Tribute to Rock genius – John Lee Hooker

Tribute to Rock genius – John Lee Hooker

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John Lee Hooker

In the 1940s John Lee Hooker recorded under numerous names to avoid contractual disputes. There were hundreds of little recording studios, some in rooms above grocery stores or such like, and John must have signed a myriad of exclusive contracts. He probably spent his days going from one to the other laying down exclusive tracks. At the time he was mainly acoustic, had a great imagination and improvised a lot. So even if it was the same track that he started off laying down by the end it would be something different.

Like every other blues singer who stayed in the business he went electric after the war and by the 1950s had developed a number of different styles. His most successful was his boogie style. He’d always had this natural broken rhythm. It was quite typical for the Mississippi Bluesmen to base their songs round a repetitive rhythm. It was most pronounced in the North Mississippi Country Blues but it pervaded the area. Coming from a poor share-cropping background John would have been steeped in it. John’s was different because he would interrupt and break that rhythm. It created a more jerky style. When coupled with John’s deep, rich, resonant voice it was hypnotic. His first hit came with ‘Boogie Chillun’ using that boogie style. It was different to the piano boogie of the 1930s and 40’s but even more effect on his electric guitar in the sweaty blues clubs. It created a great rhythm to dance to.

Unlike other Blues singers from Mississippi John migrated to Detroit and missed out Chicago. That was mainly because he worked in the car industry performing in the blues clubs in the evenings. He made Detroit his home and signed to labels such as Vee-Jay and Modern. He did record some stuff for Chess and I wonder how his style would have fitted in there alongside Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. But that was not to be.

When the British Beat boom took off in 1964 John found his boogie style particularly popular with the British Bands. Numbers like ‘Boom Boom’ and ‘Dimples’ were on the repertoires of many bands. The Animals were firm devotees and did a great version of his chilling ‘I’m Mad’. He toured Britain and found an eager young white audience.

As time passed some of John’s songs became standards with people like Johnny Winter and George Thoroughgood giving them a real shift of gears. ‘One Bourbon, One Scotch and One Beer’ being a real crowd pleaser. Others like ‘I’m in the mood’ and ‘Tupelo’ were slower numbers. He could do a real sensual style, as with on ‘I’m in the Mood’ with that rich voice burning with sexuality. A number of his songs were little vignette’s of stories that he put together. ‘Boogie Chillun’ is about a young kid who was burning to get out into the clubs and dance. ‘Tupelo’ was about the terrible flooding that occurred in the 1930s when the Mississippi burst its banks and many lives were lost. ‘I’m Mad’ was about infidelity and murder.

He was always successful but it wasn’t really until he made the album ‘Healer’ late in his life that he really became a megastar. Doing duets with Bonnie Raitt, Carlos Santana and George Thoroughgood found him a wider appreciation. He followed that up with albums like ‘Mr Lucky’.

It was a great end to an illustrious career and much deserved.

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5 thoughts on “Tribute to Rock genius – John Lee Hooker”

    1. Hooker’s story is actually as thus:
      As a teenager he lied about his age to get into the army. Later he drifted to Memphis, Cincinatti and finally to Detroit where he settled, aged 23. Although he had been taught how to play guitar by his stepfather earlier, he didn’t have one until given it by T-Bone Walker in 1947.
      He worked only as a janitor at a car factory in Detroit by day, playing clubs at night.
      He always maintained he didn’t like Chicago because there were too many other guitar players there. He made his first recordings in November 1948 – Boogie Chillun was one of them.
      In 1949 he recorded as John Lee Hooker, Delta John, Birmingham Sam & His Magic Guitar, The Boogie Man and John Lee Booker.
      In 1950 he recorded as Texas Slim and Johnny Williams
      1951 as John Lee Booker and from summer as John Lee Hooker and remained as such.

            1. I should really thank the Bluesologist Robert Palmer – he who wrote and published ‘Deep Blues’ in 1981. I sent him a letter back then with a load of questions and he replied and we subsequently corresponded every 6 months or so over several years. He showed me the way, who to listen to, who not to, who was original, who wasn’t (too many of them) etc.
              I couldn’t have had a more knowledgeable person.

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Robert Johnson – The King of the Delta Blues Singers

Robert Johnson – The King of the Delta Blues Singers

Robert Johnson was the King of the Mississippi Delta Blues singers. At least that was the title conferred upon him by white advocates of the Blues in the 1960s. It was also the title of that extraordinary album of his music put out in the 1961.

Back in the sixties Blues albums were hard to come by. There were a little group of us who used to scour the music shops, going through the bins in search of the old cardboard covered Folkways albums featuring the authentic Country Blues. We would head off up to London to check out Dobells in Charring Cross Road which stocked Blues albums. Blues was, perhaps rather naively, considered to be an authentic music – not sullied by commercialism. It was not so tainted by pop production as the stuff in the charts.
That first album was revered. It depicted a painting of a black man in a striped shirt and brown trousers, sitting on a chair, playing a guitar. The background was brown and grainy looking like the reddish brown dirt of Mississippi.

