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Before there was rock or R & B, there were blues. In Detroit the blues were personified in the music of John Lee Hooker, an artist whose "electrified sound" would influence future generations of rock and R & B musicians.
He arrived in Detroit by Greyhound bus in 1943, stepping down in Black Bottom, a section of town that rural French farmers had named for its rich soil. The bustling sixty-six-block residential area, east of downtown, running from Brush Street east to Elmwood, and Larned north to Gratiot, was home to most of the city's African American population, at the time numbering more than 150,000. Like Hooker, many of its residents had migrated from the South seeking steady employment in the city's automotive and steel plants. Adjacent to Black Bottom on the northwest was the mainly black-owned business and entertainment district known as Paradise Valley, a five-square-block neighborhood bordered by Vernor on the north, Gratiot on the south, Beaubien on the west, and Hastings on the east. In its prime during the 1930s, the Valley attracted huge mostly white audiences to see the country's top black entertainers. Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, and Bessie Smith, among others, performed in lavish shows staged at upscale nightclubs such as the B&C, Club Plantation, and the Chocolate Bar.
Although the race riots in the summer of 1943 signaled a decline, the Valley was still ripe with blues and jazz clubs in the mid to late forties. There was El Sino on St. Antoine, Sportree's Music Bar on Hastings, Club Three 666 and the 606 Horseshoe Bar on East Adams, and just down the street (replacing Club Plantation), Club Congo in the Norwood Hotel. Henry's Swing Club was nearby at 1700 Orleans.
As Hastings Street, Black Bottom's main artery, continued north beyond the Valley, there was also plenty of action at spots such as the Ace Bar, the Three Star Bar, the Cozy Corner, and Sunnie Wilson's Forest Club, a huge entertainment center featuring a roller rink and bowling alley, located at Forest and Hastings. To the west was the Cotton Club at Livingstone and St. Antoine, and the Parrot Lounge on E. Canfield. Along with the bars, there were poolrooms, ten-cent movie houses, plenty of after-hours joints, and jam sessions everywhere. Later, Hooker recalled Hastings Street, as being "rough, wide open," a place where "anything goes."
John Lee Hooker was born just outside of Clarksdale, Mississippi, on August 22, 1917 (though other dates are often cited), the fourth of eleven children. His parents, William Hooker and Minnie Ramsey, were sharecroppers. His father was also a Baptist minister. As a child John Lee sang in the church choir, but spirituals took a back seat to blues music after his sister Alice began dating a guitar player named Tony Hollins, who gave John Lee his first guitar, an old Silvertone model.
Following a divorce, John Lee's mother married William Moore, a farmer highly regarded as a regional blues performer. Moore encouraged his stepson and allowed him access to his record collection, which included blues artists such as Charlie Patton, Blind Lemon, Blind Blake, and LeRoy Carr. Their recordings influenced Hooker, but it was the guitar style of his stepfather that made the greatest impression on the young musician.
At fourteen, wishing to escape farm life, Hooker left home to live with aunts in Memphis, and then Cincinnati. Eventually, he decided to hone his musical skills in the Motor City, believing there would be less competition there than in Chicago, which had already developed a big blues scene. He found a place at a rooming house called Mom's and worked for a while at the Ford River Rouge Plant, before becoming an orderly at Receiving Hospital. From there, he took a daytime janitor's position at the Dodge Main Plant, while at night he played guitar and sang at various house parties, and occasionally had the opportunity to sit in with a club band.
By 1948, after several tough years, Hooker, now married with children and working a day shift at Comco Steel, was still playing mainly for tips at "rent parties," but he was also performing more in nightspots such as Lee's Sensation Bar on Owen, and Club Carribee on East Jefferson. Most often he could be found playing on the small stage at the Apex Bar on Oakland Avenue. It was there, according to Hooker, that a black record store owner named Elmer Barbee heard him playing and invited him down to his shop at 609 Lafayette, which housed a small recording studio in the rear. After cutting a few demos, Barbee introduced Hooker to Bernie Besman, the owner of a minor local label called Sensation Records, and co-owner, along with John Kaplan, of Pan American Music Distributors. As he listened to Hooker's demo tape, Besman was intrigued. He quickly signed him to a personal management contract.
Shortly after the signing, Hooker closed a Saturday night show at the Broadway Capitol Theater, promoted by Bill Randle, a white jazz deejay at WJLB. Randle recalls that Hooker, like a lot of local musicians, used to come up to the WJLB studios on the thirty-first floor of the David Broadrick Tower downtown and "just hang around" during his late night show (the Interracial Goodwill Hour). "Then on Saturday nights we used to do a live jam session remote from Club Sudan (formerly Club Congo), from Midnight to 4 and John Lee would come down and play. The place was always packed." Randle says the concert at the Broadway Capitol Theater in 1948 was Hooker's first major appearance. "It was a very eclectic show and there was a largely white audience. We had Milt Jackson on the bill as well as Tate Huston and Bill De Arango, one of the greatest jazz guitarists of all time. We also had Willie Anderson, a terrific jazz pianist, and then John Lee Hooker. At the end of the show everybody was out on the stage for a really wild jam session." Bernie Besman later described witnessing Hooker's performance at the concert as "one of the most profound experiences" of his life.
