logo Enthusiasms No 18
A collection of shorter pieces on subjects of
interest, outrage or enthusiasm ...

The Unknown John Lee Hooker!

Private recordings which lay forgotten for 50 years - country blues and spirituals Hooker never recorded commercially - rescued from a long sleep in a dusty basement … in, of all places, Prague, in the Czech Republic!

A story of amazing luck, timing, happenstance, coincidence, whatever… has led to the CD release of a priceless document of the blues.  John Lee Hooker, at the peak of his fully developed form, in 1949, long before he was widely known, sang and played acoustic guitar for me in Detroit … many songs he never ever recorded for anyone else!

Not stereo hi-fi, but clear, non-distorted tape recordings!  No crackles, pops, or needle-scratch disc-noise!  Fantastic singing and guitar playing by the young master, singing/playing songs of his roots, many of which he never recorded again.

I'm telling you this as a public service.  It's costing me money, and I will not get a dime from the sale of these records.  Why?  Penance for sitting on this treasure for 50 years!  Here's the story:

Some of you really, really old blues and jazz hounds may remember me (Gene Deitch) as the guy who drew the 'Cat' cartoons and covers for the old Record Changer magazine, way back in the mid 1940s to early 1950s.  In return for my voluntary contributions, the editor allowed me a small ad for our regular Friday night record sessions held in our Hollywood bungalow.  Our house was always filled with happy blues fans scoffing beans and franks and hot coffee.  In 1949 I was offered a job animating for an obscure film studio in Detroit, and moved there with my young family.  So the next issue of Record Changer duly featured a little announcement of our new location.

Among the first Detroit fans to show up was a lad named Marv Jacobs.  Between records he told me about a great, unknown blues singer named John Lee Hooker, playing in a dive in Detroit's black district.  We ventured down there, had a beer and dug this sensational guitarist with a technique and beat that drove us wild.  We gingerly approached him and told him about our group of blues lovers up the white suburb of Pleasant Ridge, Michigan and said we could scrape up a few bucks and a great dinner if he would agree to come up and play for us.  The man was on his uppers.  He had a sorry looking guitar with a crack in it.  After the dinner, he immediately offered to play right there at the dining room table.  I had been prepared for such luck, and had my studio's brand new DuKane tape recorder at the ready.  In 1949, portable tape recorders were still a new thing, nowhere near today's hi-fi stereo, but this was a business class machine with a good microphone.  Hooker was already aiming to be a successful city blues man, and about this time - maybe a year earlier - he'd already made a commercial recording for a local Detroit label, trying for city appeal, lots of boogie.  But I gingerly coaxed him to play some of the old songs he remembered from the South - the true country blues.

"I don't think anyone wants to hear that old stuff today," he said.  "We do!" I exclaimed.  After a few tunes, we went up to the attic playroom in our house.  I set up the recorder, and we all gathered round, gently coaxing John Lee to remember the old tunes.  What John laid down for us that night was unforgettable, and you'll hear it all on this amazingly restored CD transfer.  The only tape I could get in Detroit in 1949 was the original Scotch paper recording tape.  It wasn't too badly coated, but was fragile.  Seven years later, when I was Creative Director of CBS-Terrytoons in New York, and had access to studio equipment, I transferred the original paper reel to plastic, and equalized the sound.

One reel was among the few precious possessions I took with me when in 1960 I began directing animation in Prague for a New York producer.  After playing it a few times for my new Czech jazz buddies, it was laid away in our basement storage room.  I couldn't commercially exploit it; John Lee Hooker had become a major blues star, and I knew that the music on my tape belonged to him, not me.  I won an Oscar, fell in love, married, and my film work in Prague has stretched out to 40 years so far.  The Hooker tape lay in the dusty depths of our Prague apartment house for 35 years, until one amazing morning in late 1999.

I came rushing out my front door, still munching on a piece of toast, when I surprised a strange bearded man peering at our doorbell.  He quickly walked away, embarrassed, but then plucked up courage and took off after me.  "Are you Gene Deitch?  I figured out where you must live from your book!"  (My book, For the Love of Prague, is about my life as an American living here during the communist era)  "I not only dug your book," he crooned, "but I was a fan of your 'CAT' cartoons in the Record Changer magazine!"  My God, that was 55 years ago!  Immediately we were buddies, and set a date for lunch.  He is Paul Vernon, a British born American, and an encyclopedia of blues.  The only possible way I could top him in lunch conversation was to casually mention that I had recorded John Lee Hooker in 1949.  With this revelation, the breath went out of the man.  "Do - you - still - have - that - tape???" were his next half-whispered words.

