John Lee Hooker - Biography
John Lee Hooker arrived on the blues scene like a man out of time. His first big hit, “Boogie Chillen’,” was issued by Modern Records in early 1949. It reached #1 on the national rhythm & blues charts, sandwiched between instrumental hits by saxophonists Big Jay McNeely (“Deacon’s Hop”) and Paul Williams (“The Hucklebuck”). Hooker’s record sounded nothing like their jazzy, swinging small-band R&B: Billed to “John Lee Hooker and His Guitar,” it was a simple, incessant slice of solo stomp – “the boogie” – wrought by the musician’s hypnotic guitar and amplified tapping foot. In the context of postwar blues, it was as primitive as anything heard in the Mississippi Delta two decades before.
Hooker went on to create several other unadorned hits in a similar vein during the early 1950s, but he parlayed his fundamentally down-home style into a career that lasted more than 50 years. “The Hook” was probably the most adaptable of modern bluesmen. Though he sported a sound more personal and idiosyncratic than any of his contemporaries, he managed to achieve popularity with the black R&B audience in the ‘50s before winning listeners among white folk music fans and rockers during the ‘60s; after a long hiatus from recording in the ‘70s and ‘80s, he ended his career with a series of popular, award-winning albums featuring a Who’s Who of top-name guests.
Hooker’s first hits were recorded in Detroit, but their sound rose straight from the Delta, where the musician was born and raised. The facts of his early life are vague. August 22nd, 1917 is most commonly cited as Hooker’s birth date. He was raised on a plantation outside Clarksdale, Miss. He was one of several children – some references say as many as nine – born to preacher Rev. William Hooker and his wife Minnie. Rev. Hooker took a dim view of secular music: When Tony Hollins, an itinerant blues singer who briefly courted an older sister, gave young John Lee a guitar, his father forbade him to play it in the house. He excelled at singing in church, however.
When John Lee was nine or 10, his mother left Rev. Hooker and moved in with sharecropper Will Moore, who was also an amateur musician of some repute. Hooker would later credit Moore with development of the throbbing, modal blues style that he adopted as his own.
Hooker was raised on the Fewell plantation near Vance, Mississippi, but he showed little aptitude for either sharecropping or schooling; he was virtually illiterate until the day he died. Instead, he began seriously pursuing music as a career early in life. In the early ‘30s, while still in his teens, he lit out for Memphis, then a magnet for musicians in the mid-South. He swiftly returned, but he was convinced he could make it as a performer. He struck out again for Cincinnati in the late ‘30s, but that trip proved fruitless as well. It was not until he moved to Detroit in the early ‘40s that Hooker found his niche.
Except for a brief period in the wartime Army (from which he was purportedly ejected for lying on his application), Hooker supported himself with janitorial and assembly line work in the industrial city. But he also found employment as a performer in Detroit’s “Black Bottom”; Hastings Street, famously namechecked on “Boogie Chillen’,” was the home to such rough-and-tumble joints as Henry’s Swing Club (also mentioned in Hooker’s first hit), the Sensation, the Apex Bar, and the Caribbean Club. It was there that he developed his local rep.
These club gigs attracted the attention of Elmer Barbee, who owned a Lafayette Avenue record store with a small studio in the back. Barbee became Hooker’s manager, and recorded him in solo and small group situations in his shop. Around the same time, cartoonist Gene Deitch recorded Hooker at his home; these striking sessions were issued more than 50 years later as the album Jack O’ Diamonds, which offers a fascinating picture of the young Hooker covering a variety of blues standards in his own style.
Barbee apparently realized he needed someone with solid music business connections to move Hooker’s career along, so at some point in 1948 he approached Bernard Besman, who operated a small label, Sensation, and a record distributorship. Besman was fascinated by the fact that Hooker, though afflicted with a pronounced stutter, was able to make music of fluency and great rhythmic power. Sometime in the fall of 1948, he recorded four sides at Detroit’s United Sound; one of them was the incantatory “Boogie Chillen’.” Improvised on the spot at Besman’s insistence, the track featured a heavily distorted guitar line, pushed along by the frenetic, closely-miked sound of Hooker’s tapping left foot. It sported a message few could resist: “Let that boy boogie-woogie/’cause it’s in him, and it’s got to come out.”
Sensing that he had a hit on his hands, Besman leased “Boogie Chillen’” to the Bihari brothers’ prominent Los Angeles-based R&B label Modern Records. Issued as a single in November 1948, Hooker’s debut single improbably became a No. 1 hit and spent more than four months on the national R&B charts. Several other similarly-styled solo performances reached the charts in 1949-51, including “Hobo Blues,” “Boogie Boogie,” “Crawlin’ King Snake,” and Hooker’s other No. 1 hit, the sensuously double-tracked “I’m in the Mood.”
Dozens of currently available albums by John Lee Hooker contain material from this era. There’s a reason for this mountain of material: While Hooker was ostensibly under exclusive contract with Besman, who released the bluesman’s sides through Modern and his own Sensation label, Hooker would clandestinely cut sides for virtually anyone who dangled cash in front of him. He recorded extensively with another Detroit record store owner and recording entrepreneur, Joe Van Battle, who licensed material to the established indie R&B labels Chess and Atlantic, among others. Hooker singles appeared on a host of labels under a variety of pseudonyms – Birmingham Sam, Texas Slim, the Boogie Man, Delta John, even the preposterously obvious John Lee Booker and John Lee Cooker. Besman finally got fed up and ended his relationship with Hooker in 1952; he soon left the music business and moved to California, where he made a fortune selling paint-by-numbers kits to children.
