Long John meets John Lee Hooker

THEY COULD hardly have been a bigger contrast in background and appearance: the young, very tall, bright white Englishman Long John Baldry, and the mature, short, dark brown American John Lee Hooker. But they had the blues in common and when I brought Baldry and Hooker together recently they got along like old friends.

John Lee was amazed that Long John, who is a mere 23, has been listening to blues records for 11 years "Yes, the first disc I bought was Muddy Water singing 'Honey Bee' on French Vogue. Then I got another French Vogue, Big Bill Broonzy's 'Blues In 1890', which is a bit like your 'Topeka Blues' isn't it?" asked Long John.

"Yeah," replied John Lee. "He was a great influence and a great man."

Baldry: "Everybody knows his name today but when I first started listening to him, while at school, nobody had heard of him."

Hooker: "It would be a different story if he was alive today. He'd be really big. And the scene is going to get bigger. The blues are like a fire that spreads once it has broken out. All over the world, young people are waking up to the blues. In this country guys like Long John are helping people to get to know the blues. You can't like what you don't know and I don't think the blues had been heard much until the last few years. And now the Beatles, who sing a lot of blues, are the biggest thing in the business. I like them very much and they're doing us all a lot of good popularising the blues."

LAZY BOY

Baldry: "Eight or ten years ago you could hardly buy any blues records in this country. Now there are a lot but there are still plenty that could be issued over here."

Hooker: "There are so many singers in the States, all of them good. But many of them don't get much of a chance because it's a very dog-eat-dog atmosphere. There's always something new jumping out onto the market.

"In Europe I think it's a little different They don't rush you so much."

Baldry: "But we don't get to hear some of the best, like Bobby Bland and B.B. King. To me, B.B. really is the King but I don't think he's got any records out here."

Hooker: "Well, I think the record companies are to blame for that: If they really pushed him they could sell his records over here, and get him over in person. He's got a lovely I2-piece orchestra, he always puts on a great show and he's a very nice guy."

We asked John Lee to tell us how he got started as a rhythm-and-blues singer. He told us he was born in Clarksdale, Missis­sippi (which, as Baldry observed, is the town where Muddy Waters was born and Bessie Smith died) and went as a child to live with an aunt in Memphis. He didn't get much schooling – "always was a lazy boy" – and preferred to spend his time playing a home­made guitar. Then his aunt bought him a guitar and John Lee Hooker became permanently hooked on music.

But it was some years before he made any money at it. He worked in a factory in Cincinnati and saved enough money to buy an electric guitar. Playing around the clubs he acquired a little local fame. But then came the war and he moved on to Detroit, working first in a hospital and then in a factory that made steel window frames.

TAKING OVER

"I used to take the guitar on the job with me and play for the guys. One day a coloured fellow from a local record shop heard me, said I was tremendous, and asked would I like to make some records. I said nobody would want to buy them but he said to come around to the Sensation record company, just a small label, that night. I did, and made a tape for them including 'Boogie Chillun', which was as close to rock 'n' roll as you'll get. Then I did some more for them, 'Hobo Blues', 'Decoration Day' and 'You Gotta Shake 'Em Up And Go'. Every­thing I did was a hit! Muddy Waters said I was taking over from everybody! And I've been making records ever since."

Now John Lee is achieving inter­national fame and is looking for­ward to visiting as much of the world as possible. He said: "I want to let other parts of the world know what I'm doing and find out what they're doing."

© David Griffiths, 1964

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