The painting had the perspective of looking down at the scene. There was a stark shadow as the singer was sitting out in his yard on a bright Mississippi day.
At the time nobody had any idea what Robert Johnson looked like. I used to look at that cover and think it was meant to represent him. I now know it looks nothing like the photograph of the man in the suit that came to light later on – only one of two or three known images of Robert that exist. It was just the record company looking for a suitable image for the album. It had little to do with Robert.
But that album had quite an impact. Just sixteen tracks. It set a standard for both guitar playing and composition. The remaining thirteen tracks that Robert had recorded in those two sessions, plus alternative takes, were not destined to be released until 1970.
So was he really the King of the Delta Blues singers? That is highly disputable. Certainly there were many great Blues singers from that region, at that time, who had far greater recording success and notoriety. There were Blues singers such as Texas Alexander, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Son House, Big Joe Williams, Skip James and Bukka White; all of whom might well have a reasonable claim. Then later, more electrified performers such as Elmore James, Muddy Waters or Howlin’ Wolf, might aspire to that title.
How can anyone confer a title of King?
What does it matter? Nobody can doubt his ability. His voice, guitar playing and song writing was extraordinary. It led Eric Clapton to say he was the greatest Blues Singer who ever lived and for Jimi Hendrix and Keith Richards to cite him as a great influence.
The music legacy he left behind is scant. Just those twenty nine tracks and twelve alternative takes recorded in makeshift studios in hotel rooms in San Antonio and then Dallas in 1936 and 1937. Yet those songs were amazing. Songs like Cross Road Blues, Sweet Home Chicago, Come On In My Kitchen, Hellhound On My Trail, and Terraplane Blues would find their way on to so many Rock albums and set lists. The guitar playing was so fast and intricate that many claimed that the tracks had to have been speeded up as they were impossible to play. The influences those twenty nine tracks had were enormous.
As for his story – well that too is remarkable.
Robert Johnson was an itinerant Blues Singer. Rather typical for his day. He was one of a number who would travel round the South busking on street corners, playing juke joints, barbeques, dances or inns, and scraping a living in hard times through performance.

It was Eddie ‘Son’ House who taught him how to play – and here is where the myth begins. It was reported that he hung around with Son and other performers learning the rudiments, and then he disappeared to come back a year or two later having completely mastered the instrument. The transformation was immense. Nobody could believe how good he had become.
It was that transformation that fuelled the myths. Overnight Robert had changed himself into a guitar wizard. Rather than believe that this was a case of hard work and practice perhaps the story started up that he had sold his soul to the devil in return for guitar expertise. Perhaps Robert played up the story. He was reputed a showman. He might well have considered that it gave him an allure. But more likely was the fact that this myth only started up much later when white reporters began taking an interest due to Robert Johnson’s importance to white Blues performers.
It seems to me that this was Son House regurgitating a myth that had circulated regarding that other guitar wizard Tommy Johnson. Son liked to impress the white men who sought him out. They lapped it up and he told them what he thought they wanted to hear so the myth grew.
Mississippi was like a third world country, full of black slaves and superstition. Underlying the Christian religion were the old African superstitions – The Ju-Ju, Mojo Hand, John the Conqueror and the Voodoo of the shaman and Voodoo Queens. The Blues is steeped in that Voodoo imagery.
Robert was reputed to have gone to the crossroads at midnight to make a pact with Satan. The Satan concerned was no Christian Satan, but rather the African Voodoo Devil Papa Legba.
Of course, this never happened, but it added a bit of mystique to the tale. Though maybe this superstition had played a role in Robert’s chosen career.
Robert had married early but his sixteen-year-old wife had died shortly after in childbirth. The family blamed it on his singing of secular songs. Perhaps Robert believed that and felt guilty. Or perhaps the experience – the pain and ostracising, just pushed him out on his journey. He decided that the settled life of raising a family and farming was not for him. He started out on his short journey as an itinerant singer.
Robert wandered from town to town performing and enjoying life. He had an eye for the women and whiskey. It was said that he had a pretty girl in every town.
We have been left with scant knowledge of his life and very little of the songs he was performing – just twenty nine tracks. Not enough to see the entirety of his range.
We unfortunately only have one side of Robert’s repertoire. He had many other facets. Out on street corners he would busk with the popular songs of the day. At the Jukes, Dances and Country Barbeques he was expected to entertain and get people dancing while in the inns and taverns it was a different set of songs. It was said that he had a musical ear and could play any number after hearing it once. He was reputed to have known hundreds of songs.
So how did those recordings come about?
Don Law was an Englishman who secured work recording artists for ARC. He was recommended to record Robert by a talent scout called Speir, who ran a General Store. As it was Robert himself who had approached Speir it is probable that he considered himself ready for a next step.
Don was probably the only white person that Robert ever performed for and he probably knew intuitively that Don would just want the Blues numbers. So we will never know the full extent of Robert’s large repertoire as the popular ballads, vaudeville songs and Pop songs that he also played were never recorded. All we have are twenty nine masterpieces, recorded on makeshift equipment, all first takes, and all immaculate – the voice, guitar and songs – all equally brilliant. He was reported to have been so shy of playing to a white man that he turned to face the wall to record. But this might not have been shyness so much as acoustics.
Those tracks were released as a series of 78 rpm singles and sold quite well. They brought him to the attention of Colombia record producer John Hammond. He was planning a big showcase concert at Carnegie Hall in New York in 1938 to promote black music. It was called ‘From Spirituals to Swing’ and he wanted Robert to represent that Mississippi Blues style.
Who knows what that would have led to? It certainly would have meant more recordings. It would have brought him to the attention of a white audience. It could have ignited his career.
Unfortunately none of that happened. John sent Don Law to find him but they merely heard reports of his death. At the age of twenty seven Robert Johnson was dead. He took with him all those future songs, all the other songs he knew. All lost.
The myths did not stop there. The tales of his death became equally bizarre. He was said to have become possessed by the devil, crawling around on all fours howling. Others said that he died of syphilis. There was talk of a ruptured aorta as a result a congenital disease – Marfan Syndrome. But all that is mere conjecture.


