Whether it was bought over with the American GIs during the Second World War or with the merchant sailors coming into Albert Dock with a fistful of 45s: one way or another, the blues found its way to Liverpool. And thank God it did, because, without the recordings of Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, and BB King, John Lennon and Paul McCartney may well have carried on playing in skiffle bands for the rest of their lives.
Britain’s adoption of the blues in the 1950s was instrumental to the development of rock ‘n’ roll, which, with the arrival of the ’60s, began making its way across the Atlantic in the form of British Invasion bands such as The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, and, of course, The Beatles – the latter of whom supplemented their Hamburg setlist with covers from the biggest names in blues. The group’s charismatic co-frontman, John Lennon, was just one of the countless post-war Brits to fall in love with the sound of America’s blues singer in his youth, but who was his favourite?
In Cities In Civilization, historian Peter Hall dedicates a whole chapter to the birth of rock ‘n’ roll, in which he describes how British artists ensured they made the influence of America’s bluesmen on their sound well and truly known: “These British groups left no doubt about their debt. Indeed, they went out of their way to record it. When the Beatles first came to America they told everyone they wanted to see Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley; one reporter asked: ‘Muddy Waters … Where’s that?’ Paul McCartney laughed and said, ‘Don’t you know who your own famous people are here?’”.
As Hall argues, The Beatles not only held a reverence for the blues artists but actively opened up the genre to America’s white middle-classes. As John Lee Hooker once said: “It may seem corny to you, but this is true: the groups from England really started the blues rolling and getting bigger among the kids – the White kids. At one time, fifteen years back, the blues was just among the blacks – the old Black people. And this uprise started in England by the Beatles, Animals, Rolling Stones, it started everybody to digging the blues”.
But for Lennon, there was one blues artist who stood head and shoulders above the rest: Tommy Tucker. The Beatles were just one of the British Invasion groups to cover his 1963 hit ‘Hi-Heel Sneakers’, which was also one of the 45’s found in John Lennon’s personal KB Discomatic jukebox. Originally written by Robert Higgenbotham, this slice of classic 12-bar blues clearly stayed with Lennon for a long time, featuring on the A/B Road Complete Get Back Sessions bootleg, recorded in 1969.
Lennon wasn’t the only one with a taste for Tucker’s brand of classic blues. Following its release in ’63, it soared to the top of the US charts, staying in the top 20 during that famous week in April when the top five places were all occupied by The Beatles. Since then, it has been recorded by over 1000 artists, including The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, The Faces, The Everly Brothers, Chuck Berry, Stevie Wonder, The Grateful Dead, and Paul McCartney, the last of whom included it in his 1991 MTV unplugged set.
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