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.