I had the opportunity to speak to Dave ‘Honeyboy’ Edwards who told me that he was with him the night he was murdered. They were playing together at an inn situated on the outskirts of Greenwood – two young men, enjoying themselves, entertaining, and trying to earn a buck or two. Dave said that Robert was making eyes at the landlord’s wife. The landlord gave him a bottle of whiskey that he’d adulterated with rat poison. Robert drank it. Later that evening he started feeling ill and left to go back to his room. Dave did not really think it was anything serious and expected to see him around the next day. After a few days he called and was told Robert had died. A similar story was told by Sonny Boy Williamson who claimed to have been with him at a Country Dance near Greenwood when he was poisoned. Who knows?
There was no great fuss, no autopsy, no police investigation – just another young black man dead. Life was cheap. He was not greatly well known or revered in the black community. He was not a major artist. He was just Robert Johnson – an itinerant busker. He was buried hurriedly in an unmarked grave.
Robert now has three graves – all with markers on. I visited all of them.

According to Dave ‘Honeyboy’ Edwards, who also claimed to have been there when they buried him, it was the small marker behind the old wooden church that was the site of the real grave. But he said that it was unmarked for decades and after all those years nobody could quite remember the exact spot.
Twenty nine wonderful songs. That’s all. Twelve alternative takes. There could have been so much more. He was only twenty seven.
I like to think that in a parallel universe he hadn’t been poisoned and had gone on to perform at Carnegie Hall and record many other albums. I like to think that he played in front of white audiences and received all the adulation he deserved.

What a treasure trove we would have had.

I also like to think that I would have been able to see him just like I did with Skip James, Bukka White, Muddy Waters, Big Joe Williams and Son House.

My alternative self would have loved that!
What a great loss.

Photography – Swamp Blues – Lazy Lester in London

Photography – Swamp Blues – Lazy Lester in London

Swamp Blues has always been a favourite of mine. I fell in love with an album called Swamp Blues in 1965. The names alone – Slim Harpo, Lazy Lester, Lightnin Slim, Lonesome Sundown and Whispering Smith seemed to say it all. They were recordings from the fabulous Excello Label produced by JD Jay Miller in Louisiana.

They were favourites of the Sixties Beat groups too – the Kinks, Stones and Yardbirds did their share.

I never got to see any of them perform. Most are dead now. But then Lazy Lester had a gig in London in 2012 and I took my younger son to see a legend.

I was fortunate enough not only to see a great concert but to crash a photo session and have a chat with the man himself. He was a bit cantankerous but he let me in and that is great. The man’s a legend – he not only produced the brilliant ‘I’m A Lover Not a Fighter’ himself but backed most of the other big names and even a lot of Country & Western Stars.

True to form he did a searing set but refused to play his only hit!

Here’s the photos I took.

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Photography – Dave ‘Honeyboy’ Edwards – the man who was there at the beginning of Rock.

Photography – Dave ‘Honeyboy’ Edwards – the man who was there at the beginning of Rock.

I saw Dave ‘Honeyboy’ Edwards in Sheffield in 2009. I had just come back from Mississippi where I looked but could not find any Blues. Then I came home and T-Model Ford was playing in York and Dave in Sheffield.

