Blues in the park

UP FRONT

John Lee Hooker leads a stellar lineup of blues musicians Saturday and Sunday at Sandy Point.

May 13, 1999|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Sun Pop Music Critic

John Lee Hooker leads a stellar lineup of blues musicians Saturday and Sunday at Sandy Point.

A whole lot of people ask me where I originated my beat from," said John Lee Hooker, on the 1961 single "Teachin' the Blues."

"But I had it from way back, a long time ago."

Indeed, he did. Hooker's beat -- a stomping, relentless boogie groove -- had been immortalized in the 1948 hit "Boogie Chillen'," and marked him as one of the greatest guitarists in blues music. His playing style was as unique as that of Howlin' Wolf or B.B. King, and influenced countless other musicians, from Z.Z. Top (whose 1974 hit "La Grange" owed much to "Boogie Chillen" ') to Jonny Lang.

In recent years, Hooker has become something of an elder statesman for the blues. He has been releasing records at a steady pace throughout the '90s, recording with everybody from bluesmen like Albert Collins, John Hammond, Robert Cray and Charlie Musselwhite, to such rock luminaries as Carlos Santana, Bonnie Raitt, Van Morrison and Keith Richards.

In the process, he has become an inspiration to a whole new generation of young blues players. "They're mostly white, most of them playing it now," the 78-year old bluesman says, over the phone from his home outside San Francisco. Still, he adds that a blues player's color is of no concern to him.

"Ain't but one race anyway. The human race," he says.

Hooker is flattered by the way the young blues players seek him out. "I know they got a lot from me, like studying my style," he says. "They listened to my blues, and it inspired them. So when they meet me, it's very exciting, and it's very pleasant for me to meet them, too."

It helps that when Hooker was young, he, too, sought out the musicians who inspired him. "Yeah, I did," he says. "I listened to them, and really, that's what I write from.

"My style was different, though. Way different from the likes of them."

That's not to say Hooker came up with that style entirely on his own. "I'm like my stepfather," he says. "Will Moore. That's the way he played. An entirely different style. It's all where you use your hand.

"By myself, I make the guitar sound like a full, full band."

These days, of course, Hooker doesn't need to do the one-man-band thing, since he has a full-time band of his own. That's the group he'll be bringing when he headlines the Second Annual Chesapeake Bay Blues Festival at Sandy Point State Park on Saturday.

"It's a good band," he says proudly. "It's blues and boogie, hip-hop, whatever you want to call it. They're really solid." He gives a quickly, rumbly chuckle, and adds, "If they weren't good, they wouldn't be with me."

Hooker says he and the band don't tour as much as they used to. "We tour a lot around, around the area," he says. "Like Oregon, and California, and Nevada. Las Vegas. We don't go back East too much at all. Just once and a while."

Right now, the guitarist is planning to cut back on his concertizing. "I'm going to quit touring for a while," he says. "I'm not going to retire. I'm going to take a break, laze around."

But if he had the opportunity, he'd love to play coffeehouses again. He knows that we're in the Starbucks era now -- all coffee, no house -- yet he can't help but wish for a return to the late '50s and early '60s, when he and other folk and blues musicians were playing small, alcohol-free clubs all across the country.

"Me, Odetta, Bonnie Raitt, Joan Baez. All these people [were playing them]," he says.

"You know, I'm the first man that started out Bob Dylan."

It was April 1961, and Hooker was playing at Gerde's Folk City, a famous coffeehouse in Manhattan. "I played every night, by myself," he recalls. "Just me and a guitar. House'd be packed.

"Bob Dylan would come to my hotel every night, the Broadway Central, with his girlfriend, Suzy. He'd go down to the club with me. He never wanted to sit in. One night, Bob sat in, up on the stage. Oh, the house loved him. My manager, Albert Grossman, said, 'Uh, let me talk to him,' and he signed Bob Dylan up. Bob Dylan never looked back. It was the biggest thing I've seen."

Hooker can't help but look fondly upon those days. "I would love to go back to playing by myself," he says. "Oh, how things have changed."

Nonetheless, he's hardly the sort to settle for living in the past. In fact, as he gets older, he finds himself filled with a new ambition: to help the poor and underprivileged.

"The homeless people that don't have what I've got, the opportunity that I've got," he says. "I've got to reach out and get them, before I leave here. There are a lot of people in my position, [who are] famous and have a lot of money, but they don't think about the homeless people. ... They walk over them. I ain't like that. I'll reach down, and pick you up.

"I know I can't save them all," he adds. "You can't save the world. But you can be part of saving the world. And I want to be part of this."

The Sandy Point festival

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