Born August 22, 1917, Clarksdale, MS; divorced; four children: Robert, John Jr., Zakiya, and Diane.
John Lee Hooker's presence in blues, past and present, is imposing. He is a living monument to the music. Often credited as a co-founder, with Muddy Waters, of modern electric blues, Hooker influenced three or more generations of players: Dr. Ross who saw him play in Detroit in the 1940s; the Animals, Yardbirds, Van Morrison and Canned Heat who fell under his spell in the 1960s; Stevie Ray Vaughan and Robert Cray who played with him in the 1980s. Hooker's own roots stretch back to Mississippi of the 1920s, the land and time when the blues were born. He recalls that as a child Charlie Patton, legendary as the "Founder of the Delta Blues," visited the house to see his stepfather. After a fifty-year career of remarkable staying power and flexibility, John Lee Hooker entered the period of his greatest popularity and influence after his seventieth birthday. At eighty-one he was still going strong.
Hooker was born on August 22, 1917 near Clarksdale, Mississippi. His parents, Minnie and William, were sharecroppers. Hooker was interested in music from an early age and as a boy built himself a one-string instrument. Minnie's second husband, Will Moore, a popular local musician, began teaching the young boy how to play guitar. Eventually Moore even made him a present of one of his own instruments. More importantly, Hooker absorbed his stepfather's manner of playing, a hypnotic one-chord style that became an integral part of his recorded work. "Whatever I'm doin' is his style," Hooker told Billboard's Chris Morris in 1998. "My style is his style."
The Hottest Musician in Detroit
When he was barely in his teens Hooker left home in the early 1930s. "Where I came from in Mississippi was hell," he told Peter Watrous of the New York Times. "I wanted to be a star. I knew I couldn't make it in Mississippi, so I was working my way up north." His first stop was Memphis, whose Beale Street was the center of the blues universe at the time. Still too young for bars or nightclubs, Hooker played local house parties at the boarding house he was staying at. From Memphis he moved to Cincinnati where he sang in gospel groups, which gave him valuable experience singing in front of an audience, but his heart was with the blues. Unlike many other musicians, the switch from religious music to the Devil's music did not cause Hooker any crisis of conscience. "When I started singing blues the church didn't like it," he told Watrous, "but I was determined to be a musician and be a blues star, and I didn't care much what they thought."
In the mid 1930s, Hooker landed in Detroit. He took a day job as a janitor and by night played his blues in places like the Apex Bar or the Town Bar. "The town was booming, and I was playing three and four, sometimes five nights a week in small clubs," he told Watrous. "I got to be hot stuff, the hottest musician in Detroit."
I Ain't Workin' No More
After World War II had ended, Hooker got his first big break. Elmer Barbee, a Detroit record store owner, caught one of Hooker's shows. Impressed, he invited the singer down to his downtown store. Hooker took his guitar and ended up playing most of the night while Barbee recorded the songs on his disc-cutting machine. One of the tunes they came up with was "Boogie Chillen," based on a song he had once heard his stepfather Moore play. Barbee was wild for the number, convinced that they had a hit on their hands. He helped Hooker hook up with Bernard Bessman of Sensation Records. Hooker recorded the song for Sensation. "The thing caught fire," Hooker says in Robert Palmer's Deep Blues. "It was ringin' all around the country. When it come out every jukebox you went to, every place you went to, every drugstore, everywhere you went, department stores, they were playin' it in there ... And I was workin' in Detroit in a factory there for a while. Then I quit my job. I said, 'No, I ain't workin' no more!'"
About a year later Hooker signed a contract with Modern Records in Los Angeles for an advance of $1000. Between 1949 and 1951, Hooker had three hits for Modern: "Hobo Blues," "In The Mood," and "Crawling Kingsnake." He was suddenly in high demand, though, at other labels. When Modern failed to pay him royalties he was owed he began recording for other companies under a variety of pseudonyms: Johnny Williams, Delta John, Johnny Lee, Texas Slim, Birmingham Sam & His Magic Guitar, the Boogie Man, Sir John Lee Hooker, John Lee Booker, and John Lee Cooker. In 1955 he signed with Vee-Jay Records in Chicago, a label he would remain with for ten years. While there he abandoned his solo guitar accompaniment in favor of a full band. "Vee-Jay wanted the big sound," he told Chris Morris. "It was a good sound, a real good sound, a big fat sound." That fat sound led to another string of popular records for Hooker, including "Dimples" and "Boom Boom," which reached number 16 on the R&B charts and number 60 on the Pop charts in 1962.
Hooker wasn't about to be pigeonholed though, especially at a moment in history when musical tastes were undergoing major changes. He hit the folk circuit, and soon solo acoustic records for Riverside complemented his electric blues on Vee-Jay. He started playing the coffeehouse circuit and made appearances, beginning in 1960, at the Newport Folk Festival. In 1962 he toured Europe for the first time with the American Folk Blues Festival.