I’d been all over Mississippi hunting out the old haunts, graves and places where the old Blues guys had played.

I visited all three of Robert Johnson’s graves.

Dave was an amazing guy. He was eighty four when I saw him and died two years later. He was full of life.

I had a chance to have a little chat with him after the show. Dave had been with Robert Johnson playing in that bar in Greenwood in 1938. He told me that Robert had been making eyes at the wife of the barman and had been poisoned with strychnine rat-poison. He became ill and had to go home but they hadn’t expected him to die.

He also told me that the real grave was at the back of the church.

It was incredible to meet a legend who had been there right at the beginning of modern day music. Without the Blues we wouldn’t have had Rock.

I just wonder what it would have been like if Robert Johnson had lived.

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Mississippi Hill Country Blues – Howlin’ Wolf – West Point – RL Burnside & Junior Kimbrough.

Mississippi Hill Country Blues – Howlin’ Wolf – West Point – RL Burnside & Junior Kimbrough.

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I was too late for them all. RL Burnside, Junior Kimbrough and Howlin’ Wolf were all dead. The club where Burnside used to play was burnt down. All I could do was some Blues archeology.

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At least they had recognised the importance of one of their great alumni. There was a statue and museum to the great Howlin’ Wolf.

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West Point was a typical Southern town

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The plaque to Chester Burnett’s wife.

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The statue to Howlin’ Wolf

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The Howlin’ Wolf Museum. It was shut.

I bought a pile of Blues CDs at a shop along the road.

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Murals on the wall showing scenes of yesteryear.

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Howlin’ Wolf peering across the street at us.  DSC_0472

If only I’d been here twenty years before or fifty years before. I could smell blues in the air. But I couldn’t see or hear it.

And more R@B – Elmore James – Shake Your Money Maker

And more R@B – Elmore James – Shake Your Money Maker

The great Elmore James – the undisputed king of the slide guitar. Nobody has ever got close to that slide sound (though I love Jeremy Spencer dearly).

I’ve heard some people say its about shaking dice. I don’t think so. Shaking that money maker can be seen on every dance floor.

More R@B for Kathy – Fleetwood Mac – Rattle Snake Shake

More R@B for Kathy – Fleetwood Mac – Rattle Snake Shake

Fleetwood Mac, with the brilliant Peter Green and Jeremy Spencer and then Danny Kirwan, always played locally. They were fantastic live. Peter was the best guitarist in that style and a writer of some brilliant songs.

More R@B for Tobes – Jimmy Reed – Ain’t That lovin’ You Baby

More R@B for Tobes – Jimmy Reed – Ain’t That lovin’ You Baby

This is the great Jimmy Reed who invented that chugging beat. He was a great performer. I only saw him once, and yes, he was remarkably drunk. But he was also remarkably cheerful and absolutely brilliant.

This is Ain’t that Lovin’ You Baby – one of his many best. Elvis covered this one.

This is Shame Shame Shame – another great one – The Merseybeats did a great cover of this one!

Dr Feelgood – Roxette – Another genius R@B track

Dr Feelgood – Roxette – Another genius R@B track

Dr Feelgood were an early seventies Pub Rock band who specialised in R@B just like the Alligators. Wilko Johnson on guitar was amazing. Lee Brilleaux unfortunately died. But what a great band.

This is what happens when a bunch of Canvey Island guys do R@B.

The Mississippi Blues Trail – A bit of Elmore, BB and Sonny Boy

The Mississippi Blues Trail – A bit of Elmore, BB and Sonny Boy

The Mississippi Blues trail is a brilliant way to discover Mississippi. It takes you into the back of beyond and to strange parts of town. You pass the fields the slaves used to work in, the dives they used to play in and the street corners they used to busk on. By the time you’ve finished you’ve got a real feel for the place.DSC_0481 DSC_0490

I saw Big Joe Williams perform in the late sixties on one of those Blues packages they brought across. He was on the same bill as Son House, Skip James, Bukka White, James Cotton and a few others. He went down so well that they couldn’t get him off stage.

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You found the markers out in the middle of nowhere.

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Back in the early days the people like Jimmie Rodgers and Woody Guthrie would mix quite freely with the black singers. Musicians seemed free of the evils of apartheid. Jimmie did a lot of blues numbers.

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Trumpet records recorded my hero Elmore James (as well as people like Sonny Boy Williamson). I found it quite thrilling to stand where he had recorded a lot of those searing slide guitar riffs that I love so much.

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Both Elmore James and Sonny Boy Williamson performed at the Alamo Theatre. A lot of those places were run down and neglected. But then they ripped the cavern in Liverpool down too. These politicians are fools. We should respect our heritage.

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This was close to the place where BB King used to busk and record.

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This was the site in Natchez where the Night Club burnt down killing so many people. Howlin’ Wolf sang about it in the song Natchez Burning.