Three years ago, Lily Keber was entertaining herself during slow bar shifts at New Orleans' Vaughan's Lounge by working her way through a jukebox full of Crescent City standards.
"People at the bar would hear the music and go, 'Ah, Booker!' and they'd start telling stories," Keber said, remembering afternoons at the dive, deep in New Orleans' Bywater neighborhood, which happened to be decorated with a stuffed deer head wearing an eye-patch in honor of piano legend James Booker.
"So it's two in the afternoon, a bunch of drunks are telling some story I don't understand, pointing to a deer head, while listening to music that I just played randomly, and that was ultimately my introduction to Booker."
The result of this initiation is Bayou Maharajah: The Tragic Genius of James Booker, Keber's first feature-length documentary, which premiered at the SXSW film festival last week.
"When I went to Google him there were like two articles. There was just so little stuff available. These days, Fess [fellow piano genius Professor Longhair] is on every T-shirt everywhere you turn, but there's no Booker DVD, there's no Booker poster. But everyone I talked to knows him. He made this huge, deep impression, but in terms of the world of commerce there was nothing," Keber said.
The film follows the self-proclaimed "black Liberace," a queer, one-eyed, piano-playing junkie, known for his jangling keys and love of capes, over a life that ended at age 43, as he was waiting in the emergency room of New Orleans' now-defunct Charity Hospital.
"I am trying to show the full spectrum of the ways he struggled with everyday reality. Being black, being gay, being schizophrenic, having one eye. It was just one more thing that made him an outsider," Keber said.
To fill in the gaps, the documentarian interviews Irma Thomas, Allen Toussaint, Dave Bartholomew, Dr. John, Charles Neville, Harry Connick Jr., Hugh Laurie and even the writer and academic Douglas Brinkley.
"All I had to do was ask and they would say yes, because they love Booker and they don't want to see him forgotten," Keber said.
But the real Booker fan will delight in the colorful tidbits. He had his first hit at 14, toured with Aretha Franklin, recorded with Little Richard, tutored a young Connick Jr. and taught Dr. John to play the organ. He was sent to Angola prison – where detainees still chopped sugar cane – after a drug bust for junk. He had a penchant for performing in skimpy briefs and once stuffed pot into his Afro to smuggle it into East Germany. There are myriad explanations for how he lost his eye, ranging from selling it to a tourist to an attack of vengeful drug dealers to Dr. John's explanation: "something to do with Jackie Kennedy." Brinkley offers that Booker's 1960, heroin-inspired recording "Gonzo" was the musical inspiration for Hunter S. Thompson's drug-addled journalism of the same name. And Toussaint calls him a "true genius."
"Booker's memory was on the edge of a cliff," Keber said. "A little bit longer and so many of the people in the film would have been dead, and so much of this stuff wouldn't have existed."
Fortunately, she trolled European state archives for concert footage, scored previously unseen super-8 footage courtesy of an East German blues fanatic, discovered new audio recordings (like an unreleased 1974 session, produced by Jerry Wexler) and inherited a rare reel-to-reel interview from a Swiss collector. Footage was hardest to find in New Orleans, where Booker's critical and commercial appeal was nowhere near that of Europe.
"So many TV stations just threw their tapes in the Dumpster. You can't blame the storm on that. New Orleans creates this talent so easily that it just won't take the stuff seriously," Keber said of Booker's touch-and-go Louisiana reception. (In fairness, that might be attributed in part to his touch-and-go local performances.)
Still, if there was one thing that kept the musician grounded, it was those "spiders on the keys."
"I feel like there was no realm in which Booker was in control, except the music," Keber said. "It seemed like the whole world could be crumbling around him, or his relation to reality, but as long as he was sitting in front of the piano, he was in charge of something."
For now, Keber is still looking for distribution, and will continue to screen the film on the festival circuit.