“John Lee: Last of the old time solo bluesmen. A guitar, a solid foot stomp, and a voice like life.”
– Keith Richards
“There are no superlatives to describe the profound impact John Lee left in our hearts, for musicians and common people — all of us feel enormous gratitude, respect, admiration and love for his spirit.”
– Carlos Santana
“Each time, he was John Lee Hooker; he wasn’t shaping his sound to someone else. But these younger artists were coming back to him almost like a wellspring. In that sense, you got John Lee Hooker being discovered by three generations. And that’s pretty cool.”
– Robert Jones, Blues from the Lowland
“Unlike many of his contemporaries, Hooker never ingratiates himself to his relatively newfound yuppie audience. Since the ’60s, mainstream fans have “adopted” blues greats from time to time, trying to package or modernize them, often with disastrous results, but through it all there’s been the stomping foot and insistent guitar of John Lee Hooker, who’s content to do his thing and let fashion come back to him when it might.”
– John Quaintance
“Alone cuts closer to the man’s art than anything that has been released by him for a long time.”
– Robert Palmer, The New York Times
“In Alone Hooker uses the solo performance as a vehicle to showcase his haunting songs about grief and loss.” – PJ Klemp, Living Blues
John Lee Hooker was an inspiration for a whole generation of musicians and became a million selling artist in the late 90’s. These ‘Alone’ recordings are a testament of the real greatness of the John Lee Hooker.
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“The music world gave a collective gasp of disbelief on Thursday, June 21st, 2001, upon receiving the news of the passing of Blues legend,John Lee Hooker. At 83 years, he seemed to be immortal; somebody who gave the impression that he could live forever. The term “legend” is very much over used today when describing an artist, but few actually deserve the title. John Lee Hooker was certainly one who did.
Over the past two decades, I was fortunate enough to witness Hooker on-stage multiple times. These appearances are something I’ll always deeply cherish the memory of. Even more so when considering the fact that John Lee had retired from touring in the early 1990s and only did so occasionally on the West Coast during his twilight years. Though he may have come to Portland or Seattle or even Eugene once or twice a year, many younger admirers elsewhere around the world never had the opportunity to see the man perform in person.
John Lee Hooker’s career spanned nearly seven decades. He saw many peaks and valleys throughout his lifetime, but never failed to continue working. An incredibly prolific creator, his vast body of work left a mighty impression on not only musicians of his time, but will continue to do so for years and generations to come.
John Lee Hooker entered the world some time in the late 1920s. There is speculation and disagreement over the actual date of his birth; a problem that even John Lee was responsible for. Most historians cite the date as August 22, 1917, but since he was born during a time and in a location that many African-Americans’ records were not kept, questions are many. He was born near Vance, Mississippi, a small community near Clarksdale by midwife. His family were sharecroppers and John Lee was one of 11 children born to William Hooker, Sr. and Minnie Ramsey. His father also served as minister in the nearby Baptist church. It was in this church that John was first exposed to music, as he learned and sang the gospel numbers along with the congregation.
Blues music first entered his life when his sister Alice began dating local musician, Tony Hollins. Inspired by Hollins’ guitar work, John Lee made a makeshift instrument by taking rubber strips from an inner tube and nailing them to the wall of the family barn. He would also attempt to play the elder musician’s guitar when he wasn’t watching. Hollins was taken with the youngster’s desire and gave him one of his old guitars, a very used and battered Silvertone, more so to keep John out of the way of his attention toward Alice.
William Hooker was a strong disciplinarian, though. He would allow no alcohol and definitely no guitar playing within the walls of his home. These were the devil’s tools. So, John was forced to practice his instrument outside.
