On November 8, 1983, musician James Carroll Booker III died. Known as the “Piano Prince of New Orleans,” Booker was described by fellow musician Dr. John as, “the best Black gay, one-eyed junkie piano genius New Orleans has ever produced.”

Booker was born on December 17, 1939, at Charity Hospital in New Orleans. He learned classical music early while living with relatives in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi.  

Booker was given morphine when he was nine or 10-years-old after he was hit by an ambulance. He attributed the life-changing incident to his battle with drugs and alcohol throughout his career. 

Booker returned to New Orleans as a teenager and attended Xavier Preparatory High School. While at the high school, he also started his own band which included Art Neville, who would go on to form the Neville Brothers musical group.

His musical talents were noticed by producers at Imperial Records where he recorded the record, “Doing the Hambone” at age 14. There were reports that Booker was the youngest to record on the label at the time. 

Much of Booker’s life, including how he lost his eye, is a mystery, recounted in stories of varying detail by close friends and fellow musicians in the 2013 documentary about his life, “Bayou Maharajah” by filmmaker Lily Keber. 

“Booker for me was so complex and so over my head until I just enjoyed it and said thank you, I’m glad this world is big enough for the both of us,” said pianist Allen Toussaint in “Bayou Maharajah.” 

During his career, Booker performed with a number of major artists including New Orleans native Fats Domino, Aretha Franklin, Little Richard and Ray Charles. Musicians such as Harry Connick Jr. and Dr. John considered Booker a mentor.

When he wasn’t touring Europe or with other musicians, Booker could be found performing at the Maple Leaf, the Toulouse Theater or Dew Drop Inn, where he was arrested in 1970 and sent to the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. He served six months of a two-year sentence.

Booker’s music can be heard on a number of albums dating back to 1976, featuring hit records such as “Gonzo,” and “Doin’ the Hambone.”

On November 8, 1983, Booker died while waiting to be seen at Charity Hospital in New Orleans. He was 43.

His colorful, flamboyant style and personality can be seen in a mural on St. Claude and Elysian Fields. And over the past few years, the city of Bay St. Louis has held an annual Booker Fest in honor of the musician. 

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Shannon Stecker is a creative writer, a marketing director, and a lover of stories. She has spent the past 15 years of her career in a creative space – as a print and broadcast journalist, a freelance...