Bayside blues festival is a vision realized

Man combines charity with love for music

May 16, 1999|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN STAFF

It's nearly show time at the Chesapeake Bay Blues Festival, and Don Hooker is getting it all together.

Hooker's nowhere near the stage, where some musical giants will play through this weekend at Sandy Point State Park. The 47-year-old entrepreneur, armed with both a cell phone and walkie-talkie, is roaming the field where thousands of spectators are setting up their folding chairs, laying out blankets and nibbling finger food.

More than anyone else, the success or failure of the second annual festival depends on Hooker. That's because, just 18 months ago, the event was little more than his half-baked idea. "It really was kind of a vision," Hooker says.

He had never promoted a concert. He wasn't much of a guitar player. He wasn't even a blues fan until, at the age of 30, he went on a business trip to Chicago and spent a long night in that city's famous clubs.

What the Seat Pleasant native had done was create a successful computer software firm, based in Lanham. Then in 1997, Hooker sat in his home in Annapolis and started to write a couple of checks to charity. He realized, he says, that he wanted to contribute a lot more. He hit on the idea of a festival, with the proceeds going to worthy causes.

He didn't just want a small concert. Hooker wanted an annual festival to rival the Long Beach Blues Festival in California. And he knew the per- fect place to stage the event. "I knew I wanted the Sandy Point State Park."

Some state officials didn't like the idea, Hooker says, but he was determined. "If I didn't get this park, I wasn't going to do it," he says. The state relented.

Hooker created a nonprofit organization and recruited other sponsors, and he persuaded all 65 of the employees at his firm, Advanced Distribution Systems, to volunteer at the festival.

"He's just a great planner and organizer," says Michael Buckley, paid publicist for the event.

For two miserable days last year, thousands of hard-core blues fans were buffeted by winds, pelted with rain and soaked by drizzle. Barbara Brown of Halethorpe, a bookkeeper for a construction firm, remembers it vividly. "Two days in the rain, and I had a beautiful time," she says. So beautiful that she came back this year.

Although an estimated 13,000 ticket-buyers braved the weather last year, the event lost money. Hooker's foundation paid $10,000 each to the charities that were supposed to benefit from the event, and he pushed ahead with planning for this year.

The Make a Wish Foundation, Maryland Special Olympics, Johns Hopkins Cleft and Craniofacial Clinic, and We Care and Friends are expected to benefit from the festival this year.

Yesterday, Hooker's vision seemed close to vindication. Blue skies and high clouds hung over the park; the bay flashed in the sunshine; boats bobbed; kites soared and the crowd basked. Fans kept pouring through the gates. If 30,000 come, Hooker says, he can meet his ambitious fund-raising goals.

Fans had a more modest goal: a mellow day by the water.

"I love the beach atmosphere, it's wide open," declares Hullane Brown of Baltimore, who wore a tiny harmonica on a cord around her neck. To her, the bay and the blues are tightly woven memories. She first heard the music of B. B. King and Bobby Blue Bland, she says, on eight-track tapes played on her parents' motorboat.

Some who couldn't or wouldn't pay the ticket price -- $30 for one day -- tried to talk their way in, says Buckley. Two would-be gate crashers claimed they were journalists and offered as proof a motel receipt and a bottle of scotch whiskey. The whiskey, they explained, was for R. L. Burnside, the 71-year-old virtuoso of the electric guitar.

Besides Burnside, yesterday's artists included Wilson Pickett, Pinetop Perkins and legend John Lee Hooker -- no relation to Don Hooker.

Scot Barham, 48, who sings in a Baltimore blues band, came yesterday to hear John Lee Hooker, 81, who was already a famous guitarist when an unknown Bob Dylan joined him for a set in 1961.

"There are not going to be too many chances to hear John Lee Hooker," Barham says. "He's got grandchildren older than me. We want to see that he gets paid lots and lots of money before he dies. We want blues artists to make lots of money while they're still alive."

With one hand on his hip and the other clutching a walkie-talkie, Don Hooker surveyed the crowd. Families sat next to blankets covered by young adults. Though predominantly white, the crowd was racially diverse. One man wore a T-shirt bearing the slogan "No White, No Black, Just Blues."

"It brings all different types of culture together," Hooker sayswith satisfaction.

To what, he was asked, did he owe that moment of inspiration, so many months ago? "Insanity," he says. "Temporary insanity."

Today, the final day of the event, the scheduled artists include Chicago musician Son Seals and guitarist Jonny Lang.

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