Besman arranged for Hooker to record at a session originally scheduled for band leader and pianist Todd Rhodes at United Sound Systems, Detroit's premier recording studio. Located in a two-story brownstone at 5840 Second Avenue, United Sound had been the first independent studio in the country when it opened in 1933. Owner Jimmy Siracuse, a former cinematographer working in the Detroit automotive ad business, had originally built the facility as a full-service film, recording, and design operation. "There was a huge recording studio in the back on the main floor in an area that had first been constructed for film production," recalls Detroit musician and broadcaster Jack Surrell. "It had one of the, if not the only studio in town that could accommodate a full orchestra. There was also a smaller studio in the front." Surrell, an accomplished pianist, had done sessions in both studios and says that Jimmy Siracuse and his son Joe ran the whole thing. "We didn't do too many takes back then. We'd talk about what we wanted to accomplish, and then Jimmy or Joe would run into the control booth and do the actual recording. It was quite a professional operation though, compared to some other little backroom studios around town." Surrell had several releases on the Sensation label in the late forties, including "Detroit Boogie."
At the time, John Lee Hooker was usually accompanied in clubs by pianist James Watkins and drummer Curtis Foster, but on this occasion he was asked to record alone. His technique, learned from his stepfather Will Moore back in Mississippi, made extensive use of "hammering" one-chord guitar figures, bare-fingered on the strings of an old Stella acoustic guitar with an electric pickup, while stomping his feet to the beat. He had a nonrhyming singing style that was at times out of rhythm but nonetheless effective.
The initial United session on September 3, 1948, produced Hooker's first smash hit, "Boogie Chillen," which he had also written about his early days on Hastings Street. "The thing come into me. It was just a funky old lick I found. I heard Will Moore do a song like that when I was a little kid down South, but he didn't call it 'Boogie Chillen.' But it had that beat," recounted the musician in a later interview. It was a driving but hesitant beat, with Hooker adding a stark, chilling vocal, and staccato guitar breaks, followed by the cry: "Boogie chillen!" According to the singer-composer, he had taken "boogie" from piano-driven boogie-woogie, and gave it an entirely new feel.
Bernie Besman leased the song to Modern Records, a Los Angeles label owned and operated by the Bihari brothers. Released on November 3, 1948, the recording reached number 1 on the R & B charts at the start of 1949. "When 'Boogie Chillen' first come out, everywhere you went you would hear that, 'cause that was a new beat to the blues then," said Hooker. "Sally Mae" was featured on the flip side. As part of his recording deal, Hooker received a thousand dollars up front and the promise of a cent and a half royalty.
He quickly followed up with a string of top 10 R & B hits on Modern, such as "Hoogie Boogie," "Hobo Blues," "Queen Bee," and "Crawling King Snake." His biggest was 1951's "I'm In the Mood," where over a slow, bluesy beat, Hooker's voice could be heard in an echo effect, singing the memorable line: "Nighttime is the right time ... be with the one you love." The haunting sound had been created by Joe Siracuse using the new technique of overdubbing Hooker's vocal onto the master. The record spent four weeks at number 1. All these early classics were cut at United Sound in Detroit.
John Lee Hooker's music was in such demand that he released records for other labels using pseudonyms, such as Johnny Lee, John Lee Booker, Texas Slim, Delta John, and the Boogie Man. "[Elmer] Barbee would come to me late at night and say, 'Man, I got a deal! This record company want to do something with you. I know you under contract, but we can change your name,'" claimed Hooker. As he felt that he wasn't getting paid in a timely fashion by Modern Records, John Lee saw no problem with the clandestine midnight sessions that paid him cash "right on the spot."
By mid-1952, as a result of serious health problems, as well as business differences with Modern Records, Bernie Besman relocated to Southern California. Hooker began working directly with Modern. Joe Bihari took over as producer, flying in from L.A. for the sessions at United Sound, still engineered by Joe Siracuse.
When Hooker's contract with Modern expired at the end of 1954, he signed a recording deal with Vee-Jay Records of Chicago, but he continued to live in Detroit and perform locally with his own Detroit-based band, the Boogie Ramblers, which he had formed in 1953. "I spent all my best years right there in Detroit," Hooker told Living Blues magazine. "Yeah, they was real good to me."
"Few musicians have been able to figure out what John is playing, let alone copy it," said writer Dave Sax. Hooker had no imitators, and because of this, Detroit never developed its own identifiable blues style the way Chicago had. There were certainly talented blues artists in the Motor City, such as guitar and harmonica players Eddie Burns and Eddie Kirkland and pianists Boogie Woogie Red and Detroit Piano Fats, all of whom played with Hooker early on. There were also Little Sonny, Baby Boy Warren, Calvin Frazier, and Washboard Willie. But none were able to break out nationally. In other parts of the country "Detroit blues" meant John Lee Hooker.