For a moment of panic I thought, "Am I conning this guy?"  Wallowing in self-doubt, I ran down to my basement locker, and among hundreds of old tapes, there it was!  But it was marked, JOHN LEE HOOKER, REEL 2.  Where was reel 1?

Desperate e-mails to my sons in New York revealed the answer.  "Dad, I remember that you loaned a reel of your Hooker tapes to Tony Schwartz!"  My God, that was in the mid-1950s, when I worked in Manhattan!  I had completely forgotten about loaning that tape to Schwartz, the well-known collector.  He was now nearly 80 years old and ill, but on a phone call he remembered the tape.  Within a few days I had it.  A true miracle!  After 50 years, it is now possible to release this tape on CD, remarkably restored!  The rarest of the rare John Lee Hooker!

It will be issued in late April 2000 [And reviewed in MT not too long after - Ed.] on the Flyright label of Interstate Music Ltd, 20 Endwell Road, Bexhill-on-Sea, East Sussex TN40 1EA, UK.  Phone/fax is 01424 219847.  The Man is Bruce Bastin.  (However, Interstate are not Net enabled, so contact Gene at:  genedeitch@traveller.cz  for further release and distribution information - ED.)

Here are the titles:

  1. Instrumental Guitar Blues
  2. Two White Horses
  3. Trouble in Mind
  4. Catfish Blues
  5. John Henry
  6. How Long Blues
  7. Ezekial Saw the Wheel
  8. Jack o' Diamonds
  9. Water Boy (Bring That Water 'Round!)
  10. Six Little Puppies and Twelve Little Shaggy Hounds
  11. In the Evenin' When the Sun Goes Down
  12. Old Blind Barnabus
  13. Moses Smote the Water
  14. Spoken interlude ("Thinkin' About Death")
  15. John Henry
  16. Rabbit on the Log
  17. Come and See About Me
  18. 33 Blues ("God Knows I Can't Last Long!")
  19. I Wonder
  20. Untitled Blues
These recordings are not just rare, they are unique, with Hooker reaching way back to his roots.  Here are excerpts from the album notes (8 pages in the CD booklet!) by Dave Sax, said to be the world's leading expert on the music and recordings of John Lee Hooker.

The Unknown John Lee Hooker - CD album notes:

John Lee Hooker's music remains as unfathomable today as it has ever been.  We will never fully know the man and his music.  He ranks among the greatest men in Blues history and yet stands alone among them...  One thing that for certain is that Hooker's status in the Blues world is at least the equal of any of these artists as well as the greatest of those that came before and since.  The difference is that we can trace the musical roots of all these men while Hooker's music in its unvarnished form seems to have no precedent...

[On this unique set of recordings] we have fully 20 acoustic pieces to contemplate.  Hearing them, it becomes ever more evident that we are listening to John playing in a style that he, with his stepfather's influence, had developed many years prior to his first recordings …  It is appropriate that this collection starts with the untitled Guitar Blues Instrumental …  It is really a framework for a raw early Hooker vocal in the mould of Morning Blues, Poor Joe, Poor Slim or Mercy Blues.  As the piece progresses, the guitar plays the parts heard behind the anguished humming and moaning of Moaning Blues or Whistling and Moaning Blues.  Such dark early outings as these are stunning listening even to this day and this instrumental provides a valuable insight to the guitar's role in creating the atmosphere achieved.  Quickly in evidence is John's foot (actually he told me that he 'stomped' with both feet on most occasions).  This is in reality his 'second instrument', which keeps in perfect time to provide the slow and ominously insistent beat.  On his faster numbers, the guitar and foot stomping act as the 'rhythm section' behind his vocals.

If the guitar sounds very similar to the Barbee session, the vocals on that occasion and some other very early sessions were contrived to a thinner more nasal style (probably in an effort to conceal the artist's identity in these out of contract recordings).  Here John's vocal is more natural … the guitar often predominates during parts where the vocals become softer and less coherent.  I have often stated that John seemed totally immersed in these introverted performances, singing almost to himself and barely concerned about an audience.  When I played them to him, John himself listened in silence, closely and intently.  To a great extent, the effect is much the same on these recordings even though the material is vastly different.  Here he performs blues requests and adds other numbers that he feels his jazz listeners would know.  Many of the Spirituals, Work Songs and other traditional pieces would be themes that he remembered from his childhood.  He would rework some of these in very different style for his 1959/60 'folk' recordings but the fine interpretations of traditional spirituals may well be unique to this session.

