John Lee Hooker

hooker

Atlantic 7228 – John Lee Hooker, “Detroit Special” [Blues Originals, Vol. 4]

Detroit is a city with a large black population located in a discrete territory in the city, something typical of Northern cities today. This black population began as black’s started leaving the South just after the turn of the century, with the exodus accelerating during wartime as jobs became more plentiful and available. This was the result many whites being called-up, leaving vacancies, plus the increased production of many industries expanding the needed work-force. The black ghettos of today are the result of the later decrease in modes of employ available to blacks after the wars were over, plus the tendency of any newly-arrived ethnic group to aggregate. Today one sees, as a result, collections of people who are generally poor, and are, more often than not, expressing dissatisfaction with their status quo.

This was not always the case – in the twenties, northern blacks were poor, assuredly, but their lot was much better than those in the South. It was this poverty of the rural, agrarian existence that caused the movement in the first place, and there was some predictability to the movement of the peoples. In the “middle south” (i.e. Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, some of Arkansas and Tennessee) the tendency was to follow the Mississippi River and the railroads to the north. This caused people to collect first in Memphis, and then move up into St. Louis and through to Chicago. Another route followed the Ohio River, going through Indianapolis and Cincinnati into Detroit. Jobs could be had at low wages, but it was still better than “down home” and by doubling up in accommodations one could even save a little money to send back there.

In Detroit, the presence of the automotive industry was a strong magnet and the Second World War increased this drawing power. Blacks came in large numbers, and their music followed… many a local blues artists worked on cars during the day and played in the clubs at night. It was Hastings Street before urban renewal that was the hub for bluesmen, containing most of the clubs as well as many of the small recording companies. Hastings was “the great black way” of Detroit as Maxwell in Chicago, 125th Street in New York, Decatur in Atlanta, or Pettigrew in Durham.

Chicago is often referred to as “The Second City” in this country, but in the field of blues it far surpasses New York, or any other and is the first. If a second city exists for post-war blues, that would have to be Detroit – a blues heritage similar to Chicago exists as a result of migrations from the same area of the South, but all the major blues activity was centered around Chicago. This was true both before and after the Second World War; even more so before the war when recording was essentially in the hands of a few major companies. To over simplify, in the twenties and thirties, recording was of two types – that done in the New York and Chicago studios, plus the Richmond, Ind. studio of Gennett and the Grafton, Wis. one of Paramount, or “field” sessions done when the majors went to southern cities like Atlanta, Dallas, Jackson, or Memphis with relatively portable recording machinery. These latter sets were usually done in a hotel, or later in a radio studio, or some such temporary situation. Chicago, then, was the major permanent location for blues recording during this period in time – Blind Blake, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Papa Charlie Jackson there in the twenties; Big Bill, Tampa Red, and Jazz Gillum in the thirties, and the tradition continues up to today. [Chess and Vee Jay being notable more recent indie labels.]

After the war, the combination of the end of the commercial recording ban by The American Federation of Musicians and the inability of the majors to cater to the new musical tastes of the black audience (coupled with the introduction of relatively inexpensive recording equipment) led to the formation of record companies anywhere. In the blues it was places like Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Memphis, Houston, and Nashville that hosted much in the way of important recording, but smaller towns like Crowley or Lake Charles, La. also contributed a great deal. Labels cropped up all over the place, issued one or two items, maybe had a hit and put out even more, but most of the labels died rapidly.

In Detroit this pattern was about the same – labels such as Viceroy, Holiday, Staff, Drummond, and Sampson came and went fairly rapidly, while occasionally a label from out of town such as Dot, DeLuxe, or King would record there [or purchase masters]. This was an exception, and it was people like record store owners Joe Von Battle (JVB, Battle, Von), Idessa Malone (Staff, Prize), and Joe Brown (Fortune, Hi-Q, Strata-8) or business man Bernie Bessman (Pan American, Sensation) who were the ones doing the bulk of the recording in Detroit during the forties and fifties. Von Battle and Brown still record, as well as Jim Diamond (Big D, Diamond) and Bobo Jenkins (Big Star), so there are still blues recordings being made beneath the Motown blanket that is musically most obvious about Detroit today. No major blues label has moved into Detroit and none arose from within – blues in Detroit remained (and remains) as “underground” entertainment for the black working community only.

