James Carroll Booker III (1939 – 1983), called the Piano Prince of New Orleans, the Bayou Maharaja, and the Black Liberace among other titles, was a virtuoso pianist and organist, and a legendary New Orleans character.
This mural was painted by an artist who goes by Preacher, who based it on a photograph by Jim Scheurich. The image, produced through the NOLA Mural Project, shows Booker after he lost his left eye under mysterious circumstances around 1974.
Booker was classically trained in his youth, and cut his first record, a piece of R&B called “Doing the Ham Bone,” under the name Little Booker when he was only 14 years old. He was physically slight, but with long fingers that would allow him to use technically demanding techniques at the keyboard. His apparent fragility made the abundance of his playing seem all the more miraculous.
While he is not a household name, Booker is regarded by many as a genius. Upon hearing a song once he could play it back note for note. On a recording session he once played a pipe organ ahead of the other musicians so precisely that by the time the sound exited the pipes it was right in time with the band.
In the 1950s and 60s Booker did session work at Cosimo Recording Studios and toured the Chitlin Circuit, often backing big-name artists. Sometimes he appeared as Huey “Piano” Smith, a bandleader with a number of popular records but not a famous face. Booker gigged on Bourbon Street, too, teaching Mac Rebennack to play the organ at Poodle’s Patio before the youngster became known as Dr. John.
Booker was a Black man, a gay man, and a man with mental health issues in the Jim Crow South. His wasn’t an easy life, and he struggled with drug addiction. In 1970 he was arrested outside the Dew Drop Inn, where he was a regular, for heroin possession. (He traced his drug problem to a childhood accident–he was hit by an ambulance and treated with morphine.)
In the 1970s Booker released a number of excellent albums, which sold modestly. He also began performing in Europe, where he felt more appreciated than he did at home. His regular gigs at The Maple Leaf Bar uptown and the Toulouse Theater (now One Eyed Jack’s) in the French Quarter could be revelatory or maddening depending on his state of mind–he could play an effortless mashup of Chopin and Ray Charles or stop performing and go on a rant about the CIA.
Booker became a cult figure in the years after his death. In the mid 1990s a James Carroll Booker III Society formed at Benjamin Franklin High School in New Orleans (adopting Booker’s liberal use of honorifics, every member was designated President). In 2013, documentarian Lily Keber produced an award-winning film about Booker called “Bayou Maharajah.”
From 1983, the year of his untimely death, piano wizard James Booker plays at the Maple Leaf Bar, where he had a regular gig.
From Lily Keber's 2013 documentary "Bayou Maharajah," Dr. John discusses the enigmatic James Booker, who taught him to play the organ.
Music historian David Kunian, producer of 2-hour audio documentary on James Booker, discusses the Piano Prince.
"The Life, Music, and Mystique of the Bayou Maharajah James Carroll Booker III," a 2-hour audio documentary on James Booker by David Kunian.