Memories of the Boogie Man
You might have trouble believing this little story, but here it is. On the Friday morning in June 1964 when John Lee Hooker’s “Dimples” was released in the UK, three of us — strangers to each other — were queuing up to buy it as a record store prepared to open its doors in the centre of Nottingham. This wasn’t the new Beatles or Stones single. This was a record made eight years earlier by a middle-aged American blues singer, and yet it seemed like the newest and most essential thing you could spent that week’s 6/8d on. And we three weren’t alone. “Dimples” made No 23 in the charts.
A few months later Hooker toured Britain, backed by the Groundhogs. They played the Elizabethan Rooms in Nottingham, a large space above the Co-op, and all five members of the local R&B band I was in made the pilgrimage to hear him. More than that, we clubbed together for a bottle of Johnnie Walker Red Label and persuaded him to sit down at a table with us between sets and listen to our naive questions about the blues. He was patient and good-natured but the whisky evidently spoke more clearly to him than we did and I don’t remember a thing he said.
But the proximity was more than enough, as it probably was for the Groundhogs. They clearly loved his music and did their best, but this was an early stage of English kids playing the blues and they were probably a little too refined and respectful for the music’s good (although, of course, John Lee’s idea of how many bars made 12 created problems of its own). Musically speaking, it wasn’t great, but the chance to see him close up was priceless.
I thought about all that while watching John Lee Hooker: The Boogie Man, Todd Austin’s excellent documentary on BBC4 tonight. I listened to Van Morrison saying that he responded so directly to Hooker because of his working-class background, and to Eric Burdon talking about how it was because he left school unable to read or write that Hooker spoke to him. Fair enough. But I also thought that there was I, a middle-class boy, privately educated, to whom Hooker spoke just as directly and profoundly from the instant I heard him. And that was the magic.
“Boom Boom” was a big record for me when it came out on a Stateside 45 the year before “Dimples”, and so were “Tupelo” and “I’m Mad Again” from The Folk Lore of John Lee Hooker. But the record I really loved was Don’t Turn Me From Your Door, a collection of tracks from two sessions in 1953 and 1961 released on Atlantic’s Atco subsidiary in 1963, most of them featuring just Hooker’s voice and his guitar (and his boot-heel, of course). There was an elemental quality to these recordings that went back beyond the Chicago blues we were mostly listening to and yet, with its pulsing drones and sudden explosive note-clusters, seemed as free as the freest free jazz.
The Boogie Man is fine tribute, thanks not least to Charles Shaar Murray, one of its consultants, whose fine biography of John Lee gave the programme its title. Among others giving evidence are Elvin Bishop, Bonnie Raitt, Keith Richards, and three of Hooker’s very eloquent children. Robert Cray has the best story, telling us that this was one Delta-born bluesman who, whenever he went on the road, always travelled with satin sheets.
The Elizabethan Rooms – that took me back Richard, as did trying to play Dimples – in essence so simple yet in practice so difficult. Cheers Phil
Richard, very lucky to have been there at the right time and to have had such a good idea of getting a bottle of whiskey to share with Mr Hooker. I loved the Boogie Man doc. too and strange but true, earlier today I found a copy of John Lee’s Blue in a charity shop in Ayrshire for £1. A certain synchronicity at work.
He thrilled me too, another middle-class boy, and the first LP I bought was ‘Don’t turn me from your door’. I’d always wondered about its somewhat austere sound. It was stolen from me some years later and I’ve only hear it streamed since then. Not the same. Thanks for giving us some information about it, and for invoking memories of being fourteen. I’d heard nothing like it before.
All you can ask of a blog is that it makes you want to participate. I’ve just switched the telly on to record the early hours repeat of this so that I can watch it and regret the times I never got to see him. I was just about old enough but living in the wrong place.
I’d bought the Vee Jay album, “I’m John Lee Hooker”, I think it was actually on French Vee Jay, before he came over the first time. It had a picture of an open stove & pipe on the cover as blues albums often did then for not always aesthetic reasons. It had tracks, “Every Night”, “Maudie”, “Baby Lee” that had a flavour you could taste, and I can still can, Eddie Taylor and the bass player working uncannily and seamlessly around Hooker’s own idiosyncrasies.
