25. John Lee Hooker & Connie Converse

“Black And White, And Blue All Over!”

Luck, timing, and capability, which we depend on to make our cartoon films, are also the keys to any other successes we hope for. Sometimes we get something we didn’t even know we wanted!  I’d spent many years recording musicians and singers, just for the fun of it. I’d recorded Pete Seeger over a period of 60+ years. Of course, lots of people have recorded Pete. He’s always been agreeable to be recorded, and always has his banjo with him!  But most of the musicians I’ve recorded were only marginally known at the time. The two people in this chapter were totally unknown, and couldn’t have been more different. They never met, and never will. One was a black man and a lifelong illiterate. One was a white woman intellectual. One became rich and famous. One died broke, in obscurity. Both of them inspired me by overcoming obstacles with the power of pure creative genius.

In 1949 I got a job as animation director at the Jam Handy Organization in Detroit, Michigan, where I lucked into becoming the first person to record the great blues genius, John Lee Hooker, playing and singing his roots music from the Mississippi Delta. Maybe a few recordings were made in the back room of a record shop in the Detroit ghetto around that time, but I don’t think sooner. What I’m sure of was there were no other recordings of his like the 20 songs I recorded: traditional country blues, folk songs, and spirituals from his Mississippi home, which he mostly never recorded again during his long career! Immediately after he recorded these old songs for me, John Lee got himself an electric guitar, became a famous city blues man and made hundreds of high velocity recordings.

When I moved my family to Detroit, we continued the regular Friday-night Open-house Jazz-record Sessions we’d been having in Hollywood. (See the little ad I put in the Record Changer Magazine.) And one of the first Detroiters who showed up, a white guy, told us he’d heard there was a fantastic new blues singer from Mississippi who was in Detroit, and was playing in a smoky dive on Hastings Street, deep in the heart of the Black neighborhood.

As much as I’ve always had intense feeling for Black American culture and had Black friends and colleagues, I understood the reality of the racial heat in Detroit. I, not only White, but new in town and not knowing the ropes, was not keen about venturing there without a local along with me. However, the lure of hearing the real blues was strong enough to risk it. It actually was cool, only the music was hot, and it was no problem for some easy talk with John Lee, and to make a deal with him. I noticed right away that he had a miserable looking old acoustic guitar with a crack in it! I told him that we had blues music sessions at our house, and if he’d come play and sing for us, we’d pay him enough so he could buy a new guitar. He agreed, and on the night,  (it was a Friday in the fall of 1949), I drove down to pick him up.

It became a historic event. None of us knew John Lee would become a great star. One song he improvised, he called the “33 Blues,” meaning he was feeling old! Actually, he looked younger. With the tapping of his foot, he laid down that patented John Lee Hooker beat, and his amazing, intuitive, idiosyncratic playing mesmerized us. And I recorded it all!

One of the first things I’d done at Jam Handy Organization was to convince the management to buy a tape recorder for the studio; in 1949 a portable tape recorder was still a new thing. I envisioned using it to record story sessions, so that ideas would not be lost. It was an industrial-grade recorder – a DuKane – not stereo, but the best that could be had at that time. There was a decent quality crystal microphone to go with it.  Best of all, I was authorized to borrow it!!! That is how this adequate quality but musically sensational recording got made.

50 years later, when the performance came into public domain in Europe, it became possible to be released on a CD, which immediately went to Number 1 on the British Blues Charts. The full story is told on my “Occasional Deitch” website, where you can also listen to a sampling of each of the 20 songs! www.genedeitch.com  Page 10.

Here is just one of the songs :)

John Lee was functionally illiterate – he could not even write his own name – he could not read music – but he transcended that with his intuitive genius. During his career, other musicians had a hard time playing with him because of his loose and unpredictable chorus lengths and key shifts, but that’s what made him great. He didn’t know the technical limitations, so he transcended them! That was what he inspired in me. I’ve always tried to do the same thing in animation!  During that same time, when I started working at JHO, the then head of the animation department, Ted Vosk, who had about 10 years experience doing “rubber hose” animation at Paramount, came up to me and said of what I was trying to do at JHO – namely introducing some of the ideas I learned at UPA Hollywood; he said, “Gene, when you’ve been in the business as long as I have, you’ll find out that you can’t get away with that kind of stuff” Well, John Lee Hooker got away just fine with not being orthodox!

•    •    •

Earlier, in the mid 1950s I’d been working in Manhattan, and living up the river in the village of Hastings-on-Hudson, having those Friday evening record sessions.  One evening in 1954, my best friend and amateur talent scout, Bill Bernal, brought a young woman carrying a guitar. Her name was Connie Converse, plain-Jane, wearing glasses, and not at all looking like she would fit in with our crowd. When she started to sing, she transformed us!

No, she didn’t sing jazz or blues – she sang her own songs, which she was actually composing just at the time. Most were songs of loneliness, rejection, betrayal, often told with ironic humor. They were all-musicianly, beautifully melodic, with seemingly coded lyrics. They completely hypnotized us. Connie sang, I recorded her, then she disappeared forever! Her songs were all in one way or another about a woman scorned. They were intensely personal and haunting. How haunting can be illustrated by one incident: in January, 2004, on a visit to New York, my son Kim and I were invited to appear on the WNYC radio show, “Spinning On Air,” conducted by Dave Garland, who had asked us to bring our favorite records. Both Kim and I have strong “retro jazz” tastes. For my part, I put together a CD copy of my favorite traditional jazz recordings, starting with a 1923 disc by King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, through Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong’s early Hot 5s, and up to Duke Ellington. While I was compiling the CD, I suddenly realized that with the opportunity of Big Apple airtime, I had a chance to sneak in one piece that was not jazz, and had never ever been played on the radio. It was my own recording of a song by Connie Converse. So here was a two-hour radio show in which Kim and I played dozens of early jazz recordings, with just that one exception, my home recording of Connie Converse singing “One By One.”  That was it. Show over! Kim & I went home.

Three years later, I received an email from a New York music producer named Boris Dzula. He wrote that he’d heard our jazz record program, and that one song got stuck in his head. He couldn’t get it out. It was my 1954 recording of Connie Converse singing “One By One!”  That, friends, qualifies as haunting! Dzula and his partner, Dave Herman, became so excited, they wanted to hear all of my Connie songs, and on the basis of my one existing reel of tape, they set up a new record label. With the sound greatly restored, aCD was produced and is available on the new label, Lau derette. Go to  www.connieconverse.com and be carried away!

In the attic of this house at 601 S. Campbell Road in the Royal Oak suburb of Detroit, Michigan, I recorded the unknown John Lee Hooker in 1949.

In 1999 the long silent tapes were first released on this London “Flyright” disc, now a rare collectors item. The same content was later officially released under the title, “Jack O’ Diamonds” on an Eagle Rock CD.

Reunion in 2000 at John Lee Hooker’s California villa.

Connie Converse trying out a song at home.

The original 1954 home recordings.

Now you can hear a sample from this ad hoc, tape, never before heard publicly, including a rendition of Connie’s haunting song, “One By One” – here!

Restored, remastered and at last issued on a Lauderette CD.

A professional portrait.

4 thoughts on “25. John Lee Hooker & Connie Converse

  1. Pingback: The Cast, in order of appearance: | genedeitchcredits

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