When John Lee Hooker appeared in the 1980 movie “The Blues Brothers,” he looked like the 62-year-old man he was (assuming his disputed birthdate of 1917 is correct). He still made powerful music, but he did it hunched over in a chair with an old man’s jowls and voice — and he did it as part of a tongue-in-cheek comedy. But to see Hooker as a 48-year-old in 1965, lean and hungry, his face shining and his conk combed into a rising wave, is to see an artist still in his prime.
There he is in a TV studio in Baden-Baden, Germany, his shirt sleeves rolled up, standing alone before a life-size photograph of a ghetto bar in America. As he plays electric guitar and sings “Hobo Blues” about the life of a transient worker, he razors out each line and then answers himself with a deep-throated moan that adds extra anguish and resilience to the words. It’s a riveting performance, quite different from the merely enjoyable “Blues Brothers” cameo.
These are some of the biggest names in the history of the blues, but few living music fans have seen them in person — and fewer still have seen them in their prime.
Hooker’s “Hobo Blues” is part of the treasure trove of blues performances in these videos. Hooker was in Germany as part of the annual American Folk Blues Festival tour of Europe, which took place from 1962 through 1970 and again in 1972 and 1980-85. The footage here stems from the first five years, 1962-66, and it captures not just Hooker but also Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, T-Bone Walker, Otis Rush, Sonny Boy Williamson, Junior Wells, Buddy Guy, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Big Joe Turner and Big Mama Thornton. These are some of the biggest names in the history of the blues, but few living music fans have seen them in person — and fewer still have seen them in their prime.
When Big Bill Broonzy toured Europe in the late 1950s, he told audiences he was the last living bluesman in America. Those fans were surprised, therefore, when reports came back from Chicago that a very vital blues scene was still thriving there. German jazz promoter and TV director Horst Lippman wrote a letter to Willie Dixon in Illinois to ask if the bassist-singer-songwriter could help organize a tour.
“I was not aware,” Lippman says in the book “I Am the Blues: The Willie Dixon Story,” “that in Willie Dixon, I really found the right man for the job. I didn’t know Willie was kind of a father figure in Chicago blues since he produced Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson. I was not so much familiar that he was a great songwriter… We worked together like brothers; it was very, very good cooperation.”
Cover of “The Willie Dixon Story: I Am The Blues” Book. | Da Capo Press | Source Amazon | 1989.
For that first tour, Dixon joined pianist Memphis Slim and drummer Jump Jackson as the house band for singers such as Hooker, Waters, Walker, Helen Humes, Shakey Jake and Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee. The tour packed 1,500-2,500-seat auditoriums in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, France and Scandinavia. They did a recording session in Hamburg that yielded “Shake It Baby,” a hit single for Hooker in France.
Only one date was scheduled for England: October 22, 1962, at the Manchester Free Trade Hall. This was the site four years later of the legendary “Judas” concert by Bob Dylan & the Hawks, but the American Folk Blues Festival show was nearly as noteworthy. A group of blues-loving teenagers in London had rented a panel truck and had driven all the way to Manchester just for the show. Among them were Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Jimmy Page, eager to finally see the men who’d only been names on rare records. The show wasn’t filmed, but this footage from the same tour suggests what it was like. Astonished by what they’d witnessed, the youngsters made the all-night drive back to London. “We were high as hell,” remembers Page’s friend, writer Dave Williams. “I think we sang all the way back.”
Two years later, Jagger and Richards’ band, the Rolling Stones, would have their second U.K. No. 1 hit with “Little Red Rooster,” credited to Dixon and originally recorded by Wolf. By all accounts, Wolf stole the tour’s shows when he joined in 1964, and he delivers the most spectacular moments in these videos. Three of his songs, including a moaning, sweat-drenched version of his signature number “Smokestack Lightning,” were filmed in an English auditorium before an audience. Three more were shot in a German TV studio on a set created to resemble a Chicago speakeasy with an upright piano, wooden chairs and white railings.
At 6-foot-6 and 300 pounds, Wolf was a giant of a man with a baritone to match. When he slowly rises from his chair for the final verse of “Love Me Darlin’,” it’s as if a tectonic shift has thrust a new mountain upward. As Dixon, drummer Clifton James and pianist Sunnyland Slim hammer out the stomping beat, the boyish guitarist Hubert Sumlin solos wildly and Wolf bellows out the title as if erasing the difference between plea and demand, need and desire.
Muddy Waters, Wolf’s labelmate at Chicago’s Chess Records and competitive rival, was a much more controlled singer with a voice as buttery as Wolf’s was burly. At a German TV studio on a tiny stage surrounded by young fans, Muddy turns “Long Distance Call” into a taut drama, wishing that his woman back home would pick up the phone — only to be confronted by accusations of infidelity when she does.
But these Chicago legends are just the top of the iceberg. You can recognize the virtuosity of their accompanists — especially Sumlin, pianist Otis Spann, a very young Buddy Guy and even Dixon himself — as they support and prod their leaders.
You can tell that the musicians, usually by the second verse, have forgotten their circumstances and have lost themselves in the music as they had hundreds of times before.
Earlier styles of blues are represented by 1920s St. Louis jazz-blues star Lonnie Johnson, Houston blues poet Lightnin’ Hopkins, boogie-woogie pianist Roosevelt Sykes and Bonnie Raitt role model Sippie Wallace. At times, the contrasts between the older African-Americans on stage and the nattily dressed young Europeans in the seats, between the battered instruments and the pretty faux-front-porch sets, are jarring. But more often than not, you can tell that the musicians, usually by the second verse, have forgotten their circumstances and have lost themselves in the music as they had hundreds of times before. And when they do, the audience can’t help but do the same.