Authenticity from the Delta – the Blues
At the same time that my ear was getting attuned to the wonders of Mersey and Beat my friend Dick Brunning, who was evidently utterly immune to the marvels of Pop Music, seemed keen to introduce me to authentic Chicago Blues. I have no idea how Dick got into what was such an obscure thing as Chicago Blues. In 1964 it was still largely unknown and certainly not popular. It wasn’t even by some eccentric word of mouth as he did not seem to know anyone else interested in Blues. He was, like me, fourteen years old and living in Surrey. Yet he’d developed an obsession with Blues.
Dick was one of that small group of people who you might find wandering around clutching a Blues album under his arm. This was how Mick Jagger had met up with Keith Richard. If Dick had lived in the right place and been on the correct railway platform he might have ended up playing in the Rolling Stones – but then he probably would have needed to have mastered a musical instrument and I don’t remember Dick having any musical abilities or interest in playing any instrument.
Dick lived some way off in Aldershot so it was quite a bike ride to his house. Therefore, whenever I went, he had a captive audience. We sat on his bed while he extolled the virtues of various Blues Artists. His favourite was an album of Lightnin’ Hopkins called ‘Lightnin’ Strikes. It had an echoey quality as Lightnin’, unaccompanied, played highly amplified electric guitar and had nailed bottle tops to his shoes so that he could accompany himself by tapping his feet. I kinda wished he wouldn’t.
At first it was a noise. I couldn’t make out a word the guy was singing and it was raw and unsophisticated. After many hours during which I politely showed interest I began to get more attuned and had a revelation as I started to make out that it was actually being sung in English even if it was not quite the variety I was used to.
Lightnin’ sang in a rich, black, broad Texas drawl that seemed to deploy a novel approach to the English language. In fact it appeared that he was attempting to create a whole new grammar as well. I found it quite intriguing. Out of sheer boredom I graduated to carefully listening to the guitar. I liked electric guitar but had never listened to anything that was remotely like this. Lightnin’ was playing loud with a great deal of distortion. As my ear tuned in I gradually grew to love the type of fluid runs he was putting together. That was all it took. The door had opened.
It did not happen overnight. It took Dick many months of hard work to get me hooked but get me hooked he did. I grew to love it. I have since hunted for that old vinyl album of Lightnin’s (He released a whole slew of albums called Lightnin’ Strikes) but have failed to locate it. I got its sequel ‘Dirty House Blues’ but it’s not as good. I have all the numbers on CD but they don’t sound the same. Somehow I imagine that even if I tracked it down those sounds are trapped in Dick’s bedroom over fifty years back and it could not possibly have the same magic.
Dick went on to introduce me to Howlin’ Wolf’s ‘Moaning in the moonlight’ and Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Reed and a host of others. I am eternally grateful.
On one occasion I can remember we were at his local record shop and they miraculously had a John Lee Hooker EP in featuring ‘Dimples’ and ‘Boom boom’. Dick was debating as to whether he could really afford it while I was extolling the virtues of ‘Ferris Wheel’ the new Everly Brothers single that had just been released. He ignored me and bought the Hooker.
On another occasion I found an old 78 of Muddy Water’s ‘Honey Bee’. I was really proud of it. Dick conned it out of me – promising me that he knew a place where he could get me a replacement. There wasn’t any such source but Dick was so insanely in need of the 78 that I let him have it. He still owes me.
Because of Dick I got into a lot of the Blues before the Beat groups brought out their versions. That didn’t stop me loving them though. I loved the way the British Beat bands did their often freaked out versions of old Blues. They made them different.
So there I was playing my Lightnin’ Hopkins in my bedroom along with my Searchers and Beatles. It seemed to make sense to me.
A strange thing happened to Dick at some future point in time. He was at a crossroads at the top of a hill leading down into town and edging out to go down to the shops. A car came careering along, tried to get round the bend and ended up rolling over twice and ending up in a field. Dick sat there open-mouthed. The driver of the crashed car kicked his door open and clambered out. He staggered across to Dick. Dick thought that he was going to say something like ‘Did you see that?’ and wound his window down. Instead the driver simply thumped Dick right in the face and knocked him out. Dick slumped forward, his foot came off the brake and he rolled down the hill.
He came round with his car in a great heap of tinned baked beans and a copper slapping his face. Seemingly he’d gone straight down the hill and through the front of a supermarket, right through the tills and into the beans. Fortunately, miraculously, nobody was hurt.
My love of the Blues blossomed and I ventured out into acoustic and also discovered the wonders of slide guitar. I was on the trail of Son House and I did not even know it.
First I had to discover Robert Johnson who I loved. Then I stumbled on Elmore James and I lit up. Elmore was a revelation. Those searing guitar runs and cracked up voice were explosive and I adored him. Dick had Lightnin’, Muddy, Jimmy and Howlin’ but Elmore was all mine. I discovered him!
