Page

'Piano Prince of new Orleans' James Booker dies at 43

'Piano Prince of new Orleans' James Booker dies at 43

James Booker died in the waiting room of Charity Hospital on November 8, 1983. He was driven to the hospital and dropped off, left alone to die. As talented as Booker was, his addictions eventually overcame him at an early age. Image Courtesy of The Times-Picayune. View File Details Page

Cite this Page:

Kyle Willshire, “James Booker,” New Orleans Historical, accessed July 26, 2017, http://neworleanshistorical.org/items/show/391.

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