As with any song John performed, each of these becomes all his own.  Many other familiar trademarks are also in evidence.  The listener can pick almost any performance here and find that the tempo has dramatically quickened by the time of the piece's conclusion.  The rhythm is never lost but the tempo and intensity continue to increase as the performance picks up steam.  Most songs basically become one-chord pieces even though John sings them as if they were in 12 bar or other progressions.  The guitar will sometimes touch the fifth progression for one chord before returning to the first.  Likewise, many stanzas do not rhyme but John sings them as though they do.  In both of these aspects, another artist would sound awkward whereas John sounds completely credible.  With his feet, the guitar provides the percussive effect for much of the time.  At times he may briefly stop playing behind a vocal but his feet never let up for a moment.  The long guitar excursions between vocal lines are here as are the intricate clusters of notes played at the top of the neck with the fingers of his left hand.  We also frequently hear the guitar as he prepares to start and tunes up or as he continues after the conclusion of a song.  Many of the performances are taken at a breakneck double tempo rarely heard on his commercial records.  They do echo several sides such as Goin' Mad Blues and Helpless Blues recorded in a long December 1948 session cut by Joe Von Battle.

So it has been with John Lee Hooker's music almost since we first began to listen to it.  Each side seems to link with something else and provide us with something new or a further insight into something we have heard before …  One continues to feel that much of that which we have heard would have been forever lost had John not recorded on that certain day … I t seems to become more apparent that there is much of John's music that we will never hear.  Had he actually recorded something everyday, one feels that maybe there would have been a chance.  John's recordings recorded under contract to Bernie Besman and Modern Records, as superb and important as they are, still only present us with an incomplete concept of his music.  They do not paint the entire picture and we would be lacking had John never strayed elsewhere.  While we can sympathize with Besman, we have to be thankful for the many 'extracurricular' sessions.  Cut in less controlled environments and in varying situations they provide many extra pieces to the puzzle.

Now [on this CD] we can hear John yet again and in very different circumstances.  Of the blues songs, Catfish Blues would have long been in John's repertoire and he would record it again later for the Gotham label in Philadelphia.  Others like How Long Blues and Trouble in Mind, well known to Jazz listeners would also have been familiar even if he didn't currently perform them.  The latter piece is sung more to the tune of Worried Life Blues, another favourite of John's, with each solo approximating the tune before building to slashing chords.  He likewise picks out the tune to How Long Blues and gets very immersed in the repeated lines of Catfish.  For the first 30 seconds, we hear John tuning for In the Evening When the Sun Goes Down before he launches into picking out the tune.  As is often the case, he paints a bleak, lonesome picture even before he starts singing.  As he sings, the guitar is relegated for much of the time to a percussive role.  Barely heard, it gives the same eerie effect as Morning Blues before going into single string solos, the second of which builds into an intense crescendo.  This has to be one of his finest performances … None of these blues, of course, are actually in the 12 bar progression, which makes their interpretation all the more interesting.  Indeed only three, maybe four, songs in this collection are based around the 12 bar format.  I say 'based around' because a Hooker 12-bar blues could easily extend to twenty! The 'maybe' is the old theme Six Little Puppies and Twelve Shaggy Hounds, which starts tentatively but soon develops a churning tempo with fine solo breaks based around the tune.  After a while it begins to alternate between 12 or 16 bar stanzas, with the latter incorporating a repeated resolution line as John begins to better recall the piece.

As might be expected, fervor abounds in the Spirituals.  Ezekial Saw the Wheel builds to become reminiscent of the aforementioned Helpless Blues, with the guitar frequently moving to the fifth progression and a really exciting solo break.  While this is based on an old song of the type that could be sung by informal groups John also ably interprets two story songs which he performs with a superb agility.  He commences with Old Blind Barnabus, and then suggests Moses Smote the Water and then puts across the deliverance story really effectively.  In contrast, the fascinating interpretation of John Henry adheres only loosely to the traditional story and completely dispenses with the original tune.  Here, John adopts a new tune and performs it more as a chant before adding a blistering guitar ending.  A fragment exists of another take of this, which reveals yet another totally different approach.

