About four decades ago, bluesman David Booker came to Denver as part of a “hobo backpacking trip” across the United States. The trip included stops in New York, Los Angeles and Phoenix. Two years later, the Manchester, England native, who grew up listening to Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, packed up and moved to the Mile High City — his favorite spot from his vacation.
When Booker moved to Denver in 1981, the film Urban Cowboy had been out for about a year, and Booker recalls everybody dressing up in cowboy clothes.
“A lot of people were walking around with cowboy hats and boots and briefcases, because the oil thing was happening in the early ’80s,” Booker says.
Being a bassist at the time, Booker played in a few country bands before landing a gig on the AM radio station KFML, where he did a morning show and eventually started his Red Hot Blues Show on Saturdays. He had a birthday coming up, so he figured he would celebrate that as well as his radio show by putting a band together, calling it the Red Hot Blues Band after the radio show and doing a gig at the blues club Straight Johnson’s.
“It was packed,” Booker says. “I had a bit of a following on the radio. The next thing I know, I’m the leader of a seven-piece R&B band playing guitar, which I’d never really bothered with too much because I was a bass player. I inherited this band with a bass player, and they were all pretty tight. So I thought, ‘Okay, it looks like I’m going to have to practice up some Chuck Berry licks.”
Not long after, a booking agency got the band playing six-night runs at ski resorts like Vail, Aspen and Breckenridge.
“All of the sudden we were making a living doing that,” Booker says. “I quit the radio station just in time, because it went down after about three months after I left, and no one got paid. I was one of the last people to get a paycheck from that radio station.”
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Throughout the ’80s, the Red Hot Blues Band got to back up Diddley, one of Booker’s idols, for two nights at Straight Johnson’s, followed by a gig backing up legendary R&B/funk singer Rufus Thomas, who rehearsed with the band for six hours, learning all the body movements and hand signals before the show. The band also got to open for Dr. John, who sat in with the group for the jump-blues tune “Caldonia.”
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After the Red Hot Blues Band broke up in the late ’80s, Booker did a stint in San Francisco with the Dynatones. Booker formed the swamp blues act Alleygators, which he led in duo and band formats for about eight years, and did a few tours of Holland. He did the solo thing for a while but formed a band once the swing craze exploded in the mid-’90s. The band was busy for about five years, sometimes playing two weddings in a day, or at places like 9th Avenue West (now La Rumba) and Trios Enoteca in Denver and Boulder.
Once the bubble burst on the ’90s swing scene, Booker went back to playing primarily solo gigs with the occasional swing band show at the Mercury Cafe. And although he had open heart surgery in 2016 and went through prostate cancer treatment last year, he still plays every night of the week. In fact, he’s so busy playing that he doesn’t have a weekend off until October.
“That’s the whole thing, is just trying to hustle and keep going,” Booker says.