Hooker, John Lee [1917 - 2001]
John Lee Hooker was born a few miles south-east of Clarksdale, in the tiny community of Vance, Mississippi, on August 22, 1917. He became an influential, and very successful, post-war bluesman: a singer, guitarist and songwriter with a distinctive voice people either like or dislike strongly, and a shambling style that seemed as old as voodoo chants yet always managed to sound modern and knowing.
After an adolescence in Memphis, where he worked as a theater usher, Hooker moved north to Detroit in 1943, played in the city’s important black entertainment district around Hastings Street, and kept a home in Detroit until 1969, by which time he had achieved crossover hit singles in European hit parades as well as in the US. He first recorded in 1948, starting as meant to continue with a sizeable hit, ‘Boogie Chillen’, and then between 1959 and 2000 released a staggering 77 albums. The titles of the earliest of these suggest his popularity with the folk-revival market: the first was Folk Blues and the next handful included The Country Blues Of John Lee Hooker and The Folk Lore Of John Lee Hooker.
Ludicrously, granted his unmistakeably individual voice and style, many of these early records were made under pseudonyms for rival labels to Modern, the one that had signed him: pseudonyms like Delta John, Texas Slim, Birmingham Sam & His Magic Guitar and, as Tony Russell notes, ‘flimsiest of all, John Lee Booker on Chess, a label for which he made some particularly compelling sides in 1950-51’. Nevertheless it was with Modern and under his own name that he followed up his first hit with ‘Hobo Blues’ and ‘Crawlin’ King Snake’ (1949), and ‘I’m In The Mood’ (1951).
He has had no discernible impact on Dylan’s style, yet he occupies a special place in his history: for it was a tangible step forward for Dylan when he was given support-act billing to Hooker for a two-week stint at Gerde’s Folk City in April 1961 (the weeks of April 11-16 and 18-23), and named as such on the handbills. Dylan proudly sent copies of these back up to Minneapolis, to impress his friends. Dylan’s friend Sybil Weinberger told the makers of BBC-TV’s 1993 Arena Special ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ that in the early Village days, Dylan loved Hooker, and that whenever he was playing, Bob would be there.
In Chronicles Volume One, although Dylan makes no comment on Hooker, he does mention him in noting ruefully that his own harmonica playing was too basic to ever attract any comment, with the exception of one time ‘a few years later in John Lee Hooker’s hotel room on Lower Broadway… SONNY BOY WILLIAMSON was there and he heard me playing, said, “Boy, you play too fast.”’ That ‘a few years later’ probably means ‘not long afterwards’. In 1985, Hooker said of Dylan: ‘Bob is a beautiful person. A good, good man. Very sweet, very kind. I met him when I was playing in the coffee houses. He wasn’t famous then but he came to see me. We played some shows together and he’d come back to my place and we’d stay up all night playin’ and drinkin’ wine.’
Hooker went on to create band-backed 1960s R&B cross-over hits out of ‘Dimples’ (actually cut in 1956) and ‘Boom Boom’ (1962), and crossed too from the solo ‘folk blues’ of Dylan’s Greenwich Village days to the electric blues mainstream of that decade’s end. In the 1970s he was taken up by younger star names like Elvin Bishop and VAN MORRISON; for most of the 1980s he more or less disappeared, but turned up onstage for the encore of Dylan’s concert with TOM PETTY & THE HEARTBREAKERS at Mountain View, California, on August 5, 1986 to perform ‘Good Rockin’ Mama’ backed by all these rock musicians (augmented by AL KOOPER).
Not long after that Hooker made one of those unpromising albums that gathers up clusters of star guest performers, The Healer, in 1989 - on this occasion CARLOS SANTANA, Robert Cray, Los Lobos, George Thorogood, Charlie Musselwhite and Bonnie Raitt (yielding, with her, a much-admired vocal duet revisit to his 1950 hit ‘I’m In The Mood’) - which turned out to become the biggest-selling blues album in history and was followed by the similarly stellar-supported Mr. Lucky (with Albert Collins, Ry Cooder, KEITH RICHARDS and Van Morrison).
John Lee Hooker died of natural causes at his home in Los Altos, near San Francisco, on Thursday, June 21, 2001. He was 83.
[John Lee Hooker: ‘Boogie Chillen’, Detroit, Sep 1948, Modern 20-627, US, 1948; ‘Hobo Blues’, Detroit, Sep 1948 or 18 Feb 1949, Modern 20-663; & ‘Crawlin’ King Snake’, 18 Feb 1949, Modern 20-714, 1949; ‘I’m In The Mood’, Detroit 7 Aug 1951, Modern 835, 1951; ‘Dimples’, Chicago, 17 Mar 1956, Vee-Jay VJ 205, US, 1956; ‘Boom Boom’, Chicago, late 1961, Vee-Jay VJ 438, 1962; The Healer, California, Jan 2 & Oct 1987 & Apr-May 1988, Chameleon LP 74808, US, 1989; Mr. Lucky, nia, Apr 1990-May 1991, Silvertone ORE CD 519. (There is a monumental Hooker discography online at http://web.telia.com/~u19104970/johnnielee.html, by Claus Röhnisch.) Hooker quote on Dylan: Brian Walden, ‘Questionnaire: John Lee Hooker’, Q no.85, London, Oct 1993. Bob Dylan: Chronicles Volume One, p.257. Tony Russell quote, The Blues - From Robert Johnson To Robert Cray, 1997, p.69.]