Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Hastings St. spawned blues scene

Bluesman John Lee Hooker was photographed
on Detroit's Hastings St. for this album cover.


Unless you're from Detroit, you might not know that Hastings St. gave birth to a thriving blues scene in the 1940s and 1950s.

In fact, the Hastings St. neighborhood gave rise to iconic bluesman John Lee Hooker and lesser luminaries like Johnnie Bassett and Alberta Adams.

Hooker, of course, is known for such influential blues numbers as as "Boogie Chillen," "I'm In The Mood" and "Boom Boom."

My wife Sue and I witnessed one of Hooker's concerts as well as performances by Bassett and Adams.

Hooker was born in Clarksdale, Miss. in either 1917 or 1920, depending on the source. His father was a minister and the young musician first played publicly at church, greatly pleasing his mother. After his father died, his stepfather Will Moore, who was friends with the likes of Blind Lemon Jefferson, Charlie Patton and Blind Blake, infused Hooker with a love for the blues.

He left home at about age 14 for Memphis, meeting both B. B. King and Bobby Bland, and working in a movie theater on Beale St.

After stints in Cincinnati and Knoxville, Hooker moved to Detroit during World War II.

The singer and guitarist was right at home performing in the clubs along Hastings St. on the city's east side. Hastings ran north-south through a predominately black neighborhood known as Black Bottom. Originally settled by Jews, the district was transformed by southern migrants looking for work in the burgeoning auto industry.

The Hastings St. neighborhood featured black-owned businesses, clubs and bars which drew acts like Duke Ellington, Billie Holliday and Ella Fitzgerald.

Famous gospel preacher Rev. Cecil L. Franklin, the father of Aretha Franklin, opened his New Bethel Baptist Church on Hastings St.

The area featured Joe's Record Shop, located at 3530 Hastings St. The store was owned by Joe "Von" Battles, who also produced discs for his JVB Records label.

Hooker often recorded in a studio located in the back of the store. A young Aretha Franklin taped some gospel sides there as well.

While working for Ford Motor Co. Hooker cut his first recordings, teaming up with producer Bernie Besman.

Los Angeles-based Modern Records issued Hooker's debut called "Boogie Chillen" which climbed to the top of the rhythm & blues charts in 1949. The bluesman was so taken by Hastings St. that he mentioned it in the song's lyrics.

"I'm In The Mood" became Hooker's second R&B chart-topper 1951.

During the next four years, Hooker recorded hundreds of tracks for various labels, finally signing with VeeJay in 1955. His hits during this period included "Dimples" in 1956 and "Boom Boom" in 1962.

British band the Animals cut their version of "Boom Boom" two years later, reaching No. 43 on the U. S. charts.

The singer and guitarist recorded the massively-popular LP "Hooker 'N Heat" with blues-rock band Canned Heat in 1970. The disc contained standout tracks like "Peavine" and "Burning Hell."

Most of the 70s were lean years for Hooker, but Led Zeppelin incorporated "Boogie Chillen" into their "Whole Lotta Love" medley, playing it at nearly every show from 1970-1973.

He made a welcome a cameo appearance in the 1980 movie "The Blues Brothers," starring John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd.

By 1989 Hooker won a Grammy Award for "The Healer" CD which he recorded with Carlos Santana, Bonnie Raitt and George Thorogood. The album was a major comeback.

Hooker was well into his fourth decade as a blues performer when Sue and I saw him in concert. The show took place during the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, circa 1990. The bill also included Robert Cray, famous for "Smoking Gun" and local favorites the Radiators. There was no doubt, however, that Hooker was the star of the show.

The veteran bluesman sat on a stool at center stage, performing his set in true solo fashion. Hooker needed nothing more than his growling voice, guitar work and foot stomps to propel his music.

We cheered as Hooker played many of his well-known songs.

He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991 and issued two more albums during the decade.

Both Alberta Adams and Johnnie Bassett, meanwhile, were connected to Hooker by way of Hastings St.

Born Roberta Louise Osborn in Indianapolis, Adams was raised by a relative in Detroit. Sources differ whether she was born in 1917 or 1925.

As early as 1942, Adams appeared at a Hastings St. club called B&C, as did Hooker.

She signed with Chicago's Chess Records in 1952 and toured with Duke Ellington, Louis Jordan, T-Bone Walker and others.

Sue and I saw Adams perform in Marquette on Sept. 2, 2006 during the annual Blues Fest. Known as the grand dame of Detroit blues, Adams commanded the stage with the seasoned experience of a singer who has performed for more than 60 years.

Ably recalling some of the classic blues divas of earlier decades, Adams became a sentimental favorite with the crowd for an endearing performance of her song, "Remember Me."

Johnnie Bassett appeared at Blues Fest two years later. Sue and I enjoyed his set on Sept. 7, 2008.

Born in 1935 in Florida, Bassett relocated to Detroit with his family in 1944. He won various talent contests and appeared on "Got a Job" the debut recording by Bill "Smokey" Robinson and the Miracles on the Chess Records imprint.

Bassett also played on stage with Alberta Adams, Hooker and other local blues performers.

During his Marquette show, Bassett opened with "The Cat," by renown film composer Lilo Schifrin and included an inspiring rendition of "Bassett Hound," his theme song.

Today, Adams and Bassett still call Detroit home, although the Hastings St. neighborhood is long gone.

In the early 1960s, the district was largely bull-dozed in an "urban renewal" program, replaced with Lafayette Park and the Chrysler Freeway portion of I-75.

Hooker lived another decade from the time we saw him in New Orleans, winning a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award in 2000.

When he died on June 21, 2001 Sue and I realised we were fortunate to have seen Hooker before Hastings Street's greatest blues star slipped into history.

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