This week marks what would have been the 75th birthday of an enigmatic but extraordinary New Orleans musical genius — James Booker.
Born Dec. 17, 1939, in New Orleans, Booker was famously described by Dr. John as "the best black, gay, one-eyed junkie piano genius New Orleans has ever produced." Filmmaker Lily Keber did a masterful job of documenting the R&B piano legend's life and musical career in the 2013 documentary Bayou Maharajah. In the film, Booker's friend and musical protege Harry Connick Jr. says, "There's nobody that could even remotely come close to his playing ability." Friends and fellow musicians also share stories of his eccentric and self-destructive ways.
Later known as "The Black Liberace" for his flamboyant performances, Booker was addicted to drugs and once pulled a gun onstage during a performance at Tipitina's.
Growing up on the Mississippi Gulf Coast in the care of his grandparents, he began playing music as a teenager and had modest success as "Lil Booker." He spent time behind bars at Angola, which he sang about in one of his most famous songs: "Junco Partner." Dr. John and Harry Connick Jr. were students of Booker's style.
As Booker's recording career developed in the 1970s, he toured with and appeared on albums by Ringo Starr, Aretha Franklin, The Doobie Brothers and Jerry Garcia, but he's best remembered as a solo artist. He performed extensively in Europe before returning to New Orleans in the 1980s, where he struggled to find gigs, though he had a regular one at the Maple Leaf. In 1983, years of drug abuse and mental illness finally claimed his life. He was just 43..