People Got More Civilized
There was already a John Lee Hooker renaissance of sorts underway in England as he made that tour. The Animals and the Yardbirds, deeply steeped in American blues, had their own hits with "Boom Boom." And other groups in the British blues revival had incorporated other Hooker songs into their repertoires. "I had no thought that British singers would start singing my songs," Hooker confessed to Watrous. "I had no idea what would come with that. People got more civilized." During the Sixties Hooker worked more and more with younger rock musicians who were his admirers. In England he played with John Mayall's Bluesbreakers and a young guitarist named Eric Clapton. In the U.S. at the end of the sixties, he teamed up with his boogie disciples, Canned Heat, with whom he cut two albums, Hooker 'N Heat and Live At The Fox Venice Theater Influential collaborations that introduced Hooker's music to a new, younger generation. In 1972 he recorded Never Get Out Of These Blues Alive with another old fan, Van Morrison. During the rest of the seventies and for most of the eighties, Hooker's performing and recording tapered off, which wasn't surprising he was pushing sixty and had worked at a frantic pace for the previous twenty years.
In 1989, when Hooker was seventy-two, he made the album that initiated what might be the most successful, productive periods of his career. The Healer was conceived by his agent Mike Kappus. It featured a star-studded line-up of guest artists including Carlos Santana, Robert Cray, Los Lobos, and Bonnie Raitt whose duet won Hooker his first Grammy, after being nominated in the sixties, seventies and eighties. Other albums, equally successful followed, including 1991's Mr. Lucky, 1992's Boom Boom, and Grammy winners Chill Out (1995) and Don't Look Back (1997). The 1990s were Hooker's reward for his lifetime in music. He enjoyed unprecedented worldwide popularity, performing regularly at festivals and on television. In 1990 he was presented with an all-star tribute at Madison Square Garden in New York City, and in January 1991 he was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. He was a Charter Inductee to the Blues Hall of Fame. He even owns his own blues club, the Boom Boom Room, which opened in 1997 in San Francisco.
John Lee Hooker is proof of the power of the blues and its ability to transcend boundaries of generation and race. "The blues is the root of all music," he said. "People's heartaches, aches and pains, trouble and disappointment, money, no money, down-and-out, that causes the blues, and that affects everybody of every color, rich and poor. The blues has got more message than anything else. It's more flashy now, but it's the same thing as before. It's come down low and came back up, but it'll never die."
Hooker died on June 21, 2001, at his home in San Francisco, California, in his sleep. He was 83.
by Gerald E. Brennan
John Lee Hooker's Career
Learned guitar from stepfather Will Moore; played house parties in Memphis and performed in various gospel groups in Cincinnati in 1930s; played clubs in Detroit in 1940s; recorded first single the smash hit "Boogie Chillen" for Modern Records 1948; while under contract to Modern, recorded under assumed names for other labels; recorded for Vee-Jay Records, including hit singles "Boom Boom" and "Dimples" 1955-64; recorded for Riverside Records 1959-60; worked coffeehouse circuit as folk performer; played Newport Folk Festival for first time 1960; toured Europe with American Folk Blues Festival 1962; collaborated on two albums with Canned Heat, late 1960s; recorded Never Get Out Of These Blues Alive with Van Morrison 1972; made comeback with The Healer 1989;
John Lee Hooker's Awards
Grammy Best Traditional Blues Recording, "I'm In The Mood" from The Healer, 1990; Grammy Best Traditional Blues Recording,Chill Out, 1996; Grammy Best Traditional Blues Album, Don't Look Back, and Best Pop Collaboration, "Don't Look Back," (with Van Morrison); W.C. Handy Award Top Traditional Blues Artist, 1983-88; W.C. Handy Award, Contemporary Blues Artist, Male Blues Vocalist, Contemporary Blues Album (The Healer), 1989; W.C. Handy Award Traditional Blues Artist of the Year, 1993; W.C. Handy Award Traditional Blues Album of the Year, Chill Out, 1995. National Endowment for the Arts, National Heritage Fellowship, 1983; Blues Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award, 1996; Charter Inductee Blues Hall of Fame; Inducted into Rock & Roll Hall of Fame 1991.
- Selected discography
- John Lee Hooker Sings the Blues , King, 1961.
- The Real Folk Blues , Chess, 1966.
- Live At The Cafe Au Go-Go , Bluesway/ABC, 1967.
- Hooker 'N Heat , Liberty, 1971.
- Never Get Out Of These Blues Alive , ABC, 1972.
- The Healer , Chameleon/Silvertone, 1989.
- Mr. Lucky , Silvertone, 1991.
- The Ultimate Collection , Rhino, 1991.
- Boom Boom , Pointblank/Virgin, 1992.
- Chill Out , Pointblank/Virgin, 1995.
- Don't Look Back , Pointblank/Virgin, 1997.
- The Best Of Friends , Pointblank/Virgin, 1998.
September 15, 2003: It was announced that Face to Face, the album Hooker was working on at the time of his death, was scheduled for release on October 28, 2003. Source: E! Online, www.eonline.com, September 15, 2003.
- Palmer, Robert, Deep Blues, Viking Press, New York, 1981
- Russell, Tony, The Blues From Robert Johnson to Robert Cray, Schirmer Books, New York. 1997.
- Sonnier, Austin M., A Guide to the Blues: History, Who's Who, Research Sources, Greenwood Press, Westport, CT. 1994
- Billboard, September 5, 1998; New York Times, October 16, 1990
- Additional material and information provided by The Rosebud Agency and Mike Kappus.