The blues artists of the city were part of that working community, being employed in the car plants and playing for their peers on week-ends or an occasional evening. Generally, then, music was an avocation for the Detroit bluesmen with only a few making a living through their playing. This resulted in a hangover of older blues styles, a “looseness” of presentation, and a great degree of spontaneity in performance. This lack of polish, plus bits of archaicism give Detroit blues its fresh and unprofessional (in a good sense) sound. This is also true of most of the records made there as well – the typical studio was a back room with a piano against one wall and junk piled in the corner. Sound quality of these rough sessions was not too terribly outstanding and often there were definite “clangers”, but these one-shot sessions preserved some very feelingful, spontaneous music.

Among the names that could be listed: guitarists – Sylvester Cotton, Mr. Bo, Johnny Howard, Texas Red, L.C. Green, Howard Richard, Baby Boy Warren, One String Sam, Calvin Frazier, Henry Smith, John Brim, Emmit Slay, Bobo Jenkins, Willie Blackwell, Andrew Dunham, Eddie Kirkland, Little Junior Cannaday, Harvey Hill, Dr. Ross, Eddie Burns; harmonicists – Grace Brim, Eddie Burns, James “Little Daddy” Walton, Walter Mitchell, Robert Richard, Big Jack Reynolds, Detroit Slim, Eddie Kirkland, Little Sonny, Dr. Ross, Sam Kelley; pianists – Floyd Taylor, Clarence Posey, Big Maceo [Merriwhether], Detroit Count (Bob White), Boogie Woogie Red (Vernon Harrison), [T.J. Fowler]; drummers Tommy Whitehead, Grace Brim, Washboard Willie, Jimmy Parner; singers – Big Blues Carson, Katie Watkins, Bob Kelley… and many others. The list is only to indicate the vast wealth of talent in the city – and the variety. They stem from Mr. Bo (a B.B. King copy) and Little Sonny, to Washboard Willie and One String Sam – the last plays a one-string guitar, a wire stretched over a 2×4 fretted with a bottle… and was recorded commercially by Von Battle! The old and new are still extant in the city of Detroit and the bulk of the performers go unnoticed even more today due to the rise of Motown and its offspring.

John Lee Hooker has been an important part of the Detroit blues scene since the late forties and his records are representative of many aspects of the music. He is also the only artist from Detroit to “make it” in any way – the rest are still only on a local level or have disappeared.

 

John Lee Hooker was born in Clarksdale, Mississippi 22 August, 1917 into a large family (eleven children) of cotton sharecroppers. His stepfather, William Moore, originally from Shreveport, La., was a blues artist of local repute and people such as Blind Blake, Charlie Patton, and Blind Lemon Jefferson were among the visitors to the Moore home. It was Moore, who was the first influence on Hooker and he encouraged the boy’s interest in music. His first attempts were “played” on strips of inner-tube nailed to a barn by his grandfather, but he soon graduated to the standard home-made guitar. The combination of his stepfather, locals like James Smith and Coot Harris, phonograph records (especially Tony Hollins and Tommy McClennan), plus the visitors to his house, all steeped Hooker in a strong blues-stream indeed.

Typically, his first performing was with local gospel groups such as the Delta Big Four, or the Fairfield Four. It was the blues, though, that was more meaningful to him, and in his mid-teens he left home, working odd jobs and playing when he could. The first stop at age fourteen was Memphis, a great blues-town in the thirties, and he lived there with an aunt while he worked as an usher in the black-only W.C. Handy movie theatre on Beale St. In Memphis he met the likes of drummer Eddie Love, pianist Joe Willard, and guitarist Robert Nighthawk and played and heard lots of blues. From here he followed a fairly typical pattern of movement North, but he also went a bit to the East.

Cincinnati was the first stop up North after Memphis, staying with another relative – his first job was for a cesspool company, later he went back to being an usher! His blues efforts were limited to occasional parties and dances after work (he may have impressed someone at King Records, as he later did some sessions for them). He continued North in 1943 – work was plentiful in the Motor City and World War Two got rolling and even blacks could get good pay… and stories from Chicago were scary.

In Detroit he worked in automobile plants, for a steel firm, and other jobs, playing blues on the side in the many blues clubs on and around Hastings Street. He usually played with a band – normally consisting of piano, bass, drums and second guitar – and he was noticed by local record men. Actually, a patron introduced him to Bernie Bessman and Lee Sensation[[1]] and John Lee was first recorded in 1948 for the Sensation label – named after the bar in which he had been playing. In Hooker’s words, “I got my start, then – I clicked”.

