The Blues is getting old, and young black kids ain’t taking over where the old-timers are leaving off. BRIAN CASE talks on the subject with some elderly legends.
I CLIMB INTO the band coach at Heathrow Airport and find myself face to face with The Legend. No mistaking him. A trilby squats squarely on top of his head. Old dark wooden Indian face with the broad flat cheeks, yes, the face of a Cree under that plumb-line coronation of a company store titfer.
And facing front like it’s a passport photo session, an old man, slumped a little in his wraparound camel overcoat, old chequered legs stacked together, flash white buckskin shoes.
Mississippi Muddy Waters.
I grab his hand and give him The Big Hello, aloha, garlands.
“Thank you,” he says. “Thank you very much.”
Which is all he does say, because he goes to sleep. I sit with McCoy Tyner, and while we’re rapping, watch the trilby dip under the pennant of zeds.
Charles Fambrough’s double bass arrives in its Fort Knox container. It won’t fit in the luggage compartment, so they manhandle it into the coach where it lays like a coffin across the front two seats. We start with a lurch of gears.
“Hey, watch out for Muddy with that bass!” says a voice. “That falls on him, you gonna put a lotta guys outa work.”
And the bass is still there, looming, when we get to the hotel. It completely blocks the exit. Luther Johnson opens the emergency hatch at the back, and the cats pile out.
Muddy stands helplessly staring at the drop until we rally round on the sidewalk below, reach up and support the dithering old giant, swing him out and aloft — Hail the Conquering Conqueroo! — and chair him into the lobby.
“PUT ME DOWN, GODDAMMIT!”
Iris out on that old man, legs a-kickin’… iris in on another. Blues today looks a little like the preserve of pensioners, lotta grey hair, lotta stoops. And still a lotta mastery.
“Well, if you’ve ever been mistreated/You know just what I’m talkin’ about/I worked five long years for one woman/She had the nerve to put me out…”
“That was his big hit,” says Memphis Slim. We’re sitting on the other side of the slatted divide to the stage where Eddie Boyd is working his audience into a lather of chauvinism. Memphis, born Peter Chatman, 1916, shifts the matchstick to the corner of his mouth and pounds an empty bottle of Remy Martin on the table in time with his fellow piano player out there, and starts a counter lyric — “put the meat out the window an’ let a black cat…”
Memphis is the next bluesman on the bill and he sure is relaxed.
“Doesn’t it worry you ever?” I ask him.
“I worry when I don’t go on.” He launches a big easy chuckle, a tall man with a blaze of white in his hair like Cotton Hawes and the snappy grey mohair suit of a Madison Avenue executive. Based in Paris, he spends his life performing on the European circuit.
“Over here, I found myself,” he tells me, rapping my knee with his foot-long hand for emphasis. “I could be myself. Relax. And the audiences are better.”
Well, he constitutes some audience himself…
“The night time is the right time —“ shouts Eddie Boyd, and up on him fast and loud comes the backstage Memphis — “for a hamburger!”
Haw haw haw. His sardonic old eyes clock the passing traffic. “I’m lookin’ for a bed buddie,” he says, locks eyes with a Dutch girl in jeans — and turns away. “No, I ain’t. I’m hungry, and then I’m driving home.”
THE TABLE between us is a litter of beer bottles, wine bottles, Coke cans, all the slakers and primers of a raft of performers at the North Sea Jazz Festival, Den Haag. Memphis comes over serious: “You know, I’m worried to death we’ll lose it. Young people are ashamed of the blues.” He points to the stoned young dude asprawl on a stack of drum cases. “My son Peter. All he wants to hear is The Animals, the Rolling Stones. You know — young people thought the blues was English.”
It’s hard to say whether the blues is gonna survive the latest crop of obituaries, whether that old 12-bar foundation stone done bin here an’ gone. The great regional styles have been flattened out by records, by radio, by TV, and by the mammoth success of hybrids like B.B. King. With the death throes of the North American cities, migration from the Delta, from Texas and the South Atlantic — Georgia, Carolina — has slowed and reversed.
