African-American History Month - "walkin' down Hastings Street"


Sometimes music is about context. Put yourself in January 1949. That big Admiral radio from Montgomery Ward is belting out the biggest selling records that month - “Buttons and Bows” by Dinah Shore and the hot “race” record on the chart is the third remake of Tommy Dorsey’s “Bewildered” (good version, but…). Meanwhile the whole country was on the move. African-Americans were moving en masse to Chicago and Detroit and whites were moving off the farms and into cities. People were headed west to California. Music was moving forward on all fronts as well. The second wave from Memphis was about to strike, led by a man who was on the move from Alabama.

He arrived too late to catch a teenaged John Lee Hooker, who came to Memphis around 1930 to make a few dollars NOT picking cotton in his native Mississippi and develop his musical talent on Beale Street. His first exposure to music was of course singing in church, but there was something else in him. His stepfather helped it come out. Young John moved on to Cincinnati, working whatever jobs he could find. But he moved on before Syd Nathan established King Records there, while their future superstar was still just a young lad in Georgia. He moved again and got steady work in Detroit - at Ford, which besides their vehicles, was cranking out engines - for aircraft, not tank-like trucks, but actual tanks, and B-24 bombers. And he played, combining that blues he learned from youth and whatever he picked up on the streets of Memphis, Cincinnati, and Detroit.

The war ended, and while Ford was getting back to only making automobiles, as trains and highways were moving thousands north and west, and Dinah Shore was in the middle of a 24 week stretch on the pop charts, John Lee Hooker recorded a demo which found its way to the Bihari brothers at Modern Records. His first recording took off. After spending half his young life playing music he was an “overnight sensation” and was able to focus on music. That focus influenced another generation of movers - Bo Diddley, Albert Collins, and Buddy Guy all later recalled learning that song early in their lives. And that’s while they were all just “chillen” - figuring out a song that influenced generations of blues and rock musicians - which topped the R&B charts on this day in 1949 - “it got to come out!”

Of course he changed it a bit over the years, but here he is at 75 still nailing it -

Boogie Chillen’”

 How did i get here? 

In my journeys over the last three years, both physical and personal/internal, I have discovered Memphis and a drive to create. This site will display my goals to informally promote and tell stories about Memphis and the surrounding areas - music, culture, history - through my observations, photography, and telling the stories of people I meet along the way.

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© 2016 by Wil Little Pitcher