The John Lee Hooker song that changed David Bowie’s life
(Credit: Gijsbert Hanekroot / Alamy)

The John Lee Hooker song that changed David Bowie’s life

    There are few artists as inspiring as the late, great David Bowie. The Starman is renowned for his unique sense of style, the constant pursuit of artistic divinity and complete devotion to his art. Starting as the leader of a band before he eventually found some success at the end of the sixties, Bowie’s journey to the top of the pop pile was a comparatively long one. Like many artists, he had to climb his way up the ladder amid a growing rock and roll scene that demanded only the very best.

    As any true great will tell you, if you want to be the best, you have to take inspiration from the world around you. For Bowie, a seminal moment came when he dropped the needly on John Lee Hooker’s vinyl ‘Tupelo Blues’. After that moment, everything would change, and the singer’s focus would be enhanced.

    Bowie spoke to Vanity Fair about his favourite records when he offered up the song as a life-changing moment in his music career. Bowie had already begun his journey to being a world-class musician but was still some way off achieving his forthcoming superstardom. “By 1963, I was working as a junior commercial artist at an advertising agency in London,” he told the publication. Luckily, he had all of the tools he needed to get himself off the bottom rung of the musical ladder.

    “My immediate boss,” Bowie continued, “Ian, a groovy modernist with Gerry Mulligan—style short crop haircut and Chelsea boots, was very encouraging about my passion for music, something he and I both shared, and used to send me on errands to Dobell’s Jazz record shop on Charing Cross Road knowing I’d be there for most of the morning till well after lunch break. It was there, in the ‘bins,’ that I found Bob Dylan’s first album. Ian had sent me there to get him a John Lee Hooker release and advised me to pick up a copy for myself, as it was so wonderful.”

    The song was ‘Tupelo Blues’, a perfectly created song that typified everything Hooker was as an artist. Featuring on his third album The Country Blues of John Lee Hooker, the track reflects on a devastating flood that had wrecked the Missippian city. Hooker said of the song: “People never forgot it. So when I grew up and got famous, I wrote about it, and it brought back memories to a lot of people.”

    For Bowie, the song had an immediate impact and changed the direction of his musical path: “Within weeks my pal George Underwood and I had changed the name of our little R&B outfit to the Hooker Brothers and had included both Hooker’s ‘Tupelo’ and Dylan’s version of ‘House of the Rising Sun’ in our set,” remembered the ‘Changes’ singer.

    There was even a suggestion that Dylan’s impact could have launched Bowie’s career before it got the official launchpad of ‘Space Oddity’. He recalled: “We added drums to ‘House,’ thinking we’d made some kind of musical breakthrough, and were understandably gutted when the Animals released the song to stupendous reaction. Mind you; we had played our version live only twice, in tiny clubs south of the river Thames, in front of 40 or so people, not one of whom was an Animal. No nicking, then!”

    Considering Bowie called the record one of his most treasured out of a whopping 2,500 he had in his collection, it’s clear that this song meant a lot to the singer. Whether it was purely as a reminder of a time gone by, because of the impact it had on his life, or he was truly inspired by Hooker’s style and delivery, there can be no denying that it formed an integral part of his musical education.

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