John Lee Hooker Biography

22 August 1917, Clarksdale, Mississippi, USA, d. 21 June 2001, Los Altos, California, USA. Dates vary between 1917 to 1920, but owing to the age of Hooker’s mother when he was born, 1917 is the most likely. He was born into a large family, of between 10 and 12 siblings, who all worked on the fields of a large tenanted agricultural farm. Hooker’s first musical experiences, like those of so many other blues singers, were in church. A contrivance made from an inner tube attached to a barn door represented his first makeshift attempts at playing an instrument, but he subsequently learned some guitar from his stepfather William Moore, and they played together at local dances. At the age of 14, he ran away to Memphis, Tennessee, where he met and played with Robert Lockwood. Two years later he moved to Cincinnati, where he stayed for about 10 years and sang with a number of gospel quartets. In 1943, he moved to Detroit, which was to be his home for many years, and while working during the day as a janitor began playing at night in the blues clubs and bars around Hastings Street, at the heart of that city’s black section. Over the years he had developed the unique guitar style that was to make his music so distinctive and compelling.

In 1948 Hooker was finally given the chance to record. Accompanied only by his own electric guitar and constantly tapping foot, ‘Boogie Chillen’, with its driving rhythm and hypnotic drone of an accompaniment, was a surprise commercial success for Modern Records. The record is rumoured to have sold over a million copies, but this is contested by Hooker as it did not tally with his royalty statement. Over the next few years, they leased a large amount of his material first from Bernie Besman and later from legendary Detroit entrepreneur Joe Von Battle (both of whom also tried a few Hooker issues on their own Sensation and JVB labels, respectively). Most of these early recordings feature Hooker performing entirely solo; only a few are duets with Eddie Kirkland or another guitarist, and there are one or two with a band. It seems that this solo setting was not typical of his live work at the time, which would have used a small band, probably including piano, second guitar and drums, but his idiosyncratic sense of timing always made him a difficult musician to accompany, and it may be that recording him solo was the most reliable way of ensuring a clean take. Nevertheless, his solo sound on these early records was remarkably self-sufficient. His unique open-tuned guitar enabled him to combine a steady rhythm with inspired lead picking, thereby making full use of his rich, very bluesy baritone vocals. Although this one-man-band format might suggest a throwback to a more down-home ambience, there is a certain hipness and urbane sophistication about these performances that represent a significant departure from the rural background of Hooker’s music and contribute very strongly to his characteristic sound. While a solo blues singer was something of an anachronism by this time, there is no doubt that the records sold consistently.

From the late 40s to the early 50s, Hooker recorded prolifically and enjoyed an enormously successful run with Modern, producing such classic records as ‘Crawling King Snake’, ‘In The Mood’, ‘Rock House Boogie’ and ‘Shake Holler & Run’. Hooker became increasingly unhappy with the lack of financial reward for his recordings which appeared to sell well. He decided to moonlight, and recorded under a number of different names. Hooker’s voice and style of playing is unmistakable and fans had no problem in sussing him out. With tongue firmly in cheek among the many names he adopted were; John Lee Booker, John Lee Cooker, Johnny Williams, Delta John, Sir John Lee Hooker, Little Pork Chops, Texas Slim, Birmingham Sam, John Lee, Boogie Man, Johnny Lee, and John L. Booker. Most of these were also leased from Joe Von Battle.

Hooker’s recording success led to tours. He played the R&B circuit across the country and this further developed his popularity with the black American public. In 1955, he severed his connection with Modern and began a long association with Vee Jay Records of Chicago. By this time, the solo format was finally deemed too old-fashioned for the contemporary R&B market and all of these recordings used a tight little band, often including Eddie Taylor on guitar, as well as piano and various combinations of horns. The association with Vee Jay proved very satisfactory, both artistically and commercially, producing a string of hits such as the simplistic but brilliant ‘Dimples’, ‘Maudie’ and ‘Boom Boom’ and promoting further extensive tours. In the late 50s, as the market for R&B was beginning to contract, a new direction opened up for Hooker and he began to appear regularly at folk clubs and folk festivals. He found himself lionized by a new audience consisting mainly of young, white listeners. The folk connection also resulted in new recordings, issued on album by Riverside Records, which reverted to the solo acoustic format. While these recordings lacked the hard edge of the best of his earlier commercial sides, they were fascinating for the fact that the producers encouraged him to dig back into his older repertoire. Several songs reflecting his rural Mississippi background, such as ‘Bundle Up And Go’ and ‘Pea Vine Special’ were given his distinctive treatment. These records spread his name more widely when they were released overseas.

