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James Booker
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    (December 17, 1939-November 8, 1983)
    Born in New Orleans, Louisiana
    R&B/jazz pianist and singer
    Recorded the singles ‘Gonzo’ (1960) and ‘Junco Partner’ (1976)
    Toured with Dr. John and Jerry Garcia
    Played on albums by Aretha Franklin, B.B. King, Ringo Starr, and the Doobie Brothers
    Subject of the documentary ‘Bayou Maharaja: The Tragic Genius of James Booker’ (2013)
    He never seemed to tell the same story twice about how he lost his left eye.
    He abused cocaine and heroin, eventually serving time for possession in Angola Prison (1970).
    During a tour of East Germany, he smuggled marijuana behind the Iron Curtain by hiding it in his afro.
    His flamboyant outfits – including capes and an eyepatch embroidered with a star – earned him the nickname ‘the black Liberace.
    His drug use and mental problems led to erratic performances – brilliant one day, stopping playing to rant about the CIA another.
    A New Orleans promoter said, ‘One person once asked me if James Booker was crazy. I thought about the question for awhile and I couldn't think of any way he wasn't crazy. He was manic depressive, schizophrenic, self-destructive to the point of suicidal, a severe alcoholic..’
    At age nine, he was run over by an ambulance; at the hospital, he was given morphine for the pain from his broken leg, which he later suggested was the start of his problems with drug addiction.
    As a teenager, he had a local radio show, where he played everything from blues to Beethoven.
    When he was 18, he played for Artur Rubinstein, who marveled, ‘"I could never play that ... never at that tempo.’
    His song ‘Gonzo’ inspired Hunter S. Thompson to coin the term ‘gonzo journalism.’
    He taught piano to both Dr. John and Harry Connick, Jr.
    ’Bayou Maharaja’ director Lily Keber said, ‘You can find musicians who are good at classical, and you can find musicians who are good at street music. But it's a special breed who can master both.’

Credit: C. Fishel

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