After this period of promiscuous recording, Hooker appeared to be ready to settle down when he signed an exclusive contract with Vee-Jay Records in 1955. Founded in Gary, Indiana, and soon based in Chicago, Vee-Jay was a black-owned label that was beginning to experience phenomenal success with the “lazy” sound of singer-harp player Jimmy Reed. Hooker bolstered their growing roster; though none of his Vee-Jay output, which included his first LPs, were enormous hits, he cut one memorable 1962 top 20 R&B hit, “Boom Boom,” in Detroit with the nucleus of Motown Records’ house band – pianist Ivy Joe Hunter, drummer Benny Benjamin, and bassist James Jamerson.
Hooker’s relationship with Vee-Jay continued into the mid-‘60s, but one of his most important sessions took place when he was between contracts with the label. In April 1959, Bill Grauer of the jazz label Riverside Records recorded Hooker with an acoustic guitar. The resultant album, known variously as The Country Blues of John Lee Hooker and The Folk Blues of John Lee Hooker, introduced him to white listeners who were ignorant of his loud, fierce R&B hits, but who were part of the growing coffeehouse audience for acoustic blues music. The Riverside set helped Hooker secure some collegiate bookings; he appeared acoustically at the 1960 Newport Folk Festival, and in the early ‘60s he appeared in Europe as part of the touring American Folk Blues Festival.
Hooker never entirely succumbed to the commercial imperatives of the folk-blues boom. He continued to crank out funky full-band numbers like “Dimples” and “Whiskey & Women” at Vee-Jay through 1964. While his mid-‘60s output for Chess sported the label’s Real Folk Blues rubric, the music was not unlike his Vee-Jay work, and included rocking tunes like “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer” (later profitably combined with Hooker’s old “House Rent Boogie” by blues-rocker George Thorogood).
Rock groups began to take their cues from Hooker’s sound. In 1964, the Newcastle band the Animals scored a US and UK hit with a cover of “Boom Boom.” Within a few years, the California band Canned Heat – which featured guitarists Al Wilson and Henry Vestine, respectively the rediscoverers of the ‘20s blues legends Son House and Skip James, and blues collector and vocalist Bob Hite -- began making noise on the rock ballroom circuit with their engaging version of Hooker’s “boogie.”
Sensing a potential hit, Canned Heat’s label Liberty Records put the band together with the blues elder for a two-LP set, Hooker ‘N Heat (1971). This stomping and entertaining collection became the bluesman’s first chart album: It peaked at #73 and spent 16 weeks on the charts. Hooker enjoyed some lesser hits on ABC Records around that time, including Never Get Out of These Blues Alive (1972), his first collaboration with the Irish firebrand Van Morrison.
With the expiration of his ABC contract in 1974, Hooker entered a protracted period referred to by the musician’s biographer Charles Shaar Murray as “the Wilderness.” For 15 years, Hooker operated without a recording contract and put in little time in the recording studio. The recent career overview compilation Hooker (2006) contains just three tracks from the years 1974-89 – two of them from the obscure 1986 album Jealous. He was a sporadic onscreen presence, appearing with John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd as “Street Slim” in The Blues Brothers and on the soundtrack of Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple. He remained an astonishing and powerful live performer during these years, as anyone who witnessed his solo shows from this period will attest, but he was an unknown on the charts.
His fortunes changed in 1989 with the release of The Healer. Guitarist Carlos Santana, a Hooker fan and longtime friend, supplied the impetus for the project by supplying the title cut, a song that went unused in the soundtrack of the Ritchie Valens biopic La Bamba. Bonnie Raitt, another die-hard admirer, offered a duet on “I’m In the Mood” that won a Grammy Award as best traditional blues recording. Other big-name Hookerphiles like Keith Richards and George Thorogood came on board for the album, which was sympathetically produced by guitarist Roy Rogers. The album became Hooker’s biggest hit, peaking at No. 62 and spending 39 weeks on the album charts. On the heels of this commercial triumph, Hooker joined jazz trumpeter Miles Davis on the striking soundtrack album for the neo-noir film The Hot Spot (1990).
The Healer set the style for the albums Hooker would release for the rest of his life – star-studded affairs that revisited the classic tunes in his repertoire. His other best sellers included Mr. Lucky (1991) and the Grammy winners Chill Out (1995) and Don’t Look Back, the latter of which was produced by Van Morrison. Like his contemporary BB King, who began his recording career the same year, John Lee Hooker in his last years transcended mere blues stardom – in the minds of many, he was the blues.
Honors were showered upon him: Hooker, who was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in 1981 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991, received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000. Not one for retirement, he was sidelined by vascular disease on the eve of a 2000 European tour. He played his last show in Santa Rosa, California, not far from his Redwood City home, just five days before his death on June 21, 2001, at the age of 83.