Discovering the Blues of John Lee Hooker

John Lee Hooker (1917-2001) is firmly established as one of the true giants of the blues, along with Muddy Waters, B.B. King, and Howlin' Wolf. Hooker is often called the "King of the Boogie" and his driving, rhythmic approach to guitar playing has become an integral element of the blues sound and style.

When he made his recording debut in 1948, scoring a nationwide hit with "Boogie Chillen," John Lee Hooker was considered something of an anachronism. Except for his thunderous electric guitar, Hooker's one-chord and two-chord modal stylings sounded very much like those of a Delta blues artist from the 1920s. But Hooker's music is altogether more fierce and rhythmic than old Delta blues. Early in his career, he played solo for the most part — his dark, hypnotic voice and relentless foot-stomping his only accompaniment.

John Lee has cut records for seemingly every large and small blues label that's ever existed (and doing so without having to vary his approach). Hooker's music is raw, riveting, and almost doom-struck Mississippi blues that demands much of a listener. His music provides one of the great emotional listening experiences in the blues. John Lee Hooker stands alone as a true creative original, often imitated, but never equaled.

From Clarksdale to the Motor City

Born on August 17, 1920, in Clarksdale, Mississippi, John Lee grew up surrounded by the blues, having been taught the guitar by his stepfather, Will Moore. In childhood, Hooker's main musical influence had been his church spiritual singing, that is, until the blues took over.

When he was 15, John Lee ran away from home and moved to Memphis to make his mark in the blues scene. He was caught and sent back home, but eventually returned to Memphis. To make ends meet, he worked as an usher at the New Daisy Theatre movie house. He later moved to Cincinnati, singing with various gospel groups including the Big Six and the Fairfield Four. Enticed by the prospect of regular work in the automobile industry, Hooker moved to Detroit in 1943.

After becoming a fixture on the Detroit blues club and house party scene, John Lee began recording in 1948, hitting pay dirt on his first try with his recording of "Boogie Chillen." Sounding like absolutely nothing else that was on the radio or the jukeboxes at that time, its pounding rhythm helped carry that record all the way to Number One on the R&B charts in 1949.

The "other" John Lee Hookers

Hooker (see Figure 1) spent the next six years cutting records for just about every label that offered him a deal, recording under a number of fake names, nicknames, or names that were a variation of his own. Starting with Modern (under his real name), he went on to record for Staff (as Johnny Williams), Gotham (as John Lee), Regent (as Delta John), Savoy (as Birmingham Sam and his Magic Guitar), Regal, Gone (as John Lee Booker), Sensation, Danceland (as Little Pork Chops), Fortune (as Sir John Lee Hooker), King (as Texas Slim and John Lee Cooker), Swing Time, Acorn (as The Boogie Man), Deluxe (as Johnny Lee), Chart, JVB, Specialty, Chance (as John L Booker), and Chess, before moving over to Vee-Jay under his real name in 1955. It was at Vee-Jay Records where he had his longest affiliation with a single label, recording for them into the early 1960s and scoring hits with "Dimples" and "Boom Boom."

With his solo acoustic blues sound, Hooker gained an appreciative new audience among followers of the folk scene. He performed and recorded extensively throughout the 1960s, and his first-ever tour of Europe in 1962 had an enormous impact on the emerging British blues scene. By the end of the decade, John Lee was playing his blues in the hippest rock clubs and biggest festivals around the country.


Figure 1: John Lee Hooker, at the microphone, and his band (photo courtesy of Burton Wilson, Austin, TX).

Pulling up stakes to head to California

In 1970, Hooker moved from Detroit to Oakland. Once there, he recorded the Hooker 'n' Heat album with blues-rockers Canned Heat. John Lee Hooker issued new albums by the truckload in the 1970s, with the occasional misguided attempt to update his sound by pairing him with rock musicians who had little sensitivity for his spontaneous changes in timing and his unconventional modal approach to song.

Highlights for Hooker in the 1980s were his being inducted into the Blues Foundation's Hall of Fame and a flurry of reissues of his early recordings on a variety of foreign and domestic labels. He also made a cameo appearance in the movie The Blues Brothers, stomping out his trademark boogie patterns on the tune "Boom Boom."

Bigger than ever

John Lee's career took a major upswing with the 1989 release of The Healer, featuring newly recorded material and guest appearances by Bonnie Raitt, Carlos Santana, Robert Cray, and others. The album was nominated for a Grammy award for best blues recording, and Hooker won a Grammy for "I'm in the Mood," a duet recorded with Raitt.

In 1990, Hooker was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and in the years following, he was honored at a star-studded tribute concert at Madison Square Garden, played dates with the Rolling Stones, and even appeared in a Pepsi commercial. In 1997, he opened his own blues club in California — John Lee Hooker's Boom Boom Room — and continued to record and perform until his death in 2001.

The Ultimate Collection (Rhino). This two-disc set covers Hooker's best known numbers from 1948 to 1990. Blues doesn't sound any deeper and isn't played with more intensity than when it's done by John Lee.

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