What “clicked” was one of the sides leased to the Bihari’s of Modern Records titled Boogie Chillun. Though under contract, [he recorded] for others at the same time using various pseudonyms – these included John Lee Booker, Delta John, Birmingham Sam and his Magic Guitar, The Boogie Man, Johnny Williams, and even Texas Slim! This first hit was followed a couple of years later by I’m In the Mood (no relation to Glenn Miller!) again for Modern, but he still continued making sides for the tiny local labels. Hooker was now launched as a star of the rhythm and blues market – oddly enough, he made the bulk of his records solo not with a band like he used in the clubs. Normal accompaniment was his notoriously loud foot-stomp, and often Eddie Kirkland on second or bass guitar.

By the mid-fifties he changed to Vee Jay, and they began to surround him with other musicians from Chicago; the “house” players often consisted of Eddie Taylor, Jimmy Reed, Lefty Bates, and Earl Phillips, among others. Hooker’s heavy rural sound survived this addition, but later additions of female vocal groups and horns unnecessarily cluttered up the sound and submerged the real thing. He was still churning out hits – Boom, Boom of the early sixties was probably the last one of major chart impact, even with the aforementioned impedimenta!

Also in the sixties he recorded some “folk” sessions for Riverside playing an acoustic guitar – this caused a loss of the Hooker sound that is made for an electric, but got him into the folk and college circuit. Now, John Lee has a number of levels of success – one as a black blues man, another as a folk singer, while a third is as a god to the European blues fans and to some in the States as well. His stylings have influenced many a rock band, and Canned Heat especially owes more than just a small debt to what Hooker has done.

The songs on this album are typical vintage Hooker – solo or seconded – that were recorded by Henry Stone in 1953 and 1961 in Cincinnati and Miami. The electric guitar whines and howls on the slow numbers and John Lee sings ominously, often about the opposite sex. On the up-tempo songs, an irresistible shuffle/boogie pattern is insistently laid down, while there are treble punctuations that slip in and out of the rhythmic stream. Two of the songs, Misbelieving Baby and I Ain’t Got Nobody, are unaccompanied guitar pieces and are unique to Hooker’s output. The lines are stark, twisting and surreal; and so totally emotional and moving… and also a bit frightening. This is offset by Guitar Lovin’ Man, a scene of blues musical-comedy. The stud (Hooker) is shut out by his lady, having been replaced by another (Eddie Kirkland) – even a new lock on the door! No alternative exists but to return to his used-to-be and change his ways.

Hooker is a small man with a bit of a stammer, but when he begins to sing and play, a change occurs because blues is in his life’s blood. The stammer fades, and a subtle intensity takes over as he performs. He whispers, he shouts, he hums, the guitar bites or rocks in accompaniment with equal emotion, and another blues rendering is created. There are sixteen such on this album, and each is superb and original… and totally John Lee Hooker.

 

PETE LOWRY (Peter B. Lowry) – 1972

contributor: BLUES UNLIMITED                                                                                                       album research and compilation                                                                                                        “Blues Originals” series concept

detroit insert

John Lee Hooker – vo/gtr… all sides.

Eddie Kirkland – gtr/vo –B                          Cincinnati, OH – 1953                                                  prob. Steve Alaimo – bs gtr – C             Miami, FL – 7 July, 1961                                             Original production of all by: Henry Stone

“Stuttering Blues” –A: DeLuxe 603                                                                                             “Pouring Down Rain” –B: DeLuxe 6032                                                                                           “You Lost a Good Man” –C: Atco LP 33-151                                                                                      “Love My Baby” –A: as above                                                                                               “Misbelieving Baby” –A: as above                                                                                                    “Drifting Blues” –C: as above                                                                                                             “Wobbling Baby” –A: Chart 609                                                                                                        “Goin’ South” –A: Chart 609

“Don’t Turn Me From Your Door” –B: Atco LP 33-151                                                                    “My Baby Don’t Love Me” –A: DeLuxe 6046                                                                                    “Real Real Gone” –A: DeLuxe 6046                                                                                                 “Guitar Lovin’ Man” –B: DeLuxe 6004                                                                                             “Talk About Your Baby” –C: Atco 33-151                                                                                    “Blue Monday” –B: DeLuxe 6004                                                                                                         “My Baby Put Me Down” –A: unissued

[[1]] This person never existed – it was a mis-hearing by another scholar that began that false story! I believe that Bessman owned The Sensation Lounge at one point.]

Detroit Back

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