the blues guitar player’s quarterly
winter 2016 edition
NEW MAGAZINE 100% BLUES
bT h elS ut o rey so f bt h erL ees aP a ukl Lee gre n dss ERIC Clapton & PETER Green th
ANNIVERSARY S P E C I A L
t h e M AKIN G o f ' THE b e a n o AL B U M ' a n d ' A HARD ROAD ' Clapton and Green guitar masterclass Gary Moore and Greeny's legacy
interviews: SRV & Rory
Buddy Guy on a life in blues
Billy Gibbons talks tone
Robert Johnson: The truth
Joanne Shaw Taylor
PRINTED IN THE UK
How Clapton and Green electrified British blues with John Mayall 50 years ago and inspired a generation of players with their Les Pauls
Contents Winter 2016
Regulars 06............. In The Making BB King at San Quentin 08............. 12-Bar News Blues events and happenings 10 . ........... Wishlist Contemporary gear with history 12 . ........... Spotlight Recommended acts on tour 14 . ........... Blues Diaries Neville Marten looks back 16 . ........... Icon We celebrate the life of Bo Diddley 18 . ........... Confessional Joe Bonamassa tells all 94............. Reviews New blues album releases rated 114 . ......... Songs Of My Life Glenn Hughes speaks
20............. Buddy Guy 24............. Bluesbreakers 38............. Joanne Shaw Taylor 44............. Robert Johnson 52............. Aynsley Lister 58............. Billy Gibbons 104 . ......... Booker White’s Guitar
CLASSIC INTERVIEWS 64............. Gary Moore 74............. Hubert Sumlin 78............. Rory Gallagher 86............. Stevie Ray Vaughan
Gear 98............. Classic Gear 1954 Fender Stratocaster 102 . ......... Five To Try Overdrives
Learn to play
34............. Bluesbreakers Masterclass 110 . ......... Basics Pentatonic lead guitar 112 . ......... The Turnaround John Lee Hooker
In The Making
© Richard McCaffrey/ Michael Ochs Archive/ Getty Images
BB King plays San Quentin State Prison, 25 May, 1986
ver his long career, BB King played many prison shows for inmates in the US, and recorded a few of the performances for release including the classic 1971 Live In Cook County Jail album. It was clearly something that was important to him; “People quite often tease me about going to prisons to play my kind of music,” he told NBC in 1990. “They joke about a captive audience. I’ve never been in trouble myself but I think it could just as easily been BB King [in there] instead of BB King going out there to play.”
JOE BONAMASSA The world’s most prolific bluesman on breakthroughs, lessons learned and why he’s wearing shades onstage Words Chris Vinnicombe
hat was your first guitar? “It was called a Chiquita. It was my first electric – like a short-scale, little electric guitar that was easy for a four-year-old to play. And then I got a Gibson SG at six.”
be the one I’d want back. It’s been 20 years since I sold it. “I give away stuff a lot. Stand around if you see me rummaging through a drawer full of pedals, because I’ll probably end up handing you something.”
What was your dream guitar growing up and did you end up getting it?
When was your biggest breakthrough as a guitar player?
“When I ended up getting my dream guitar, a ’59 Les Paul, at first the guitar played me, I didn’t play the guitar, because I was scared of it. After a while, I got over that and just played it like any other guitar. As soon as I did that, it made a lot more sense; you can’t get one of these things and play timidly on it, you’re just not playing to your full potential. My advice to anyone getting their dream guitar is take care of it, but don’t baby it – because it’s made to be played.”
“I think my biggest breakthrough as a guitar player was when I stopped thinking about my playing and just played – and stopped apologising for it. I always used to overthink my playing and I’d be consulting the rulebooks on stage, whereas now I just play and think if people enjoy it, that’s great, and if people don’t, then that’s fine, too. The fluidity comes when you turn off the, ‘Should I be doing this, should I be doing that?’ [thought process] and instead just let it channel out and flow.”
Is there a guitar you wish you hadn’t sold or given away?
What’s the strangest gig you’ve played?