I remember driving past Dobell’s on my motorbike and noticing two Elmore James albums in the window. They were like gold dust and the first I’d ever seen. Unfortunately the place was shut and I had to go back. It took me best part of a day to buy them. I had to drive all the way up to Charing Cross Road. It was like breaking into Tutankhamen’s tomb. The place was a treasure trove. I spent ages picking through the racks of American Blues. There were albums I’d never dreamed of! I had severely limited funds but came out clutching a handful of precious albums. I might not eat much for a few weeks but my ears were going to get nourished!
Unfortunately Elmore died before ever playing to a white audience so I never got to see him. Supposedly he had a heart attack in the recording studio in the early 60s. I always imagined that somewhere out there is a tape of Elmore crying out in pain and expiring. But that’s just me and my bad taste. I adored Elmore.
Later, because of the Blues boom, I got to see a number of the great Blues guys. I got to see Jimmy Reed play in a small London club. He had his son on bass and brilliantly slurred his way through a set of all his immaculate songs. But then he’d always sounded permanently drunk and the show was spot on.
I saw Muddy Waters three times with Otis Spann and his late 60s band. He was great but I think he’d toned down his act for white audiences. I would have loved to have seen him in one of those steamy Chicago clubs doing his full on act with all the women screaming at him, when he used to put a coke bottle down his trousers and get ‘em all going with ‘I’ve got my Mojo working’ and then flick the top off of the bottle and spray the audience at the crescendo. I think he felt that white audiences might find that a bit too raunchy. He may have been wrong.
That’s what Blues meant to me. It was dirty, dangerous and full of sex – a million miles away from sanitised white Pop music. You could see how it had fed into early Rock ‘n’ Roll. There was something seminal and real about it. It didn’t skirt the subject. It didn’t play for a gentile audience. It hadn’t been over-produced. It was still authentic and earthy. Where Sinatra sang of ‘Moon in June’ McKinley sang ‘I just want to make love to you.’ It was direct and honest.
They brought these Blues packages across in the late 1960s and I was privileged to see two of them at the Hammersmith Odeon. It gave me the opportunity to see many of my heroes before they slipped away. Many were at the end of their lives but still managed to give great performances, revitalised by the adulation of white audiences in Britain. They’d been dug out of obscurity and put back on the stage for a second career.
One package was Mississippi artists. I was really looking forward to it. I loved Bukka White, Skip James and Big Joe Williams and they did not disappoint. There were lots of them on the bill and they each got a twenty minute set. Big Joe Williams went down so well that he wouldn’t leave the stage and in the end they had to physically drag him off. Skip and Bukka were both ill and nearing the end of their days. Skip died shortly afterwards. But they both were great and their honest performances brought tears to my eyes. You wouldn’t have known how ill they really were.
Towards the end there was this guy Son House. I’d never heard of him. He was old and frail – in his late seventies. He shuffled on stage trailing his steel guitar behind him and we all wondered what on earth they were serving up. This guy looked well past his sell-by date. He sat on a chair, somehow lifted his guitar in his lap and began mumbling into the microphone like Hillbilly Bear (A cartoon character of the day). There was a muffled set of laughs. It was embarrassing.
Then he started to strum the opening to ‘Death Letter Blues’ the years dropped off him and the power radiated out. It was so powerful that it blew the whole audience away. The bottle-neck National Steel guitar was the most strident and forceful guitar-work I had ever heard. His voice was rich and expressive and he sang from the heart. By the end everyone in the hall was up standing on their seats bellowing for more. He shuffled off dragging his guitar behind him. The noise went on and he came back on without guitar. He stood there, clapped and stamped and sang a cappella.
I had discovered him.
I had found what I did not know I had been looking for. Son House had entered my life.
It is one thing to discover something but quite another to fully understand it. That is something I have been pursuing to this day. It is only with the advent of CDs that much of the material has come to light and is available. Back in 1967 there was only one album that had been released entitled ‘Death letter blues’. I played it in the shop in a tiny listening booth and it was every bit as strident and powerful as I remembered. I snapped it up.
Now I have 26 CDs of Son house material – including his early ‘field’ recordings and a number of live concerts.
Son House was playing at the time of Charlie Patton and those other early itinerant Mississippi blues musicians. He is fabled to have taught Robert Johnson to play. As such you could say that he was the focal point for all that was to follow! Rock music might not have existed without him.
You could say that my quest had led me all the way back to the beginning.
The beginning is a good place to start. Once you have the beginning you’ve got a cornerstone to build the rest of the story on. I consider myself fortunate to have seen the man who started it all. He was as awesome as his reputation.