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Posts tagged ‘John Lee Hooker’

Memories of the Boogie Man

John Lee Hooker 1

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.

Otis Taylor’s trance blues

Otis TaylorWhen Otis Taylor was 16 years old, back in 1964, he got his picture in the local paper for playing a five-string banjo while riding a unicycle. By coincidence, that was the year in which my fellow bandmates and I, only a year or two older than Taylor, clubbed together to buy a bottle of Johnny Walker Red Label whisky with which to lure John Lee Hooker into talking to us between his sets with Tony McPhee’s Groundhogs at the Elizabethan Rooms in Nottingham, a dance hall above the Co-operative store in the city centre. The coincidence lies in the fact that when I listen to Otis Taylor, I always think of Hooker, a great hero to those of us who were trying with such desperate earnestness, several thousand miles and an entire culture away from the birthplace of the blues, to learn its language.

Taylor, who is now 64, approaches the blues with the same elemental attitude as Hooker. Most of his songs have one chord, sometimes two. Time seems to stop while he plays, as it did with John Lee’s boogies. He comes from a more sophisticated background — his parents, he once told me, listened to John Coltrane and Dave Brubeck, while he spent his early teenage years hanging out at the folklore centre in Denver, Colorado, where the family had moved from Chicago — but his blues, like Hooker’s, stay closer than most to their, and his, African roots.

Taylor came to London in the late 1960s as a solo blues singer, guitarist and banjoist. He supported Fairport Convention at the Roundhouse and was scheduled to record for the Blue Horizon label until a disagreement over musical policy put an end to the plan. He went home and spent the next few decades running an antiques business and a bicycle racing team until resuming his career in the mid-1990s with the first of a string of albums of his “trance blues”, of which My World is Gone (Telarc) is the 13th.

This latest sequence of songs concentrates on the world of the American Indian. Like Harry Smith in the notes to the Anthology of American Music, he adds little glosses to the title of each song: “A man stops drinking, hoping that his lover will come back”, “A Navajo man loses his horse from drinking too much”, or “A young man recounts the tale of his mother’s murder, where men came with crosses in the middle of the night.”

“I used to be told that what I did wasn’t cool,” he told me. “They said, ‘You don’t use chord changes and your songs are depressing. People want chord changes and happy songs.’ But that’s the way it is. Appalachian songs can be pretty depressing, too. Even Dolly Parton gets depressing sometimes.”

The arrangements — for various combinations of guitar, banjo, bass, tuba, drums, fiddle, cornet and organ — are simple but often imaginative. On “Huckleberry Blues”, for example, a flickering banjo strum builds an incessant groove over Todd Edmunds’ mobile funk bass in the manner of the guitar on Isaac Hayes’s Shaft theme, while Ron Miles’s cornet adds a spare, lyrical counterpoint to Taylor’s weathered voice. Brian Juan’s Booker T-ish Hammond B3 is a highlight of “Never Been to the Reservation”.

Almost half a century after my pals and I persuaded Hooker to sit down with that bottle of Scotch, the whole round world is fluent in the language of the blues. Not many of today’s people, however, speak it as convincingly as Otis Taylor, whose authenticity comes not just from his background and his musicianship but from his ability to find the common ground between past and present, and thereby to make his music seem as timeless as the human condition it describes.