J. B. Hutto landed on my desk like manna from heaven. I shall digress a bit but this is all about the great Joseph Benjamin.
My favorite job ever was promoting concerts. A promoter means you are in charge of the whole magilla-you take all the responsibility. You hire the band-you get an agent to give you a date (or dates) with his act-you rent the hall, figure out advertising, catering, etc…. it’s gambling, a previous pastime. Every show you ever went to there was always a Promoter. A hero of mine, Bill Graham, father of the Fillmore(s) and many other innovations of the trade, was quoted as saying, “You think I have no worries because I put on big gigs that sell out? I worry about earthquakes and hurricanes and overdoses.”
Which was the prime appeal of the job for me. The excitement, the rush of wondering what the heck is going to happen on this date I have two months from now. Something about that suited my make-up.
One date, John Lee Hooker’s first return to his home state of Michigan after 30+ years, was a case in point. In a theater of 280 seats x 2 shows = 560 total tickets. Four days before the show only 60 seats had sold- and the night of …sold out. What a rush. He was iconic, too cool for school, fun was had by all and you can bet I stayed up all night.
John Lee, born of the South, migrated to Detroit then left many years previous under a cloud that was never articulated to me (secrets kept close to the vest). Eventually he found caring representation and grew the full career warranted by a blues Master such as he. I mean without the early blues Masters there is no Rolling Stones , no Led Zeppelin, no Allman Brothers, yet the Masters never earned the sort of money their British sons and grandsons achieved and were deeply in need of loyal representation having been exploited out of songwriting royalties by early mob-connected business managers. This is so not-a-secret the HBO show The Soprano’s had a character like that based on a real-life guy. John Lee’s management initiated a landmark lawsuit he eventually won which resulted in record labels forking over a total of 2 million bucks. Very few blues guys got that sort of justice. The number puts into perspective their influence and how much larceny has been perpetrated on black artists. A true crime.
His trademark sound heard here illustrates the birth of numerous bands from Canned Heat to ZZ Top to George Thorogood and many more.
The thing about concert promotion; it’s not really a career until you’re at the arena/stadium level. The money’s too small. Originally one of the true entrepreneurial fronts, often a monopoly, driven by regions, every big city had its promoter and generally there was only one. There were exceptions, smaller guys allowed to exist, nipping at the heels of the big dogs but the big dog rules. Those guys were titans. Now it’s all been corporately merged into two corporations. I’m not kidding, Live Nation runs the whole music world now. You do see smaller exceptions. Our own NC-based Pinecone is a lovely non-profit example but that is statistically rare.
I knew fairly soon I didn’t have the shark-like moves necessary to rise up to the top (especially since rock-and-roll was really run by the Mob). My concerts were a glorified hobby. I was blessed to work with many favorites including most of the blues greats, having personally promoted around 70 blues/folk/rock/jazz shows and booked many others. Brought Muddy Waters to town where post-gig we enjoyed a dinner of ribs, red beans and rice and champagne together. Not to mention the doobie appetizer.
To augment income, I also booked bands, the difference an illustration of opposites. Promoters accept all the risk and responsibilities-agents just sell acts to promoters; receiving a commission and no real risk. Which brings us back to JB.
I was working as an agent, in a boutique promotion company, very good at what they do. My earlier blues promotions and bookings had led to working relationships with larger established managers and agencies and one day I got a call from a well-liked east coast manager with his own agency who told me, “JB Hutto is back, sober, raring to go and I’m managing him and I need some gigs. Like now, immediately.” I had him working in 4 days, quickly putting together a string of some 6,7,8 gigs which all went fine.
Said manager called back to say (rough paraphrase, this was 35 years ago), “I’m happy with your work, I’m considering making you his agent at least in the mid-west if not the nation, let’s see how it goes.”
Did you hear it? That’s one of those moments when the clouds open, the sky parts, the heavenly light shines through any residual clouds and angelic hosts sing.
I had worked my way up the ladder for a few years and it looked like my ship had come in.
Allow me to add some background. JB was born in South Carolina but like many had emigrated to Chicago. He’d been a real contender in the blues world back in the 50’s. With a song or two charted on the blues lists, eventually alcohol had taken him out of the game. I had actually gone to see him in the early 70’s and he’d been too inebriated to play.
What the manager said, ‘sober and raring to go’, was fact. Right at that time I had seen every blues act you can name and his show was the best, the top of the list. With a crack three-piece unit behind him, his slide guitar blistered the paint off the walls. JB Lenoir and Elmore James+ incarnate. Utilizing a 150-foot guitar cord, (this was pre-wireless) he snaked through the audience prowling the club, with an attack that literally stapled you to the back. I mean KILLAH! You had to be there.
You understand, they weren’t making any more of these guys. This astounding Father of the blues-one of the disappeared-was now ready to emerge and take his rightful place among the Pantheon and I was being handed a key to the glory! Dear God in Heaven Hallelujah!
I mean, no hyperbole, we are talking about a guy who Eric Clapton and Keith Richards would line-up to duet with. The David Letterman show would book! Show biz here I come, with an authentic artist I love. I got me a lodestone and am working my way up-the-ladder. How fantastic is that?!
This all unfolded quickly, over two-three weeks.
Then, on his way to an outdoor festival in Northern Michigan I had booked, JB has a grand-mal seizure and a few days later, in a hospital, he died.
Did you hear that sound? Of the Holy Grail slipping from my hands and shattering on the floor? Oh Lordy I stayed drunk over that one for a good week, feeling as beat down as a rented mule. Which shows the depth of my self-centeredness. His family lost a patriarch and all I can think of was my work losses.
Self-centeredness could be a moral to the story, another being that sensation of always reaching for something but never grasping it. That constant out-of-reach feeling. Never getting the true itch scratched-which is a symptom of addiction. I would argue more than addiction, that’s the human condition in America today. Searching outside to fix something inside. Not that meaningful work isn’t wonderful. In recovery that sensation has often left-in that there are things, true things, I have been able to grab ahold of. Itches scratched. It behooves me to allow that feeling in deeper.
Which leads me to another paradox-this favorite work of mine was pre-recovery. The work I have now is really my favorite job ever. It’s like BC and AD. There’s a split-a dichotomy-a transformative event, and everything’s changed. Yet still fallible humanity.
Meanwhile, JB died sober and I am grateful for the experience I did get with him.
I hadn’t thought of this old tale in a while. Thanks for letting me share. Dying sober is my goal too. No time soon, mind you but still the goal.