John Lee Hooker


“I don’t play a lot of fancy guitar,” John Lee Hooker once said. “I don’t want to play it. The kind of guitar I want to play is mean, mean licks.” 

“When I was a child,” said Carlos Santana, “he was the first circus I wanted to run away with.”

I was watching the Stones series I wrote about the other day. A video came on of a young blues guy who sounded great. I found the video and it was a young John Lee Hooker doing “Hobo Blues.”

A little history courtesy of Wikipedia: John Lee Hooker (August 22, 1912, or 1917– June 21, 2001) was an American blues singer, songwriter, and guitarist. The son of a sharecropper, he rose to prominence performing an electric guitar-style adaptation of Delta blues.

Hooker often incorporated other elements, including talking blues and early North Mississippi hill country blues. He developed his own driving-rhythm boogie style, distinct from the 1930s–1940s piano-derived boogie-woogie.

He was the youngest of the 11 children of William Hooker, a sharecropper, and Baptist preacher, and Minnie Ramsey  The Hooker children were homeschooled. They were permitted to listen only to religious songs; the spirituals sung in church were their earliest exposure to music.

In 1921, their parents separated. The next year, their mother married William Moore, a blues singer, who provided John Lee with an introduction to the guitar (and whom he would later credit for his distinctive playing style). At the age of 14, Hooker ran away from home, reportedly never seeing his mother or stepfather again.

In the mid-1930s, he lived in Memphis, Tennessee, where he performed on Beale Street, at the New Daisy Theatre, and occasionally at house parties. He worked in factories in various cities during World War II, eventually getting a job with the Ford Motor Company in Detroit in 1943. He frequented the blues clubs and bars on Hastings Street, the heart of the black entertainment district, on Detroit’s east side.

In a city noted for its pianists, guitar players were scarce. Hooker’s popularity grew quickly as he performed in Detroit clubs, and, seeking an instrument louder than his acoustic guitar, he bought his first electric guitar.”

Hooker had recorded a demo called “Boogie Chillen’” which became the biggest selling “race record” of 1949.

“His early solo songs were recorded by Bernie Besman. Hooker rarely played with a standard beat, but instead, he changed tempo to fit the needs of the song. This often made it difficult to use backing musicians, who were not accustomed to Hooker’s musical vagaries. As a result, Besman recorded Hooker playing guitar, singing, and stomping on a wooden pallet in time with the music.”

“Crawlin’ King Snake”

By the time he was fifty (ish) in 1962, Hooker toured Europe, and his song “Dimples” became a hit. (I know this tune from Duane Allmans’ lame attempt to sing it.) The good news is that this was the time period when the British blues guys were active, Black people started losing interest in blues and white audiences were picking up on it like crazy.

In 1971, American blues band Canned Heat released an album called Hooker ‘n Heat. (It was common in those days for young, white acolytes to record with the Black bluesmen. The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions were recorded that same year with some of the Stones, Eric Clapton, and Steve Winwood.) This was the first Hooker album to chart.

Here’s Canned Heat and Hooker doing “Let’s Make It.” How-how-how-how.

Here’s an ass-kicking version of “Boom Boom.”

Hooker collaborated with so many people it’s damn near impossible to feature a song from each collaboration. Here’s a great live cut with Carlos Santana, Paul Butterfield and Elvin Bishop. (Whoever captioned it fucked up big time. No mention of Butterfield and Bishop and there is no woman on that stage.)

I happened to stumble on the fact that Hooker’s classic collaboration, The Healer, with Bonnie Raitt, Carlos Santana, George Thorogood, Los Lobos, Canned Heat, Charlie Musselwhite, and Robert Cray (!) is due for re-release on October 28th. You’ll find a cut from that on the Spotify list. (With Bonnie Raitt.)

Like B.B. King, Hooker wasn’t just some name you throw around. He was the real deal. How-how-how-how. You-you-you-you.

One more for ya. Hooker and Van doin’ “Baby Please Don’t Go.”

John Lee Hooker was ranked 35 in Rolling Stone’s 2015 list of 100 greatest guitarists. He died in his sleep on June 21, 2001, at home in Los Altos, California.



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