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John Lee Hooker Memorial

John Lee Hooker (1917-2001)
The Man is Gone, But The Boogie Lives On

by J.C. Juanis
June 21, 2001

The music community lost a great one today, when news of the death of bluesman John Lee Hooker began to spread through the music community. Hooker was perhaps the last living link to a generation of bluesman who trace their origins to the Mississippi delta region. He was a true originator and influence whose music filtered into popular culture. Hooker's contemporaries included long departed blues legends as Charlie Patton, Muddy Waters, and Howlin' Wolf. He was 83.

Despite an up and down career toiling on the rough and tumble chitlin' circuit of roadhouses and blues honky tonks, the past 12 years were the best of times for John Lee Hooker. Widely regarded as one of the giants of the blues and the father of the boogie, Hooker had made the San Francisco Bay Area his home for over 30 years. Throughout that time, the veteran singer and guitarist had lived the true life of a bluesman, however, fortunately, in recent years; the American music community had finally caught up with the 80 year old blues institution. Along with Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, John Lee Hooker helped define the post-World War II electric blues, and is one of the links between the blues and rock 'n' roll. Hooker's music has influenced many of the classic rock bands of the sixties and seventies, including: The Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, The Allman Brothers Band, Van Morrison, Canned Heat, Savoy Brown, The Animals, ZZ Top, George Thorogood, and countless others. Toiling in relative obscurity throughout much of the late fifties and early sixties, Hooker attracted the attention of the British blues-rockers who took their inspiration from the Mississippi delta bluesman. Despite the recognition, it wasn't until the late eighties when Hooker finally was accorded his rightful status of one of America's true music icons, the result of his quintessential, Grammy Award winning recording, The Healer (Chameleon). For the last several years, Hooker had considered himself "retired" from touring, however, blues music fans in the Bay Area have been the beneficiaries of the John Lee's local performances in which the bluesman still performed with vigor and stamina. Over the years I have had the pleasure of sharing Mr. Hooker's company on numerous occasions. While blues music in general has enjoyed a reassurance of late, John Lee Hooker remains as one of the last direct links to the original Mississippi Delta blues.

John Lee Hooker was born on August 20, 1917, to a sharecropping family in Clarksdale, Mississippi, the virtual epicenter of the Delta blues. Hooker's natural father was a Baptist preacher, from whom young John Lee would learn sacred songs and spirituals. Hooker's parents separated early on, and his mother married Will Moore, a farmer and local blues singer and guitarist of some local renown. Moore would become Hooker's mentor in learning to play and feel the blues. "I learned everything that I know from my step-father Will Moore, " Hooker explained to me in an interview in 1987. "He played the same kind of stuff, the foot stomping; everything just the same as I play it." Barely in his teens, Hooker would play with Moore at fish fries and dances around the Clarksdale area where Hooker encountered such seminal blues legends as Charley Patton, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and T-Bone Walker. To escape the rigors of picking cotton, John Lee ran off to Memphis at the age of fourteen, where he worked as a theater usher by day and played on Beale Street for change in the evening. By the late 1930's, Hooker migrated north to Cincinnati where he spent most of his time singing with such gospel groups as; The Fairfield Four and the Big Six. The lure of a job at a Chrysler Automobile plant brought John Lee Hooker to Detroit, which was booming in the winter of 1942, as World War II was stretching the limits of American industry. Working as a janitor by day, Hooker spent his evenings playing the local clubs on Hastings Street. It was in the Motor City that Hooker refined his distinctive, hypnotic, one-chord, guitar style, coupled with his distinctive deep, droning, sinister vocals. Music was segregated back then, with so called "race" music primarily consisting of slick rhythm and blues performed by big bands. Records by black artists were strictly sold in black neighborhoods in clubs, restaurants, and on the street. With John Lee's popularity growing on Hastings Street he was determined to make a record.

"I heard that a man named Elmer Barbara was cutting local guys so I walked in one day and I cut me a record called "Sally Mae,"' Hooker recalled. "He was small time though, so when I had something good, I took it to Bernard Bessman who was a real record guy who had his own record company." As the owner of Sensation Records, Bessman understood that recording and selling of blues records, especially a bluesman playing solo, would be a tough task. Band records were all the rage, however, Bessman, utilized primitive recording techniques, to beef up Hooker's sound. Bessman amplified Hooker's guitar, and had the bluesman, perform in the bathroom, which gave a surreal, echo effect. Finally, he put a board under Hooker's foot and put a microphone under him to give Hooker's foot tapping a booming effect. The result would influence musicians for generations to come. "One night I was layin' down," growled John Lee. "Heard papa and mama talkin.' Heard papa tell mama, 'Let that boy boogie-woogie." "Boogie Chillin'" was an enormous record, selling an astonishing two hundred thousand copies, hitting #1 on the R & B charts. "Boogie Chillin'" was like nothing that anyone had ever heard before back in 1948, and the song would become John Lee Hooker's signature tune. Hooker and Bessmen did many sessions together during the next three years, recording such classics as; ""Sally Mae," "I'm In The Mood," "I Cover The Waterfront," "Don't Look Back," and "Crawlin' Kingsnake." Unlike the other major blues figures of the late 1940's, who hailed from Chicago, Texas, or Memphis, John Lee Hooker made his mark in Detroit and quickly became the Motor City's biggest blues artist. "Without woman problems, I wouldn't have a song," Hooker once told me.