A few years later, William and Minnie separated and she remarried local farmer, William Moore, who was also a well-known regional Bluesman. Being a musician himself, Moore was not adverse to having John Lee play in his home. In fact, he saw the promise in the 13-year-old and replaced the guitar that Tony Hollins had given him with a new Stella. Moore had an extensive collection of Blues 78s, featuring the day’s biggest stars: Blind Lemon Jefferson, Charley Patton, Blind Blake, Lonnie Johnson and Leroy Carr, among them. These artists’ material left their mark with John Lee, but it was William Moore who gave him his greatest inspiration. Moore played with a simple, hypnotic beat, accompanied with the heavy tapping of his foot for timing and mournful vocal patterns. It was the base for what would become the signature John Lee Hooker boogie. Soon, John was skillful enough that William Moore began allowing him to work alongside him, playing at house parties and fish fries. And, sometimes, this work would include sitting in with people like Charley Pattonand Son House.
At the age of 14, John Lee Hooker ran away to Memphis. He found a job working as an usher at the New Daisy Movie Theater. He also played guitar on street corners and in Handy Park for spare change, often alongside future Blues great, Robert Nighthawk. But, his family found the teenager in Memphis and returned him home.
Not for long though. At 15, he ran away again; this time for good. He never saw his parents or William Moore ever again. He returned first to Memphis, where he stayed on for a year, but he had a hard time making a go of things in the city, so he set his sights further north. He spent a short stay in Knoxville, but decided to move on to Cincinnati.
In Cincinnati, John was employed by the Phillip Tank and Pump Company, where he ran a machine that made rings for automobiles. He would also sing in Gospel-based outfits during his stay, including stints with well-known performers like the Big Six and the Fairfield Four. He also continued his sojourn into the Blues, playing house parties and mastering his style, laying down the foundations of his future repertoire, including an early rendition of the song, “Crawling Kingsnake”.
During the Second World War, John Lee saw an opportunity to make better money working in the factories of Detroit. So, he moved there and took on employment as an assembly line worker, first in the steel mills and later in the automobile industry.
Hooker married three times while living in Detroit. The first marriage to Alma Hopes produced a daughter named Frances. This coupling did not last though. and they split a few months later, with Alma moving to Chicago. His second marriage, to Sarah Jones, did not fair much better and only lasted for about a year. But, his third, to Maudie Mathis would survive for 25 years and she would be the mother of seven of his children. Though John Lee’s profession kept him on the road a great deal, he always supported his family and expected his children to abide by his rules.
It was in Detroit that another meeting changed the musical styling of John Lee Hooker. He attended a show of T-Bone Walker’s and heard for the first time Blues played on an electric guitar. Walker was equally impressed with Hooker and they became good friends. Walkereven gave John Lee his first electric guitar, an Epiphone. The blending of the haunting Mississippi beat combined with the new power of the electric guitar was the turning point for John Lee Hooker and his popularity exploded, as he became the top Blues attraction in Detroit.
In 1948, at the age of 31, John Lee Hooker entered a studio for the first time. Bernie Besman brought him into Sensation Records and he laid down two sides during that first session. The A-side was “Sally Mae”, but the flip would launch John Lee Hooker as a national Blues star, “Boogie Chillen”. Derived from a song he first heard played by William Moore, the boogie beat would become his trademark. The record sold well locally and Besman leased its rights to the Los Angeles-based Modern Records. By early 1949, “Boogie Chillen” was #1 nationally on the R&B; charts.
During this period, Hooker worked mostly as a duo with second-guitarist Eddie Kirkland or harmonica player Eddie Burns. At other times, he’d work in a quartet. But, no matter how he accompanied himself, the success was there. Over the ensuing years, he would release a string of chart-topping hits, including “Crawling Kingsnake” (1949), “I’m In The Mood” (1951), “Dimples” (1956), “Boom Boom” (1962) and “Big Legs, Tight Skirt” (1964). His biggest chart success at the time was “I’m In The Mood”. It is also an interesting fact that Hookerexplored the use of multi-tracking on this number, as he sang all of the background vocals, recording his voice three times and overdubbing one atop the other.