Memphis went on tour to Africa, a lifetime’s ambition, hoping to hear his roots.
“What did I hear? Wanga wanga wanga wanga on the guitars — I been hearin’ that shit all my life!” He leans forward and knocks on my knee again. “James Brown is blues — why don’t they call it blues then? Classical is called classical — it’s called that and it’s FIXED.” He spreads both hands and dumps an emphatic chord on the table. “Yeah — I’m worried to death.”
All of which gives point and pain to his opener:
“Everday, everday I have the blues/Everyday and every night, everyday I have the blues/So when you see me worried people/You know it’s you that I hate to lose…“
John Lee Hooker walks back to the dressing room, crimson trousers, shrunken careful old legs. He played most of his set seated. Pushing 60 now, born near Eddie Boyd on a Clarksdale farm in Mississippi, .44 voice on a graveyard frame… “I haven’t seen Eddie Boyd in eight, nine years,” he tells me. “I wanted to catch him so bad. He livin’ in Finland now some place.”
John Lee’s son has been playing with Eddie Boyd, so at least John Lee ain’t got Memphis’ problems.
“He’s been tryin’ to make it on his own which is a good thing to do because I wanna see him get some recognition out on his own. He could get it from me, but I want him to scuffle like I scuffled. If you have it the easy way, you can’t appreciate it. You can’t handle success if you ain’t paid some dues. Some of them get the big heads, the ego-trip — you can’t talk to ’em.”
He tamps the tobacco in his pipe with a big thumb, holds it sideways to my Zippo. Under the peaked cap, his old face seems to have been cast in iron.
“If you got it the hard way, you know how you got it. You appreciate the people that put you there at the top. You look at your public. They is the one that put you where you is at. That’s why I’m always takin’ time out to talk to my fans, have a little drink with them or whatever.”
That’s right. Onstage, the message is the same. “I want —” heavy, threatening riff rising — “talk to you”. He talks to his audience all the time. “Now when Johnnie Lee gets up off this chair, I want you to boogie your can — boogie with The Hook.”
“I love people,” he tells me. “I’m lonely when I’m not around people, good people, not rich people. I don’t wanna be around rich people with all their money, but people who come out to see me. They got time for me, I got time for them. People with all the money, they so sedated they don’t go out, they sittin’ like a sittin’ duck. The rich, they got ever’thing, although they got problems too, but it ain’t money problems. They got problems other ways tryin’ to hold onto what they got. They bein’ guarded like a rabbit in a cage.”
JOHN LEE takes a country mile to say things, that deep oilwell of a voice varying the repetitions of the ordinary until it takes on the incantatory power of poetry. He talks like he sings, and he lives by what he says.
“I don’t buy peace of mind. Take rich people — they have to stay hid. Money don’t make you happy in ever’ way… but I guess you know that?”
The smartass reply — it can’t buy poverty — dies on the lips. John Lee’s sincerity is unassailable. A very great gentleman, believe it.
“It’s the poor people I respect so much. I live in California and all the time I do this when I’m home — I get out an’ I go in the little neighbourhood bars, ole raggedy shacks, sit around and drink beer. Just blue jeans, old gym shoes, just sit there with them, you know. I don’t want all that STUFF. I’d feel outa place. The kinda people I go round, they mistreated, poor, had a problem at home with the wives, family, friends — sometimes they think ever’thing goin’ bad for them. They just right down-to-earth people.
“I don’t go for the faster stuff ‘cos people ain’t for real. They ain’t bein’ they self. They bein’ someone else. I just wanna be me. If you don’t like me the way I am, the way I dress…”
He made a slow languid gesture of dismissal. He sits very low in the chair, neck sunk into his shoulders, puffing on his pipe. A series of mirrors return his image, John Lee Hooker side front and back. The deep, slow bruising hammerswing voice continues.