In the early 60s his reputation grew considerably as he was often cited by younger pop and rock musicians, in particular the Animals and the Rolling Stones, as a major influence. As a result international tours soon followed. Throughout this period, he continued to release singles and albums on Vee Jay, but records also appeared on other labels. Later in the 60s, he made a number of records for Bluesway, aimed at this younger market. The connection with a new generation of musicians led to various ‘super sessions’, predictably of varying quality, but bearing fruit most successfully in the early 70s with the release of the stunning Hooker N Heat, in which he played with the American rock blues band Canned Heat. Their famous long improvised boogies clearly owed a great deal to the influence of the older man.

Although the popular enthusiasm for blues waned for a while in the late 70s and early 80s, Hooker’s standing rarely faltered and he continued to tour, latterly with the Coast To Coast Blues Band. His early recordings were repackaged and re-released over and over again, with those companies who used him pseudonymously in the early days now proudly taking the opportunity to capitalize on his real name. A remarkable transformation came in 1989 when Hooker recorded The Healer. This superb album featured stellar guest artists on most tracks, including Bonnie Raitt (who is on record as saying that Hooker’s guitar sound is one of the most erotic things she has ever heard), Los Lobos, and a duet with Carlos Santana on the title cut. If such a thing as ‘Latin blues’ existed, this was it. The Healer has gone on to become one of the biggest-selling blues records of all time, and by prompting other older statesmen to record again helped fuel a new blues revival. The 1991 follow-up Mr Lucky reached number 3 in the UK album charts, setting a record for Hooker, at 74, as the oldest artist to achieve that position. On this second guest album he was paired with Ry Cooder, Van Morrison, Albert Collins, and a gamut of other superstars. In his old age, Hooker had begun to fulfil the role of elder statesman of the blues, even appearing in an advertisement for a multinational chemical corporation. The Hooker revival continued right through 1992 with the use of a new version of ‘Boom Boom’ for a Lee Jeans television advertisement. Both the single and the subsequent album were considerable hits.

Following a hernia operation in 1994 the great man decided to slow down and enjoy his cars and houses. Another fine release, Chill Out, came in 1995. Shortly after its release it was announced that Hooker had retired from performing and was prepared to rest until they ‘lowered his bones into the earth’. However, he was back on stage performing in 1996 and released a new album in 1997. Don’t Look Back was a Van Morrison production and bore clear signs of his influence; Morrison’s ‘The Healing Game’ and Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Red House’ were the highlights, and ‘Don’t Look Back’ was beautifully understated, with some fine noodling organ and guitar from Charles Brown and Danny Caron respectively. Another reworking of ‘Dimples’ added nothing to the classic Vee Jay recording. Three years later, Hooker’s voice and guitar were cleverly sampled by Ludovic Navarre on the St. Germain track, ‘Sure Thing’.

Hooker’s discography is an absolute minefield; so many tracks have been licensed and re-licensed by so many different labels and much of his regular catalogue is in fact a series of compilations. Goldmine magazine (March 1992) is the best attempt so far. Dozens of his songs have also been issued under alternative titles, with only slight changes in the lyrics. Charles Shaar Murray’s labour of love, Boogie Man, is the definitive book on Hooker. This highly readable biography does not patronise one of the key figures of post-war blues, but objectively celebrates and respects the man’s massive contribution to his art. Hooker’s remarkable voice came from deep within, it was hollow and creamy with a brittle edge. To hear him sing solo (as on 1976’s superb Alone) gives the listener an indication of how true he was to his art. This formidable ‘cool dude’ was the last surviving giant of the real delta folk blues, and therefore, represented a final touchstone with a body of music that is both rich in history and unmatched in its importance. It is a fitting tribute to the great man that he died peacefully in his sleep.


Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.


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