The only problem that John Lee encountered was the contract that he signed with Modern Records. It was an exclusive contract that forbade him to record with any other label. But, Modern did not allow him to record as often as he liked. An extremely prolific songwriter,John Lee had a wealth of songs that he wanted to place on record. And, there were plenty of labels to offer him this possibility. Thus, John Lee Hooker began to record for numerous labels under a bevy of pseudonyms. Labels such as Savoy Regent, Specialty, Acorn, Federal, Chance, Gotham and Time began releasing boogie-based numbers from the likes of Delta John, John Lee Booker, Johnny Lee, Birmingham Sam, Boogie Man, Texas Slim, John Lee Cooker and even Little Pork Chops. Many of these monikers were not the most inventive, and it was certain that everybody could recognize the trademark John Lee Hooker sound, but it allowed him to release his music and to make money from an industry that did not believe in royalty checks at the time.
Hooker left Modern Records in 1952 and began recording with Chicago-based Chess Records. He stayed there for the next two years and even found himself placed on a tour with Muddy Waters at one point. Next stop was at Vee Jay, Chess’ cross-town rivals. Hooker would stay with the label until 1964. His first session for Vee Jay found him in the studio with renowned Bluesman, Jimmy Reed on harmonica and his guitar-playing partner, Eddie Taylor. This session produced sides including “Mambo Chillun” and “Time Is Marching”. Though Reeddid not return for subsequent sessions, Taylor was a regular sideman during Hooker’s tenure at Vee Jay and can be heard on such classics as “Dimples” and “Baby Lee”.
John Lee Hooker, much like Texas Blues master, Lightnin’ Hopkins, was very adaptive to the changing tastes of the listening audience. This, needless to say, accounts a great deal for his longevity as a popular recording artist. At the advent of the 1960s, the new fad was for Folk music. It was easy for John Lee to adapt to this style, as it was only a return to his original roots. He released a handful of acoustical recordings for the Riverside label during the first half of the decade, including, “I’m John Hooker”, “The Country Blues of John Lee Hooker” and the seminal “Burning Hell” (first recorded in 1959, but held up for release until 1964). These acoustical releases helped make him a favorite of the Folk festival and college circuits. He performed at the acclaimed Newport Folk Festival as part of the Blues “Rediscovery” period in both 1960 and 1963. Also of note, was a 1961 performance in New York City’s Greenwich Village, when an unknown Folk singer from Minnesota named Bob Dylan opened a show for John Lee.
In 1962, as part of the American Folk Blues Festival, John Lee Hooker made his first trip to Europe. What he found there astonished him. The young fans and musicians were well aware of John Lee Hooker and considered him a hero. His appearances only heightened his popularity, leaving lasting impressions on future Blues-based Rock luminaries such as The Yardbirds, The Animals and an Irish band calledThem, which featured a young vocalist by the name of Van Morrison. It was through the success of these British musicians that helpedJohn Lee Hooker cross-over into the eyes of Rock fans, especially when The Animals scored a top-selling hit with a cover of Hooker’s, “Boom Boom”.
It was also during this first visit to Europe that John Lee Hooker was able to record with one of his early idols, T-Bone Walker. Allowed to enter a studio to lay down a few sides, Walker joins Hooker for the number “Shake It Baby”. Interestingly as well, Walker plays piano on that session.
John Lee Hooker would make several more trips to Europe throughout the 1960s. On one tour he was placed with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers as a backing band, but this did not seem to fit John’s style too well. He met a guitarist named Tony McPhee, whose bandThe Groundhogs had been named for a Hooker composition, “Groundhog Blues”. The band proved to fit well with Hooker and they worked behind him on several of his British visits. An album was also released entitled, “The Groundhogs With John Lee Hooker And John Mayall” (1968, Cleve Records).
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Hooker’s marriage to Maudie came to an end in 1970. Feeling there was nothing left for him in Detroit, he decided to move out west to Oakland, California. He met a number of musicians in California that idolized him, most particularly a roots band that called themselvesCanned Heat. Hooker was quite taken by the knowledge of the band’s leaders, Bob Hite and Al Wilson. The band had also masteredHooker’s famous boogie and heavily employed it within their own sound. Eventually, this led to Hooker recording the album, “Hooker ‘N’ Heat” with the band, without a doubt, his best-selling album of the 1970s. Another album titled, “Free Beer And Chicken”, teamed him with Rock vocalist, Joe Cocker. Special pairings of this nature, combining Hooker with other noted musicians, would prove to be most beneficial for his later career.