Despite Hooker's string of hits that continued into the 1950's, the advent of rock 'n' roll, with Elvis Presley, and Bill Haley and The Comets, taking black music and marketing it to the masses, bluesman like John Lee Hooker were actually the casualties of rock 'n' roll's popularity. To escape contractual obligations, Hooker recorded extensively under a number of alias's and pseudonyms. Regardless of the deception under names like, Birmingham Sam, Delta John, Texas Slim, and John Williams, Hooker's fans were not deceived and knew the real deal when they heard it. This would prove troublesome for him in later years creating a confusing maze of albums and singles. Ironically it would be rock 'n' roll that would "discover" John Lee Hooker in the early 60's.

Surprisingly, Hooker's influence abroad eclipsed his popularity in the United States where he returned to an acoustic folk -blues style that was becoming popular on college campuses. It was at Gerdes' Folk City in Greenwich Village in April 1961, that a young folk singer from Duluth, Minnesota, singing Woody Guthrie styled ballads, opened for John Lee Hooker. A New York Times review by journalist Robert Shelton would be pivotal in securing a recording contract for the young singer, named Bob Dylan. Hooker once reminisced to me, "Oh yeah, I gave Bob Dylan his start in New York. He followed me around back then. I remember when he and his girlfriend Susan kicked in my window to get into my place," he laughed heartily. Dylan would later hail Hooker as "one of my favorite Mississippi Delta singers," at a concert at The Shoreline Amphitheater many years later when he invited the blues legend out to jam with his band, Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers. By 1962, some big band recordings that John Lee Hooker had recorded a couple of years earlier were released on the Vee-Jay label. These records contained what would become two of Hooker's best-known songs; "Boom Boom," and "Dimples." At the time in the United States, these records went unnoticed. However, because Vee-Jay Records had the rights to the first Beatles record in England, Hooker's recording on the label was very well received. In fact, these Hooker recordings would prove to have a profound effect on the British blues and rock scene. When the British rock invasion swept the music scene, The Animals had a smash hit with Hooker's "Boom Boom." This is how I first heard Hooker's music, however, it would be a couple of years later when I heard Canned Heat doing a rendition of John Lee Hooker's trademark "Boogie Chillin'", that I became familiar with the blues music legend. Like many of my generation, I first learned about blues music through young white rock bands.

Van Morrison from the Irish group Them, also was heavily influenced by the blues legend and the two performed together acoustically during the sixties. American rocker Johnny Rivers' also recorded a homage to Hooker, entitled, "Ode To John Lee." Rock audiences were rediscovering Hooker through the music of Canned Heat and Savoy Brown who made John Lee Hooker's "Boogie Chillin'" a staple in their live shows. The Allman Brothers Band electrified a new generation of music fans with an explosive arrangement of "Dimples, " the J. Geils Band showcased Hooker's "Serves You Right To Suffer," during their live shows, and George Thorogood tears it up every night playing "One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer."

In 1970, John Lee Hooker relocated to the Bay Area from Detroit where he was welcomed by old friends; Van Morrison, Michael Bloomfield and Charlie Musselwhite who were also transplanted bluesmen. Hooker teamed up with Canned Heat for their classic record, Hooker 'n' Heat> (Liberty). Throughout the seventies and early eighties, Hooker was content to perform at blues festivals around the world with his Coast-to-Coast Blues Band, which featured a young, then aspiring slide guitarist named Roy Rogers. In 1987, Rogers decided to team up Hooker with the many musical acts that were influenced by the blues giant. Rogers gathered the likes of Carlos Santana, Bonnie Raitt, Robert Cray, Charlie Musselwhite, Canned Heat, George Thorogood and Los Lobos, to record The Healer (Chameleon). Ironically, despite the record's all-star cast, Hooker had quite a time just getting a record deal. One of the warmest moments of my life occurred one evening a couple of months after Hooker appeared with Bob Dylan at the Shoreline Amphitheater when he invited me over to his ranch styled house located on the Redwood Shores south of San Francisco for dinner. Hooker played me recordings from his project and I remember being blown away by what I heard. At the time Hooker was falling into obscurity and his music was viewed by the record industry executives as being out of date. It was blues music for gods sake! Hooker would enjoy the last laugh, however, because once The Healer finally hit the record stores is was received with unanimous praise by both the critics and a new generation of music fans. Hooker won a Grammy Award for Best Blues Recording and his duet with Bonnie Raitt, "I'm In The Mood," became a smash hit.

Hooker's manager, Mike Kappus, from the prestigious Rosebud Agency, successfully negotiated the rights to the maze of John Lee Hooker's recording output, through various record labels and different names so that Hooker was able to reap his well deserved royalties. It was Kappus and his down home family style of management which not only nurtured Hooker's creativity in his later years, but he single handedly made sure that Hooker was accorded his due with the record industry.

In 1990, Hooker was feted at Madison Square Garden in an all star concert that featured: Willie Dixon, Bo Diddley, Johnny Winter, Gregg Allman, Albert Collins, and Bonnie Raitt, and the following year was inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame. Hooker's last recording, Best of Friends (Virgin) featured Hooker with: the late Charles Brown, Eric Clapton, Ben Harper, Van Morrison, and Ike Turner.

In 1997, the retired blues legend opened his own blues club in San Francisco appropriately called, John Lee Hooker's Boom Boom Room where he occasionally performed. In his eighties Hooker still gave chills when he played a frenzied riff on his guitar. His prescription for good health was quite simple, "You've all just got to learn to boogie-woogie."

Like millions of music fans around the world I mourn the death of one of my favorite artists. John Lee Hooker's music transcended all boundaries, including language and culture. Somewhere up in heaven is the booming sound of a foot tap and the sister growl that bellows among the kings. The man may be gone, but the boogie lives on.

© 2001 J.C. Juanis

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