“When I was a kid, I sold my ’62 blonde ash Fender Stratocaster that I really loved. I shouldn’t have sold it, but I was a kid and I wanted something else that turned out not to be as great. I also sold my ’60 Telecaster with a tweed case that I’d pulled out of a bar in Upstate New York, and this was back when it wasn’t worth a whole lot. Thinking about it, the 60s Telecaster would probably
“The strangest gig I’ve ever played would have to be in Sturgis, the motorcycle rally in South Dakota. Basically, 6,000 drunken buffoons get together in front of a stage parked on their motorcycles. Once you’d played, you’d never hear any applause, you’d only hear them revving their engines, and that’s how they applaud. That was just too strange for me.”
And the best lesson you’ve learned from being on tour?
“To get through a tour without coming to an abrupt end, you can’t abuse yourself – or think its an excuse to be immature and, you know, don’t go to bed until the next day. You’ll only be able to do that for so long until you burn out. As far as being a touring guy, band leader and solo artist, learn the ins and outs of every job – the guy who drives the tour bus, the monitor guy, the systems guy, production, tour management… You don’t want to tell the monitor guy, ‘It’s a little bit too crispy sounding.’ What the hell is crispy sounding? Learn it’s 5k and 8k, and learn the 31-band EQ. The more jobs you learn, the more you’ll know about touring.” What’s the biggest misconception that people have about you?
“The biggest misconception is when you see me up there with a suit and sunglasses and you think I’m all full of myself. The sunglasses are because I’m really light sensitive – my eyes tear up with the spotlight, especially if I have two [spotlights]. The suit’s because I strongly believe I should be dressed up better than my average audience member. Think back to Eric Clapton and Muddy Waters in the 60s – all those great guys dressed up, they had nice suits.”
Clapton & Green
Jon Bishop explores the soloing style of two blues heroes during their John Mayall eras
are using a simple major 12-bar blues so the progression will look like this: || A7 | ‘/, | ‘/, | ‘/, | D7 | ‘/, | A7 |‘/, | E7 | D7 | A7 | E7 || We can refer to each of the three chords as a Roman numeral. A7 is the I chord, D7 the IV and E7 is the V chord. This numbering allows us to label the ideas that fit each of the three chords and then transfer them to other situations such as playing in a different key. For each guitarist there are three licks that fit over A7; then one lick for D7 and one final lick to fit over the E7 turnaround section. During their time in the Bluesbreakers, Clapton and Green were masters of mixing the major and the minor Pentatonic scales
e’re focusing on the soloing style of Bluesbreakers-era Eric Clapton and Peter Green. Aiming to identify some key soloing innovations from this furtive period with a view to incorporating these ideas into your own vocabulary. There are 10 licks to learn (five per guitarist). Each lick is followed by a four-bar instrumental break in the audio to give you a chance to take a breath, have a sneaky practise or change pickup, etc. All the ideas are in the key of A, and the chord progression is an aptly-chosen 12-bar dominant blues, so there will be plenty of scope to try out a variety of new ideas. We GUITAR TECHNIQUES 2 5 1
John BIshop - JOHN MAYALL BLUES
to fit the underlying chords. It is possible to play a perfectly acceptable solo using A minor Pentatonic (A-C-D-E-G) exclusively. However, for some extra sophistication we can add notes from A major Pentatonic (A-B-C#-E-F#) over the A7 ( I chord). A top trick to help make our A minor Pentatonic scale work over the A7 chord is to bend the C natural slightly sharp. With some care, A minor Pentatonic works nicely over the D7 (watch the G note) and E7 chords (watch the C note, especially). Switching between the major and minor Pentatonic scales over chord I helps the lead phrases to describe the underlying chords and adds an extra level of sophistication.