Several songs dealing with black Southern life are more somber.  Come See About Me is a desperate song of yearning for just one person to care, while Two White Horses deals with premonitions of and resignation to impending death.  The chain gang song, Water Boy, builds with the drawn out 'yeahs' and hollering with all the emotional intensity of the Texas Slim sides.  From the same early era, Jack o' Diamonds is another anguished piece.  It starts with lonely single string picking and again develops a churning rhythm as John recounts the old gambling song with similar intensity.  The strumming guitar on Rabbit on a Log becomes a hypnotic drone as his rendition of the old time song develops.  This performance would not have sounded at all out of place on a Paramount 78 twenty years earlier!

The recordings were made at a small informal gathering of Jazz fans, together with their wives and girlfriends.  33 Blues is an amusing impromptu performance about the event in pounding 'Texas Slim' style complete with a scintillating guitar break.  I Wonder is introduced as "an old ballad by Cecil Gant" and he did record several ballads but never got one issued until Modern finally recorded a version of I Wonder in 1953.  This version has single string solos punctuated by the insistent slow foot beat.  John would also eventually rework the themes of She's Real Gone, which remains in the fifth progression for much of the time, and the last Untitled Slow Blues side for later recordings.  The imagery of the latter: "I bought you a silver dresser and I bought you a golden bed", is compelling.  This track may be the closest in feel to the early Besman sessions with John humming to his guitar between lines and playing a riff to the tune of Crawling King Snake.  It is most interesting to hear what amounts to a live performance at this early date.  It should be remembered that John always played his regular live dates with a band during this period.

This last aspect is just one recommendation for the totally unexpected CD that we now hold in our hands.  Aside from the unusual material, it presents a veritable feast of Hooker guitar from his prime period.  Because a good number of tuneful pieces were selected we hear many interesting guitar solos based around these tunes, taken on single strings as well as chorded.  Like all his early solo recordings, one can never know these sides by heart.  One can never remember each guitar figure and each listen will bring something new.  When John listened to his more obscure early recordings, he remarked that he had never actually heard them before.  He had simply recorded them and left.  I am sure that he will be likewise fascinated to listen to these long forgotten sides …  As for John Lee Hooker himself, arguably the most individual Country Blues artist from any era, these valuable recordings from the golden era of his first wave of success will only further enhance his well deserved legend.

Dave Sax, New York, February 2000

On the back cover of the jewel box is this blurb about me, written by the man who peered into my mailbox that frosty morning last year …  Or was it the last century?

So who is Gene Deitch? …  The answer is not simple.  He's an Oscar-winning animator responsible for the later Tom & Jerry cartoons, for Tom Terrific, and many, many children's films.  He is also a jazz and blues fan with a very long pedigree, old enough to have bought Vocalions and Bluebirds when they were issued, young enough to be downloading jazz sites from the Internet today.

He is a cartoonist, originator of 'The CAT', that eternal record collector immortalized first in The Record Changer magazine from 1945, more recently in the British magazine Storyville, [and reprinted over a period of years in Tailgate Ramblings and many other fringe magazines].  The CAT is every collector who ever existed; obsessive, knowledgeable, committed, overbearing, sharp as a tack, and subtle as a flying brick.

It turns out that Gene is also a recording pioneer, among the first in the jazz and blues field to use magnetic tape.

Gene is, in short, one of the most interesting people I've ever met.  He has lived in Prague for 40 years and seen the changes in this beautiful city that have taken it from communism to a free market economy.  Not long after I arrived in the Czech Republic I found his book, For the Love of Prague, the absorbing account of how an American animator got here and why he stayed.  I resolved to meet him, and when I did, we quickly became friends.  It was over a pint of dark ale in an Irish pub in Prague that he first told me how he had recorded John Lee Hooker in Detroit.  The next day I found myself listening in astonished awe as he played me the first tape.  The results of that first conversation are in our hands as you read this.  As you enjoy the music on this CD, take a moment to reflect on the extraordinary circumstances that brought it about!

Paul Vernon - 24.3.00
… a communications officer at the American Embassy in Prague
and the catalyst of this happy resurrection!

Recording and text ©2000 by Gene Deitch

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