Many of these lesser-known blues artists made recordings in small backroom studios, such as Elmer Barbee's. There was also Sam's Record Shop at 3419 Hastings Street, run by Sam Taylor, and "Joe's Record Shop" nearby at 3530 Hastings. Owner Joe Battle, who liked to call himself Joe Von Battle, would lease many of his masters out to various national and regional labels. He would issue some locally on his own JVB label. Von Battle's biggest sellers, however, were the sermons of Reverend C. L. Franklin, recorded at the New Bethel Baptist Church at Linwood and West Pennsylvania, where the pastor's three daughters Carolyn, Erma, and Aretha Franklin sang in the choir each Sunday.
Independent of Bernie Besman, Hooker had also cut some tracks for Von Battle that were leased to Chicago's Chess Records.
One memorable Von Battle recording on JVB was a raucous piano-driven boogie-woogie track called "LeRoy Sent Me," by a Detroit outfit known as Joe Brown and His Kool Kats. It had been written in 1949 for LeRoy White, Detroit's first black deejay, whose nightly show, Rockin' with LeRoy (successor to the Goodwill Hour), aired R & B from ten to midnight over WJLB: "Rock, rock, rockin' with LeRoy all night long," wailed the shouting chorus in a song that was a harbinger of things to come.
In the early fifties, vocal groups were the hottest craze in rhythm and blues. In Detroit, the Royals were street corner harmonizers from Dunbar High School. Members included Charles Sutton (lead and tenor), Henry Booth (tenor), Lawson Smith (baritone), and Sonny Woods (bass). Alonzo Tucker was their arranger and sometime guitarist.
In November 1951, the Royals entered an amateur contest at the renowned Paradise Theater located at 3711 Woodward Avenue. Johnny Otis, at the time a band leader as well as a talent scout for King and Federal Records, the big Cincinnati-based independent labels, was in the audience. In a later interview, he recalled that although the show was "supposed to have been an hour, it turned into three hours because there was so much talent in Detroit." Later, Otis put a call through to his bosses, telling them: "I sure found some people here." His Detroit talent picks that night were Jackie Wilson, Little Willie John, and the Royals, but he remembers seeing "others with equal potential during that evening." When the King/Federal people arrived to audition Otis's talent discoveries, they passed on both Wilson and John, signing only the Royals, because, according to Otis, "they were a vocal group" at a time when, "suddenly—it was all vocal groups."
The label chose a song Otis had written expressly for Jackie Wilson to sing at the audition, called "Every Beat of My Heart," for the Royals' first release in April 1952. The record wasn't much of a hit outside of Detroit, and the group's other releases failed to reach the charts. When Lawson Smith left to enter the service, he was replaced by a singer working in more of a gospel and country blues tradition. The singer's name was Hank Ballard.
Hank Ballard was born in Detroit in 1927, the son of a truck driver. At age seven, after the deaths of his parents, he was sent down to Bessemer, Alabama, to live with relatives. Country and gospel music had a profound influence on Ballard, but he also enjoyed listening to big band belters such as Jimmy Rushing and Al Hibbler as well as the smooth style of Nat "King" Cole.
At age fifteen, he ran away and returned to Detroit. At the time, the city was teeming with aspiring rhythm and blues groups. According to Ballard, "You couldn't walk down the street without hearing groups that sounded like they should have a hit record." He tried to sing in the style of high-voiced Clyde McPhatter, at the time the wildly popular lead vocalist with Billy Ward's Dominos, but after observing how difficult it was for solo artists to get signed by record companies, Ballard realized he needed to be part of a vocal group.
At the Ford plant where he worked, Hank would sing the harmonies of popular songs to the rhythm of the assembly line. Sonny Woods of the Royals also worked there, and, after hearing Hank, invited him to sing in several contests at the Paradise Theater. When Lawson Smith left for the army, Hank Ballard agreed to take his place, although he felt that the Royals were "singing for the older crowd," that they were "stuck in the Orioles mold." He told the other group members that they needed to "modernize" their sound. "It took me some time to convince these traditional rhythm and blues types to get with a modern, urban sound," Hank recalled.
Excerpted from Grit, Noise, & Revolution by david a. carson Copyright © 2005 by David A. Carson . Excerpted by permission of University of Michigan Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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|1||Boogie and the beat||1|
|2||Fame and fortune||11|
|3||Freewheelin' in the motor city||18|
|4||Motown and other sounds||33|
|5||The village is on fire||57|
|6||On to the hideout||68|
|7||So you wanna be a rock 'n' roll star?||75|
|8||A whole lotta soul, a whole lotta funk||90|
|9||Birth of the noise||98|
|10||A mythical figure||107|
|11||Summer in the city||120|
|12||Hippies and head shops||127|
|13||Hits and misses||131|
|14||Something in the air||142|
|15||Seger on the rise||150|
|16||A night at the Grande||153|
|17||Enter the Stooges||158|
|18||On the front lines with the MC[subscript 5]||164|
|19||Total assault : kickin' out the jams||174|
|20||Up against the wall and beyond||183|
|21||The Detroit Pop Festival||195|
|22||Voices of the counterculture||202|
|23||I wanna be your dog||215|
|25||First train out of town||223|
|27||The big bust||260|
Posted June 28, 2009
No text was provided for this review.