Ex 1 - 5 Eric Clapton LICK 1 Eric Clapton 2 5 1 GUITAR TECHNIQUES Lick 1
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1/4 E B G 7 9 1/4 BU BD D 7 AE B E G1 7 (9 ) (7 ) 5 9 7 5 7 5 7 9 5 D 7 7 5 7 7 5 A first lick contains some simple-to-play ideas that are embellished by a few EC trademarks. In addition to the finger slides and string bends, the minor 3rd (C natural) This E isLick bent a quarter tone sharp. This kind of phrasing using shape 1 of the minor Pentatonic is a cornerstone of this era of EC’s playing. 1 2
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3 The second lick exploits A7 some T-Bone walker-style bends on the third string. These bends are easy to play, but sound very effective. Clapton also often recycles the idea 1/4 j in the first bar overjchord V. The idea in the third bar is pure rock and roll and fits in nicely with n œ the blues-rock aesthetic. Lick 3 œ A7
~~~ ### œ nœ œ œ & ~~~ # # # œj œ n œ œ œ & ƒ Let ring ~~~ blues
~~~ nœ œ œ œ œ œ Œ ~~~ n œ 3œ œ œ œ œ Œ ~~~ 3
n œœ Œ j nœ nœ œ Œ 8
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~~~ ˙~~~ Ó Ó ˙ ~~~
Words John Bishop © George Wilkes/Hulton Archive/Getty Images Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo
John BIshop - JOHN MAYALL BLUES Bridge Pickup Tone Control 7 with Overdrive Ex 1Swing - 5 8ths Eric Clapton
Â© Rolf Adlercreutz / Alamy Stock Photo
classic interview Gary Moore
Gary Moore Before the release of 1995’s Blues For Greeny album, Gary Moore reflected on the influence and friendship of Peter Green, and the Bluesbreaker’s legacy… Words David Mead and Neville Marten
On the day I met with Gary at Sarm West Studios in London, the album Blues For Greeny had reached the ‘rough mix’ stage – it was very nearly finished – and I think Gary was in there doing some final overdubs. To begin with, I was taken into a room to listen through a few of the tracks as I had been asked to write the cover notes for the album and wanted to get the general feel of the recording. Shortly afterwards, I was ushered into the studio and greeted by a smiling Gary, sitting casually in the control room. My eyes were drawn through the glass to the studio, however, as there sat Peter Green’s Les Paul on a stand. I asked Gary if I could pick it up and he nodded his assent. It was a rare honour to play such a historically significant guitar and an occasion I will never forget. David Mead, 2016
ary Moore officially hung up the spandex and turned his back to the music that he grew up listening to around about five years ago. The blues was a formative influence upon his playing, but often such a dramatic mid-career change of tack has unfortunate results, and for many only the creative doldrums are all that awaits. Happily, in Gary’s case this proves not to be the case. His first pure blues outing, the aptly titled Still Got The Blues, created an entirely new momentum for the Northern Irish guitarist, which has spurred him on to release two further blue hued projects since – After Hours and Blues Alive. The latest venture is called Blues For Greeny, an album dedicated entirely to the music of Peter Green. Unable to contain himself any longer he invited Guitarist along to the studios for a sneak preview. “Basically it’s just that,” he enthuses. “An album of Peter Green’s music, although it concentrates more on the blues aspect as opposed to his more poppy things. I’ve ignored the obvious things like Albatross and Man Of The World – in fact the only single of his I’ve done is Need Your Love So Bad, which I’ve been playing for a long time and so it means a lot to me. It’s a great song and I love Peter’s version of it but I’ve taken the guitar solo on a lot further at the end. The original is much shorter than people realise actually; as soon as the guitar comes in at the end it’s gone.”
While at the studio Gary previews several tracks from the album for us: Long Grey Mare, Merry-Go-Round, If You Be My Baby and I Loved Another Woman…
“Apart from those, there’s things like The Same Way from A Hard Road, which was either the first or one of the first vocals Peter ever did. I’ve tried to go from John Mayall onwards through Fleetwood Mac up to when he left.” So there is a strong chronological aspect to the album?
“Yeah, but it’s not put together in that way. The songs are compiled as they fit together as opposed to chronologically. There are a couple of more obscure songs that I’ve chosen from the Fleetwood Mac period, things like Love That Burns and If You Be My Baby, which is more the rough and ready side of Peter’s music.” The end results speak for themselves, but what was it that initiated the project in the first place?