“You take the Rolling Stones. They useta play second on the bill behind me. I give them a lotta respect because they do a lotta my material. They love it well enough to do it, and that was puttin’ pounds of money in my pocket. I appreciate that.”
The dressing room door bursts open and in comes the gigantic George Coleman, tenorman with the Cedar Walton Quartet. “I just come to get my sweatwiper,” George announces, tugging a big red bandana from his jacket on the hook. “It gets pretty hot out there.”
“Yeah, I know it. I know that,” says John Lee. George bursts out laughing. “You’re tryin’ to figure out where you knew me from. You don’t remember me.”
John Lee inspects him. “I know you from some place.”
“I’m from the old days with B.B. King. I worked with B.B. I think I played with you one time. I bet I did in Milwaukie.” George scrubs at his smiling face with the sweatwiper. A fierce-looking man, nice as pie. “Howlin’ Wolf was on the bill. How’s he these days?”
“He’s been dead now about five or six months. He dead.”
“Oh man,” says George, hurries back to the stand.
I figure this is too painful a topic, go back to the white imitators. “I saw you play once at the Marquee in London,” I tell him. “You came on after a group that sounded like World War Two and you took over without raising your voice.”
The most menacing voice since Richard Boone last leaned on the law-abiding, John Lee chomps off the ends of his words, a chamber of dark decapitations.
“I tol’ yo’ one time/Ain’t gon’ tell yo’ no mo’/Leave my wife alone/I’m gon’ warn yo’ right now/Don’ be leavin’/Keep on doin’ the thing yo’ doin’/Next time I tell yo’/I’m gonna use my rod…”
“NO,” SAYS John Lee. “You don’t need to shout. A lotta young rock groups, they don’t realise just how much better. They think if you don’t play as loud as you can go, it ain’t happening. It is. People out in the audience, a lotta them like rock but they don’t like it blastin’. They want it kinda downbeat and you can hear what’s goin’ on. We play the boogie music, but we keep it down.”
“Everything’s changing,” I tell him. “The music. Even the South, they tell me.”
“Oooo!” A note like wind in the wires. “The South is better ‘n the North now. Definitely. The people are much more friendly, white or black. The white down there is oh so courteous now. The North, you know, you can come an’ do your thing, but there’s been a turnaround. They got it down, the civil right thing, ever’body goin’ right together now. That’s the way it always shoulda been.
“Why should we have to fight an’ kill each other to get to that point, you know? They shoulda realised a long time ago, people are just people.”
‘Birmingham Blues’ really laid it on the line: frightening.
“It was true. People were bein’ treated like dirt down there,” says John Lee. “Now you may not believe this — myself now, I didn’t believe it a long time ago — it was the younger generation that’s comin’ up today who wanted it like it is now. The older people down there, them die-hards I call them, they had the upper hand and when they raised the kids, they raised them up like that.
“You teach your kids, little tots, to hate and they’ll grow up hatin’. But now it’s so far advanced, the young kids down there don’t pay no attention.
“I give one man the credit. King. He brought this thing but he died for it. He will always live with the people. He started this up-grade of people gettin’ along together.
“They killed off the Presidents, two good people I really loved, the Kennedys. So they got one more brother now and he ain’t gonna run which I don’t blame. I wouldn’t run neither.”
“I know I get shoes, I get clothes/When the Democrats get back in again/Vote ’em in, vote ’em in/Democrats put us on your feet/The men vote them in/Traitor women they put them out/I’m a Democrat man, I’m a Democrat man/Please please don’t be a fool no mo’/I ain’t goin’ down to that welfare store/It won’t be long, it won’t be long/Democrats be back again…”
His views haven’t changed since he cut that in 1960. Jimmy Carter? “I like the man. Like I say, the South is more out and straighter than the North. They stick more together.
