The Legend of Booker's Guitar reveals for the first time how a blues fan in the UK helped preserve one of the most iconic guitars in music history, having been sent the instrument as a gift by its famous previous owner, Delta blues legend “Bukka” White.

The Legend of Booker's Guitar

The book tells the story of photographer Keith Perry and his remarkable association with Booker “Bukka” White, whose many fans include Robert Plant, Iggy Pop and Van Morrison.


Their relationship would later inspire popular American blues singer Eric Bibb to record the album Booker's Guitar, which reached the top of the charts in 2010.


The story's origins can be traced to October 1967, when 24 year old Keith Perry, from Newcastle upon Tyne, was just one of many fans keen to see blues hero “Bukka” White perform for the first time in the UK.


“I was first introduced to Booker by my friend Brownie McGhee, who was sharing the bill with Booker and a host of other famous blues musicians at Newcastle City Hall,” remembers Keith.


“They were touring the UK as part of the American Folk Blues Festival and were receiving rapturous ovations wherever they played.


“Seeing him perform live was an amazing experience. Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant saw Booker play in Birmingham just a few days later, and he has often spoken about how important that moment was in his life. Even today, he still performs one of White's songs in every concert he plays.”

The Legend of Booker's Guitar

Booker T. Washington White endured a tough upbringing in rural Mississippi. Born in 1904, he was taught to play guitar as a young child by his father and later used his skills as a musician to escape life as a farmhand.


He made his first recordings in 1930 for Victor Records, but his hopes of launching a successful career suffered a hammer blow when he was jailed in 1937 on a charge of murder.


The harrowing experiences which he endured inside the notorious Parchman Farm prison inspired him to compose some of the greatest blues songs of all time, which he duly recorded upon his release from jail in 1940.


But changing tastes in music during Booker's incarceration had conspired to rob him of his chance of success, and he was forced to abandon a life in music and seek regular employment as a manual labourer in Memphis, Tennessee.


A fortuitous chain of events over 20 years later would finally lead to White's rediscovery in 1963, after two young blues fans attempted to track him down through clues found in the lyrics of his old recordings.


By the mid-1960s, “Bukka” White's reputation as a true blues legend had been secured, with successful concert appearances and recordings confirming his legendary status throughout the world.

The Legend of Booker's Guitar
The Legend of Booker's Guitar
The Legend of Booker's Guitar

Keith Perry kept in regular contact with his idol throughout the 1970s, exchanging letters and enjoying lengthy transatlantic telephone calls.


And a chance comment made during one of those conversations in 1976 was to change Keith's life forever.


“Booker had used the same National Duolian steel guitar in every performance for almost 20 years, and I was desperate to find a similar instrument.


“They were impossible to find in the UK at that time, so I asked Booker if he knew of any similar guitars that might be available.


“I had often sent him photographs and recordings with my letters, which he greatly appreciated, and on this occasion he paused for a moment and said, 'You have been good to me in the past. If you send me the cost of postage and packing I will send you my old guitar.'


“I held the telephone away from me for a second – I could hardly believe what I was hearing!”


The guitar, which White had affectionately named 'Hard Rock,' has since become one of the most famous instruments in music history, with musicians such as Don McLean, Mark Knopfler, Lonnie Donegan and Derek Trucks among those to have played it under Keith's custodianship.


Booker's young cousin B.B. King also had the opportunity to play the guitar during a visit to Newcastle upon Tyne in 1984. As Keith recalls, “B.B. picked up the guitar and said, 'My, my. I remember this guitar from when I would visit Booker in Memphis during the 1940s.'


“B.B. was trying to make the big time back then, and the sound of Booker's slide guitar inspired him to develop a whole new style of playing. He later included a photo of himself with the guitar in his autobiography, describing it as 'a holy relic'.”

More recently, the guitar enjoyed a new lease of life when Eric Bibb recorded a song in tribute to the instrument, following a chance encounter with Keith Perry at a Newcastle concert in 2001.


“Eric wrote a song titled 'Booker's Guitar' a few years after our first meeting,” says Keith, “and he even took time out from his busy touring schedule to come and record the song in the North East using the guitar.”


The track duly appeared on Bibb's best-selling album Booker's Guitar, which topped the U.S. charts in 2010 and introduced the story of Keith Perry and Hard Rock to a whole new audience.


“Eric chose to use one of my photographs for the album cover, and he was constantly asked about the guitar during interviews at that time.”


Now, as Keith's story reaches print for the first time, the 72 year old can reflect upon the good fortune that has helped shape his life.


“It's amazing to read about all the things that have happened to me,” he admits.


“I have met so many of my heroes during my career and have been lucky enough to befriend a lot of them.


“They have all appreciated my work as a photographer, and it has also helped that I've always been a genuine fan of their music.


“My friendship with Booker White led to so many wonderful moments in my career, and I would never have dreamed that his guitar would ultimately play such an important role in my life.”


And as for the future of the guitar itself, it seems that the iconic instrument could soon find a new home.


“I have acted as custodian of the guitar for almost 40 years now,” says Keith, “and I hope that one day somebody who appreciates its history might come along and take over from me. It is a legacy that needs to be preserved for future generations.”