Hooker also found a large number of Blues artists who had relocated to the San Francisco Bay area as well. Among them, Paul Butterfield alum Elvin Bishop and Michael Bloomfield, Charlie Musselwhite and Luther Tucker. He formed a new band he dubbed The Coast To Coast Band to tour with. Over the years, the group has seen many illustrious musicians among its numbers: Luther Tucker, Ron Thompson, Deacon Jones and Rich Kirch are but a few.
Hooker met his fourth wife, Millie Strom, while performing in Vancouver, British Columbia. She spent several years with John Lee in California, but the marriage was apparently not meant to be. They separated on the best of terms and John Lee has often been quoted as saying his happiest years were those he spent with Millie.
Though he never ceased recording or touring, Hooker’s popularity seemed to fade somewhat during the 1970s and 1980s. Except for an induction into The Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame in 1980, John Lee Hooker was not quite in the forefront that he once commanded. But, in 1989, he teamed with guitarist/producer Roy Rogers and recorded an album which featured many guest cameos of people who had come to worship Hooker over the years. People such as Carlos Santana, Bonnie Raitt and Robert Cray all appeared on the album, “The Healer”. Although recorded on the small Chameleon label, “The Healer” became a sensation, and the remake of his song “I’m In The Mood”, sung with Bonnie Raitt, climbed the charts and led to Grammy Awards for the pair. It also helped John Lee Hooker’s name to be placed in theGuinness Book of Records as the oldest performer to ever reach the Top 5.
All of a sudden, John Lee Hooker was hot property. Roy Rogers produced two more albums, now with the higher profiled Blues label,Point Blank, titled, “Mr. Lucky”, and, “Chill Out”, which also topped the charts and featured still more cameos from high-profiled guest artists. Another album, “Don’t Look Back”, was produced by old friend and one of the young musicians Hooker influenced in the early 1960s, Van Morrison.
In 1990, John Lee Hooker was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He was also honored with a special tribute concert inMadison Square Garden that featured performances from Bonnie Raitt, Joe Cocker, Willie Dixon, Huey Lewis, Albert Collins, Johnny Winter, Ry Cooder, Gregg Allman, Bo Diddley, Mick Fleetwood, Al Kooper, and many others.
In the mid-1990s, John Lee Hooker decided to retire from touring. He would still make records and the occasional appearance, but kept his time mostly for himself. His home was always open for friends and fans to drop by and he absorbed his time following his favorite baseball team, the Los Angeles Dodgers. In 1997, he opened his own Blues club in San Francisco, The Boom Boom Room, a place where he could go when the feeling was there to play or listen.
Over the years, John Lee Hooker also expanded his exposure to other mediums. He appeared in the films, “The Blues Brothers” and “The Color Purple”, he provided the voice for the title character in Pete Townshend’s “The Iron Man”, and teamed with Jazz great Miles Davis for the soundtrack to Dennis Hopper’s movie, “The Hot Spot”.
An appearance on the David Letterman Show in 1989, promoting “The Healer” found Letterman questioning John Lee about the two pins he wore on his lapel, one a star, the other a dollar sign. Hooker simply answered, “Because I’m a star. And, I plays for money.”
John Lee Hooker died peacefully in his sleep on June 21, 2001, surrounded by his friends and family. He was just two months and a day from celebrating his 84th birthday. He is survived by his 8 children, 19 grandchildren and numerous great-grandchildren.
His funeral was held in Oakland on June 27th. Attending the ceremony were many of the artists he had played with or influenced over the years, among them, Eddie Kirkland, Charlie Musselwhite, Bonnie Raitt, Deacon Jones and Roy Rogers.
John Lee once told his biographer, Charles Shaar Murray, “When I die, they’ll bury the Blues with me. But, the Blues will never die.” As long as we have the recordings of John Lee Hooker and the memories of his live performances, the Blues and John Lee Hooker will live on forever.”
– Greg Johnson, BluesNotes
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