“I don’t really know to be honest! I’ve wanted to do it for a long time and I just felt that now was a good time. It was like going back to the old roots again because I felt that in a blues sense I’d drifted away very much from the essence of what I started to do when I did Still Got The Blues. When I did that album I started off doing stuff more like this – it was more contained, much more low key with just a bass player and drummer. But by the time the album came out and we went on the road, the
classicGear A closer look at the iconic gear that helped make the blues
Fender Stratocaster W
hen it was launched in 1954, the Fender Stratocaster looked so far ahead of its time it could have fallen from a flying saucer. That futuristic design was thanks in part to Western swing guitarist, Bill Carson. Frustrated by what he regarded as shortcomings on the earlier Telecaster, Bill pestered Leo Fender to improve the guitar
“The Strat is the only guitar that can claim to be one of the most iconic creations of the 20th century”
with body contouring, more pickups and a vibrato unit. Instead, Leo and his team went back to the drawing board. Like the Tele, Leo’s new guitar had an ash body (alder was introduced in 1956) and a bolt-on maple neck. There the similarity ends. The double cutaway body, lifted from the ’51 Precision Bass, was contoured for comfort (“It fits better to your body like a well tailored shirt,” said Carson) then loaded with three single-coil pickups and an innovative vibrato, albeit misnamed as a ‘synchronised tremolo’.
An Icon is born
The Strat is perhaps the only guitar that can a strong lay claim to being one of the most iconic creations of the 20th century. And its instantly recognisable tone unites guitarists as diverse as Buddy Holly, soul legend Curtis Mayfield, Bon Jovi’s Richie Sambora and Slipknot’s Jim Root. But as a vessel of expression, it’s especially held dear by blues players. Eric Clapton’s love for the model – especially his ’56 Sunburst ‘Brownie’ and ’56/’57 combination ‘Blackie’ – would eventually result in Fender’s first ever artist signature model in 1988. Stevie Ray Vaughan called his battered ’63 model ‘Number One’ and Jimi Hendrix blazed trails with his flipped and back-to-frontstrung 60s Strats.
Evolving the recipe
The first run of Strats were produced from March 1954, though in larger quantities from October onwards. The original models featured three single-coil pickups and a three-position selector switch. The three pickups and selector were accompanied with controls for overall volume and two separate tone pots. The Strat has been relentlessly tweaked since then: a rosewood fingerboard in 1958; a big headstock in ’66; a five-way switch in ’77 (after players began jamming the three-way switch to ‘in between positions’); locking vibratos and humbuckers, thanks to Eddie Van Halen’s influence; and more recently, a 9.5-inch or even 12-inch fingerboard radius for easier string bending. Evolution aside, whether it’s an entry-level Squier or a top-of-the-line Custom Shop model, the DNA of all Strats can be traced back to Leo Fender’s drawing board in Fullerton, California.
The 1954 Stratocaster 1. Serial number
The Evolution Of The Stratocaster
The earliest Strats had serial numbers on the plastic backplates. Mid-1954, it became a four-digit number on the neck plate (five-digit numbers began appearing from 1955)
1954 and early ’55 Strats had a softer radius to the headstock edges than later models, where the edges became ‘sharper’. Patent numbers weren’t added to the decals until 1961
Alder becomes main body wood
Fender’s plastics went through various transitions: early Strats used brittle ‘Bakelite’ (which was actually polystyrene), that was phased out during 1956 and 1957. Pickguards, knobs, pickup covers and switch tips all changed during that time, too
Gold hardware and blonde body Strat option (the ‘Mary Kaye’) offered
Fender’s original ‘Synchronized Tremolo’ has remained unchanged (although other variants have been developed) in 60 years. Early saddles were stamped with ‘FENDER’ on one side and ‘PAT. PEND.’ on the other
5. Pickup Selector Five-way switches weren’t introduced officially until 1976/77, but players worked out almost instantly that you could find unusual and usable sounds with the three-way ‘jammed’ between main settings
Sunburst changes from two-tone to three-tone, adding red to the black and yellow
Ash was the first body timber for Strats, and was often a single piece or two pieces. Alder became the standard body wood during 1956, with ash retained for the blonde colour option
All Stratocaster necks were a single piece of maple, including the fingerboard, right up until 1959, when separate rosewood fingerboards were introduced
‘Slab’ rosewood fretboards; three-ply pickguards
Thinner rosewood ‘veneer’ fretboards
Fender Stratocaster launched; official production began in October
New headstock logo, pearloid inlays
Larger headstock introduced
Logo changes from gold to black and thicker polyurethane finish added
fiveTo Try Your guide to the finest tone machines
Overdrive Pedals O
verdrive is bread and butter for blues guitarists now, but it hasn’t always been this way. Back in the early days of the electric guitar, engineers strived to keep it as clean as possible. It wasn’t until pioneers such as Willie Johnson, Chuck Berry and Link Wray started experimenting with their amps in the mid-to-late 50s that the guitar stopped being polite, and started to breathe fire. Overdrive gets its name from the characteristics of a guitar amp being pushed beyond its clean limits, or ‘overdriven’ to produce rich harmonics and a smooth ‘soft clipping’ of your guitar’s signal. With that in mind, overdrive pedals behave in a very amp-like way, offering enough heat on hand to add attitude to your rhythm playing, or sustain and edge to your lead sounds, all the while maintaining note clarity. You can use overdrive as the main source of gain, to push the front end of your amp into breakup at lower volumes, or as an additional boost for louder sections of your songs. Many players like to combine multiple overdrives at different gain settings to impart each pedal’s individual characteristics on their sound. As always, it’s about experimentation within your set up. Here’s five great pedals that will offer tonesome value for different budgets.
