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Chesapeake Bay Blues: A look back over 20 years at Sandy Point

E.B. Furgurson III
Contact Reporterpfurgurson@capgaznews.com

It has been more than 20 years since then computer company owner Don Hooker was writing checks to local charities when it hit him. He could do a blues festival to raise money for the charities.

After catching a blues festival in Long Beach and told himself: “Hey, I can do this. And I know just where I want to do it. Sandy Point.”

Only he didn’t know the first thing about it.

“It was tough to get the state of Maryland to give a computer company programmer the park for a week. But they did,” Hooker said in an interview at his home in Dunkirk.

The first festival in 1998 got underway in a Nor’easter, and the weather has been a factor in roughly half the festivals since.

“That first year we were expecting 500 or 1,000 people, basically a glorified bake sale, but 13,000 people showed up,” he said.

“Here we were a bunch of computer people, programmers, secretaries working in the pouring down rain with 40 knot winds coming off the Chesapeak Bay.”

“My secretary started crying, people did not know what to do. They were saying, ‘What did you get us into?’ ”

That first year was a learning experience.

“But I figured 13,000 show up in pouring down rain there is no way I can’t not do this again,” Hooker said.

And they did. And the 1999 festival was the best, raising $300,000 for hand-picked charities. Since its inception, the event has raised about $1.7 million for charities.

There have been several years when Hooker was about to give up.

“I’d say that’s the last one,” he said. A few years he took hiatus to recoup after lean years, so Saturday and Sunday’s show will be the 15th in those 20 years.

After the monsoon-like 2016 show, with headliner Joe Bonamassa threatening to not go on but finally relenting after Hooker dressed him down and having to shell out $60,000 to re-sod and re-seed three acres of park ground,, Hooker gave up.

“I threw out everything, that was it. But then I had to go out and buy it all again for the next year.

“It is something I just have to do. Who is going to step up?”

The charities

Raising money for the charities is what drives Hooker and his volunteer troupe.

Hooker has two rules for the charities he selects: low administrative overhead costs and the festival donation has to make a substantial difference in the charities’ work.

We Care and Friends, which provides aid to those in need in Annapolis, has been involved since 1998. Larry Griffin’s charity has brought volunteers to the effort.

“If it weren’t for the money from Don Hooker we might not be out there doing what we do,” Griffin said.

The other charity this year is Special Love, a Winchester-based non-profit for children with cancer and their families in the Mid-Atlantic region. It sponsors Camp Fantastic, a summer camp open to children with cancer but other programs for their brothers and sisters.

“I always give money to the charities, whether we lose money or not, because that’s just what we do.” Hooker said.

The music

The lineup of acts always has been a mix of blues and rock and roll with some zydeco and New Orleans fare stirred into the mix.

The list of top acts is something to behold. Counting up all the artists’ Grammy Awards would be a challenge.

The bay blues festival was the last chance many Mid-Atlantic fans got to see such late greats as John Lee Hooker, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Koko Taylor, R.L. Burnside, Otis Rush, Bobby Parker, Hubert Sumlin, Pinetop Perkins, Bo Diddley, James Brown and many more.

Several other performers have rocked the Sandy Point crowd on multiple occasions. Blues songstress Shemekia Copeland will be making her 10th appearance this weekend.

Legendary bluesman Buddy Guy has played four times, Jonny Lang six times. Mavis Staples has played twice, including a memorable duo with Bonnie Raitt in 2013.

One of Hooker’s favorite memories was James Brown. “We sat and talked in his trailer for a good half hour … and when I left he caught me and gave me $2,000 cash. He said, ‘Give this to them kids you do that thing for.’ ”

Being a concert promoter is not all romance and showbiz by any means, Hooker says.

“I had to go to Rite Aid to get Pinetop Perkins some PoliGrip so his teeth wouldn’t pop out when he was playing piano,” Hooker recalled.

He also went to fetch grits for John Lee Hooker.

“He asked me, ‘They have a Denny’s here? Do they have grits? Can you get me some?’ ”

He recalled other bands complaining about a lack of sparkling water in their dressing room and worse.

Getting top-notch acts is harder since the wholesale change in the music and concert business in the past 20 years.

“Bands used to make their money on royalties from their CDs and they did festivals to promote their recordings,” Hooker said of the scene in the early years.

Now they make their money on concert ticket sales.

“Consequently their rates have gone up ten-fold since I started,” Hooker said. “We as a festival can’t raise our rates tenfold. When we started a headliner might cost in the low five figures. Now it’s six figures for a headliner.”

And the artists are harder to book, outside of the finances. Large venues or big festivals put a hold on artists preventing them from playing nearby, sometimes for months. Hooker said the Firefly Festival in Dover will block acts for a year.

“I have to make the festival smaller because of the cost,” he said.

A lot of help from his friends

None of the festivals would have been possible without volunteers.

At first, many were employees. “With them and many others we had about 400 volunteers. 200 per shift. Now we have a crew that works both shift, both days,” Hooker said.

One volunteer has known him much longer than that core of employees — daughter Sarah Petska.

“She started cleaning artists trailers when she was 18 years old,” Hooker recalled. And she took on more responsibility. “Now she’s vice-president of Chesapeake Bay Productions.”

And it looks like the weather will be a factor again this year.

“I think we have had everything but locusts,” Hooker quipped.

But weather does not seem to affect attendance.

“I had rain insurance that first year. But it didn’t pay off because it was raining sideways and not going into the little cup they had,” Hooker recalled. He hasn’t bought it since.

“These people are crazy, and they are going to come no matter what.”

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