“Well” — he took his pipe out of his mouth and jabbed it emphatically — “I strictly don’t want Reagan to get it.”
He spread himself on the ills of America. “Way way way back, the older generation had the black man, the Indians and the Mexicans down here.” He pressed his thumb on the table. “They still treat the Indian pretty bad. You know the country useta belong to the Indian — but I guess you know that.”
“The more they get, the more they want. They never get enough of nuthin’. Money money money — they tryin’ to buy these countries out, buy you all. Just to get a hold, get power.”
“They’re insecure,” I said. Case, Witan to Titans.
“It could be. I guess.”
John Lee Hooker wandered up from the South and made his reputation in Detroit in 1948 with ‘Boogie Chillen’. Like most bluesmen, he’s had to adapt to changing tastes, to R & B and back again on the ethnic backlash.
“You must have seen a big change in Detroit?” I asked him.
“Well, ever’thing is goin’ off, dyin’ out over there. It useta be just full of blues, useta be a whole bunch of them, then the Motown, they moved up. Motown never really was blues. We went to the West Coast, that what really happened.”
Young blacks have lost interest in the blues?
“Well, they always have,” said John Lee. “The young blacks never been really deep into blues.”
Blues fan Tony Russell discovered listings of the numbers on the juke boxes for Clarksdale, Miss, for 1941. Out of 108 numbers, only 20 were blues. Many blacks are ashamed of their roots.
“Who really into it now,” he explained, “is the young whites. That’s who into it heavy. Young blacks more into the disco type, you know. Young whites into boogie too, but they like both.”
Willi Leiser, Gospel music authority, stuck with the watch and clipboard for this package, came in to fix John Lee’s plane times. John had been six weeks on the road, Marseilles tomorrow, Germany yesterday, and was plumb tuckered. “Well, we don’t have any equipment,” he said. “Except the guitar.”
Out front on the stand was Luther Allison. The Chicago bluesman has just cut his first Tamla-Motown album. In the band are two singers from the Gospel outfit, The Mighty Clouds of Joy, and the bass player from the Crusaders. Luther does imitations on his axe: B.B. King, Jimi Hendrix, John Lee.
“I would like,” he says, “to become the Superstar of the Blues.”
Supermarket? It’s pretty noisy backstage.
“Superstar” he says firmly. “I could play the other stuff easily, as that represents no problem to any guy that has the basics under control. And the basics is the blues.”
AT THE Bracknell Jazz Festival, I catch Eddie Guitar Burns. He sits on a chair in the big tent with his guitar and plays country blues. He sings about John Le Conqueroo. He sings about the Black Rat. The sun’s beating down on the canvas and it’s like a revivalist meeting in there.
I pick my way over the guy ropes afterwards to talk to him.
“Memphis Slim, he ain’t playin’ pure blues,” he tells me. “John Lee Hooker can’t change. Howlin’ Wolf is dead.” He taps ash carefully between his feet. “I tell ya somethin’ — if ever’body moves, I ain’t gonna be left holdin’ the post.”
Memphis Slim: The Legacy Of The Blues, Vol. 7 (Sonet SNTF 647), Chicago Boogie (Black Lion Records BLP 30196). Eddie Boyd: The Legacy Of The Blues, Vol. 10 (Sonet SNTF 670). John Lee Hooker: Slims Stomp (Polydor, Juke Blues 9 2310 256), House Of The Blues (Marble Arch MAL 663), Blues Before Sunrise (Bulldog BDL1011). Luther Allison: Sweet Home Chicago (Delmark DS-618), Night Life (Tamia Motown 5C 062-97 690). Eddie Guitar Bums: Detroit Blackbottom (Transatlantic, Big Bear 7). Memphis Slim: All Them Blues (DJM DJLMD 8012).
Blues, by Robert Neff & Anthony Connor (Latimer Books). Urban Blues, by Charles Keil (University Of Chicago Press).
© Brian Case, New Musical Express, 4 December 1976