1. Fulltone OCD £109 Fulltone by name…
The OCD has a reputation as one of the best stack-in-a-stompbox overdrive pedals, and the rich harmonics and responsive controls make it a great for capturing that hallowed classic rock sound of an amp pushed to 11. It’s something LA-based effects maker Mike Fuller designed for himself, but knew would be popular with others. And he was right. The front switch allows players to select the more transparent, boost-like tones of the Low Peak (LP) mode or the toppier, louder territory of High Peak (HP) that can result in the kind of aggressive edge you’d associate more with distortion. The tone control is useful regardless, offering a broad range that will bring brightness to the more compressed nature of humbuckers as well as single-coils and P-90s.
2. Van Weelden Royal Overdrive £499 Dumble tones
4. AnalogMan King Of Tone $245 (custom options available) KING BY NAME, KING BY NATURE?
Peter Van Weelden’s amps, namely the Twinkleland, are rightly revered for their Dumble-like characteristics and here he’s turned four years of development attention to this all-analogue high end overdrive that proves the time was well spent. The idea is that it’s flexible enough to work well with any amp, providing you take the time to set it up for your amp. And there are two toggle switches working in tandem to act as the starting point for this. The first switch offers A and B modes, while the second offers three Bright settings, giving you six options to pre-shape the tonal balance and find one that’s optimal for your amp. It’s a serious investment but the responsiveness and rich harmonics make the Royal Overdrive remarkably amp-like in itself with some useful options at your disposal. The Mid Boost switch offers a means of transitioning into sustaining lead parts while the Gain Boost can take you into stack territory.
The waiting list is currently a year for one of these… is it worth it? Well, yes it is, and this is a case of less equalling more. The KOT is a conscious move away from the Tube Screamer sound to a more organic nature that provides boost, gain and sustain without losing the harmonic detail and frequencies of your guitar’s character. And it’s a huge success no matter what you’re plugging it into. And that’s quite rare. It’s placed in the lower end of the gain spectrum (certainly compared to a Tube Screamer) but that aids its transparency, responding to that vital initial attack of the note. There’s three modes; Normal (OD) engages standard soft clipping with a little less drive than the usual Tube Screamer clones. The less compressed Clean mode is a boost with an overdrive control to add some drive if you wish. Distortion mode has more drive than the OD mode and is described as a cross between a Boss DS-1 and OD-1 but with more clarity.
3. Ibanez Tube Screamer TS-808 Mini £59 A little bit of a classic
5. J Rockett Audio Designs Archer £189 Since you’ve been Klon
The iconic 808’s mid-frequency boost has lured many a player to its emerald charms. Launched around 1980, the original TS-808 (as well its successors the TS-9 and TS-10) would fall at the feet of Stevie Ray Vaughan to give him the midrange boost for his Fender into Fender rig, securing its legacy for blues tonehounds. The Tube Screamer story continues here with an interesting twist; it’s been scaled down into this mini unit at a very tempting price. This one still offers exactly the same three-knob control setup as its larger siblings and features the same JRC4558 chip at its heart. And sound-wise, it does what you’d expect a Tube Screamer to do. That midrange boost that can kick things up a notch when you need a little extra for solos and more. Downsides? It can’t be powered by battery, only a 9V adaptor.
