On the 8th of October 2000 there was a dramatic climax to a 51-year-old personal story. I met again the last of the Delta Blues men, the fabulous John Lee Hooker, at his home in Los Altos, California. estate! The illiterate former farmhand from racially segregated Heleno Mississippi had become a multi-millionaire, living among the richest of the rich. His vocal and instrumental brilliance have propelled him to legendary status, but when I first met John Lee Hooker, he was virtually unknown; struggling in the big northern city of Detroit to become a city blues singer.

The first of the long and highly unlikely series of amazing coincidences that lace this story was that I happened to also be in Detroit at the same time. It was the year 1949 when I was hired by the Detroit Jam Handy Organization film studio to spread my 25-year-old wings as an animation director. They brought my young family and me there from Hollywood, and we brought with us a Friday night ritual. We had for several years been having open house on Friday nights for jazz and blues record sessions. Come one, come all, coffee and beans, 50-cent donation to our civil rights causes, and all the hot shellac discs we could play on our pre-hifi equipment during three or four hours. I was drawing cartoons at the time for a jazz record collector's magazine called The Record Changer, and so I put a little notice in there that we were now in Detroit. "Come One Come All You Detroit Blues Fans…"

During one of the first Friday night record sessions in Detroit, a local fan said, "Gene, there's a fantastic blues man from Mississippi in town. You've got to hear him!" The next week we ventured with some trepidation to a joint on Hastings Street in the Black district, where we heard the phenomenal and virtually unknown John Lee Hooker. We got up our nerve to invite him to play for us at one of our Friday night sessions at our house in the white suburb of Royal Oak. John Lee wanted to buy an electric guitar. We offered to put a few dollars together, and lay on a great dinner, if he'd come and play the old country blues he's learned as a kid. "No body wants to hear that old stuff any more!" said John Lee. "WE do!" said we. He'd heard from his Hasting street circle that he should forget all that old country stuff and learn to play boogie-woogie, the latest thing at that time, and the precursor of rock & roll. But it was exactly the basic true blues that we wanted to hear. A little wine, a little whiskey, and it all came flowing out, with his old cracked acoustic guitar and only his stomping foot for a rhythm section…. and it all would have flowed right out the window and into the smoggy Detroit air, Except for one thing…

This is the house!
photo by Jeff Samoray

Among the equipment my new employers supplied me with was one of the first portable tape recorders. It was a heavy box made by the DuKane Corporation for audio-visual production companies. I was going to apply this new technology to my film work. It had a primitive but serviceable crystal microphone attached to it, but the only recording tape to be had at that time was made of paper! It was standard-sized quarter-inch paper tape with an ordinary iron oxide coating.
With John Lee's permission I set this apparatus in front of him as he sat in a straight chair in our attic, and managed to get a decent recording of the entire evening's sensational performance.

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