We also met John Lee on his first tour as you did. He played the Majestic Ballroom in Newport, Wales, a VERY long way from Mississippi, Toto. He was “backed” by a riding on the wave London R&B band, “Cops & Robbers”, who were again worse than useless, searching for the time as it turned around and walked out the door. He gave up on them. The music then came alive. “Everybody rockin’ we wants to rock some too”. Indeed. Mr John Lee Hooker, Stow Hill, Newport, a lifetime ago.
I remember seeing John Lee Hooker in Derby in, I think, 1968. Details are hazy and overall I don’t think the gig was great. However I do quite definitely, have a vivid memory of Hooker playing his backing band’s big shiny red drum kit as a feature in the second set!
What a brilliant anecdote. Thanks Richard
When I see the blue moment pop up on my email I am always exited and never disappointed. I really enjoy your posts. Thank you. James Clewlow
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Wonderful story. Maybe John Pearse has to get involved somewhere along the line.
Thank you, Richard. You reminded me of a similar experience with John Lee on the same tour, when he played the Quay Club in Plymouth. Then a few years later, as a student in Essex, I found myself in conversation with Champion Jack Dupree when he played the University, and left me in charge of his pint while he went to the gents. Again, I can’t remember much of the actual conversation. Strange thing – 60s teenagers, blues legends and alcohol – must have an effect on the memory!
Yes so right on John Lee.
Something so special about him.
12 bars didn’t matter to him.
He was right we’ve realised now.
Thank you Richard. (Cops and
Robbers did the tour with John
only on the basis that he played
The Studio club in Southend.
Thank you – I’ll look out for the documentary. I saw him play towards the end of his career but on a blisteringly hot day at the short-lived London blues festival at Chrystal palace. I have a vivid memory of lots of drunk and sunburnt people meandering around separated from the stage by the pond. Halfway through his set he told everyone in the audience “get up” and everyone did and boogied along to the end of his set. A huge presence even then
All respect to CSM, speaks with good knowledge and authority, but wtf did he look like with such a ridiculously relevant guitar sat awkwardly in his lap?
One other thing I’ve always loved about Hooker, his lines never rhymed! An almost deliberate pathological avoidance of rhyme. Other blues singers would sling and sling, “Tell you baby what we’re gonna do, have a good time, just us two”. Hooker’s would be “…up on the hill”
And why not. That’s “art”!
Richard, what a bonus after watching the programme last night! And not just your entirely believable post (what exactly do you say when you’re sitting next to a hero – been there), but a mention of the Elizabethan Rooms AND a riposte from Phil Holliday.
Nowt to do with John Lee, but I once supplied music (from a cheap tape recorder) for a Barclays Bank Christmas Party at the Elizabethan Rooms. The Who went down very well with most of the crowd, but I was asked to turn the volume down by my Manager/Local Director. He was polite, but firm.
Thanks for sharing the memories of a teenage music enthusiast, Richard. (Last night I was committed to a Second Division League of Ireland football game, so taped the BBC4 show.)
Isn’t it ironic that for all practical purposes John Lee Hooker is all but ignored by most including our PBS here in the US .. the land of his birth … while the BBC puts out a brilliant documentary about the man .. the icon .. the musician .
Truly a ‘ prophet ‘ has no honor in his ( or her ) own land
An excellent example of John Lee’s art which, surprisingly, came out on Stax is “That’s Where It’s At!” Accompanying musicians rarely add much to his music usually emphasising the boring boogie side.
Great little story Richard.
There is a lot of sociological bollocks written and spoken about the blues and the way British teenagers in the early 60’s like me, took to it like a duck to water. But the fundamentals were: it was very attractive music, the form was simple, the chords were easy to play on guitar and a knowing a simple blues scale opened up the door to improvising.
It made playing in ‘beat groups’ much easier than jazz or the pop music of the day. It also sounded better the louder you played it.