The Klon Centaur is the lusted-after drive pedal built by one-man operation, Bill Finnegan, which has been seen at the feet of fine players including Jeff Beck, Billy Gibbons, Kenny Wayne Shepherd and John Mayer. Now discontinued, they can fetch four-figure sums second hand but this is one of the best value Klon clones around. It’s based on a silver Centaur owned by J Rockett co-boss Chris Van Tassel and it’s actually the result of an initial collaboration with Finnegan that never took off. External controls are exactly the same as those on the Klon; output, treble and gain to give you everything from a clean boost to a midgained overdrive. As a clean boost into a decent valve amp, a booster for other pedals or a low-gain overdrive, the Archer offers a remarkably amp-like experience that adds width and fatness to any kind of guitar.
“Many players like to combine multiple overdrives at different gain settings to impart each pedal’s individual characteristics on their sound”
Booker White’s 1933 National Duolian
Rock Of Ages How did a guitar owned by Booker White, one of history’s most influential bluesmen and an early inspiration to BB King, come to rest thousands of miles away in the North East of England? We meet its current guardian, photographer Keith Perry, to find out how an unlikely friendship carried this iconic instrument all the way from Memphis to Newcastle Words Jamie Dickson Photography Joe Branston
he letter, written in a flowing hand on fading yellow notepaper, is dated 10 May 1976. Its contents may be brief, but mark an extraordinary moment. “Mr Keith Perry, I am fine and hope you are. Most of all, I hope you have received the guitar by now and I hope you will like and enjoy it,” the letter read. “You will have to tune it up, as I had to tune it down to send it. I will be looking to hear from you and [so] I will know if you got the guitar. Have a nice time in music and thanks a whole lot and let me continue to hear from you and Hard Rock.” The words are those of Booker ‘Bukka’ White, the legendary Delta bluesman whose slide playing inspired the young BB King to take up guitar. They were written to Newcastle photographer Keith Perry, who has carefully preserved the letter to this day. And little wonder, because Booker sent the note to confirm that his guitar, a 1933 National Duolian resonator that he affectionately called ‘Hard Rock’, had arrived at Keith’s home. This was not the result of some reluctant sale, but a remarkable gift made in honour of the unlikely friendship between these two men from vastly different backgrounds. Booker White was one of the great Delta blues guitarists, who wrote songs such as Fixin’ To Die Blues, later covered by Bob Dylan, and Po’ Boy that powerfully evoke the hard lives and soul-piercing musicality
of black bluesmen in America’s Deep South during the 1930s. By contrast, Keith Perry was a press photographer from Newcastle – where he continues to live and work today. They met when a lost generation of great American blues guitarists discovered an enthusiastic fanbase in Britain during the 60s, reviving their music and their fortunes in a new land. With a Rolleiflex roll-film camera in hand, Keith Perry documented the shows these players gave to packed auditoriums around Britain. “These guys weren’t appreciated back home, they were playing in folk clubs, wherever they could get work,” Keith recalls. “But they came over here and they got huge audiences. The reason they started touring was because [Piedmont blues guitarist] Brownie McGhee went to see Big Bill Broonzy in hospital. He was dying of throat cancer at the time and he said to Brownie: ‘You’ve got to keep this European touring thing going. There’s a great audience over there.’ So Sonny and Brownie, to fill the void, started touring with Chris Barber. And, of course, they were selling out everywhere. It was incredible.” Captivated by the music, Keith found himself photographing and, later, becoming friends with some of these heroes of the blues, as they passed through the North of England on tour. “Over time, I got to know many of them really well,” Keith explains. “Brownie McGhee was a superb guitarist and he came over with the American Blues Festival
again in the mid-60s. But this time he was with Booker White and Son House. I met Brownie at the stage door and he said, ‘I want you to come and meet a real legend of the blues.’ And that was the first time I ever saw Booker White, who was sprawled on a piano stool. There was a friendly handshake and I just sat and chatted. I was in absolute awe. This was a guy who’d seen Charlie Patton, and was inspired by him. Son House was in another room at the time and he was a link to Robert Johnson. So, I took a few photographs and then they moved on, touring again.”
On The Line
The story might have ended there, but for a chance conversation with Brownie McGhee that inspired Keith to get back in touch with Booker White a little later. “A couple of years later, Brownie was across [in the UK] again – they came across quite regularly – and he said, ‘Have you heard anything more from Bukka?’ I said, ‘No,’ and he says, ‘Why don’t you write to him and send him some photographs?’ Brownie had this huge book: everybody who was anybody in the blues was in this book and he had an address for Booker. So I put a few photographs together and sent him a letter. I got a letter straight back thanking me, which I still have. I was astonished, but enclosed with the letter was a phone number, so I thought, ‘Well, why not phone him from time to time?’ “So I called him and he was over the moon that I’d actually phoned him in Memphis.
Booker White’s 1933 National Duolian
Booker in full flow with the guitar; note the thumb and finger picks
· “He said, ‘Look, you’ve sent me tapes, you’ve been a friend. If you send me a couple of hundred dollars for the postage and you can have my old guitar’” ·
Apparently on impulse, he offered to give Keith his National Duolian resonator, which he affectionately called Hard Rock and which had been a companion for much of his eventful life. “There was one phone call I made to him and I said, ‘I’d love to get a hold of a guitar, a National, like yours.’ Because you never saw them for sale in this country,” Keith recalls, clearly still awed by the gesture. “And he said, ‘Look, you’ve sent me tapes, you’ve been a friend… if you send me a couple of hundred dollars for the postage and packing you can have my old guitar.” And of course, I was completely blown away. “I was a bit strapped for cash at the time, because I’d just bought a house,” Keith adds. “But I had a word with my bank manager, and he said, ‘Yes, we’ll arrange something.’” A few weeks later, Keith got a call from Customs officials at Newcastle airport, to whom he duly delivered the princely sum of £17 in import duty that had to be paid before the irreplaceable guitar was allowed into the country, as Keith recalls. “I said, ‘By all means, yes, that seems very fair.’ I couldn’t get out of that airport quick enough.”
© George Pickow/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
So I said, ‘Have you got any of your old records?’ and he said, ‘No.’ He didn’t have any of them, which was quite amazing really. So I said, ‘Right, I’ve got a couple of LPs.’ And so I sent him over a tape of all his early recordings and again he sent another letter back, saying how happy he was to receive the tape, and that he had sat up to the early hours listening to it and it brought back a lot of memories. So I kept phoning perhaps every three or four months.” Soon the phone conversations became a regular fixture. Keith had a thirst to learn more about blues history and Booker had not only lived through those times but had recorded some of the most powerful blues guitar ever committed to vinyl. Thus Booker was able to give Keith unique insights into that world, recalled from direct experience. “When I called, his wife used to say, ‘He’s in his office,‘” Keith recalls. “And you could hear him huffing and puffing on the stairs. His office was a seat just round the next block and he used to sit there all day drinking whisky and playing his guitar and fans would come by and chat to him, but that was ‘the office’. He just sat there all day talking to people. But as soon as I phoned, he was straight up the stairs. We’d talk about all sorts: the old days, the blues. Brownie McGhee was very much influenced by him. He loved his playing. “I once asked Booker, ‘Did you ever come across Robert Johnson?’ and he said, ‘No, I heard about him. He travelled in different circles to me. But the king of the Delta blues, for me, was always Charlie Patton.’ He said some people had suggested that he’d never seen Patton. But Booker said, ‘No, I definitely saw Charlie Patton.’ He told me how he watched him and how Patton not only played the guitar, but put it on the floor and danced on its back.” The hard times, of course, were etched just as starkly in Booker’s memory as the good. His famous song Parchman Farm Blues refers to the severe privations he experienced as an inmate of Mississippi State Penitentiary, after being jailed in 1937 for killing a man during a bar-room altercation. Booker always maintained it was an act of self-defence, but the memory of it was not something he chose to dwell on, Keith says. “I asked him once about the murder rap and he was a bit evasive about it. He just said, ‘If I hadn’t have shot the man, he would have shot me.’ But he’d had a hard, hard life, hadn’t he? I can’t imagine some of the scrapes he must have been in in Mississippi. It was a very violent place.” Booker and Keith’s correspondence continued in this way for many years until one day, just a few months before he died, Booker did something remarkable.
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