John Lee Hooker (August 22, 1917 – June 21, 2001) was an American blues singer, songwriter and guitarist.
Hooker was born in Mississippi, the son of a sharecropper, and rose to prominence performing a unique style of 'talking blues' that became his trademark. Though similar to the early Delta blues, his music was metrically free and often incorporated boogie-woogie piano and driving rhythms into his blues guitar playing and singing. His best known songs include Boogie Chillen' (1948), I'm in the Mood (1951), and Boom Boom (1962)—the first two reaching #1 on the Billboard R&B chart.
There is some debate as to the year of Hooker's birth in Coahoma County, Mississippi, the youngest of the eleven children of William Hooker (1871–1923), a sharecropper and Baptist preacher, and Minnie Ramsey (born 1875, date of death unknown); according to his official website, he was born on August 22, 1917.
Hooker and his siblings were home-schooled. They were permitted to listen only to religious songs, with his earliest exposure being the spirituals sung in church. In 1921, his parents separated. The next year, his mother married William Moore, a blues singer who provided Hooker with his first introduction to the guitar (and whom John would later credit for his distinctive playing style). John's stepfather was his first outstanding blues influence. William Moore was a local blues guitarist who learned in Shreveport, Louisiana to play a droning, one-chord blues that was strikingly different from the Delta blues of the time. Around 1923 his natural father died. At the age of 15, John Lee Hooker ran away from home, reportedly never seeing his mother or stepfather again.
Throughout the 1930s, Hooker lived in Memphis, Tennessee where he worked on Beale Street at The New Daisy Theatre and occasionally performed at house parties. He worked in factories in various cities during World War II, drifting until he found himself in Detroit in 1948 working at Ford Motor Company. He felt right at home near the blues venues and saloons on Hastings Street, the heart of black entertainment on Detroit's east side. In a city noted for its pianists, guitar players were scarce. Performing in Detroit clubs, his popularity grew quickly and, seeking a louder instrument than his acoustic guitar, he bought his first electric guitar.
Hooker's recording career began in 1948 when his agent placed a demo, made by Hooker, with the Bihari brothers, owners of the Modern Records label. The company initially released an up-tempo number, Boogie Chillen', which became Hooker's first hit single. Though they were not songwriters, the Biharis often purchased or claimed co-authorship of songs that appeared on their labels, thus securing songwriting royalties for themselves, in addition to their own streams of income.
Sometimes these songs were older tunes that Hooker renamed, as with B.B. King's Rock Me Baby, anonymous jams B.B.'s Boogie, or songs by employees (bandleader Vince Weaver). The Biharis used a number of pseudonyms for songwriting credits: Jules was credited as Jules Taub; Joe as Joe Josea; and Sam as Sam Ling. One song by John Lee Hooker, Down Child, is solely credited to Taub, with Hooker receiving no credit. Another, Turn Over a New Leaf is credited to Hooker and Ling.
In 1949, Hooker was recorded performing in an informal setting for Detroit jazz enthusiasts. His repertoire included down-home and spiritual tunes that he would not record commercially. The recorded set has been made available in the album Jack O'Diamonds.
Despite being illiterate, Hooker was a prolific lyricist. In addition to adapting the occasionally traditional blues lyric (such as "if I was chief of police, I would run her right out of town..."), he freely invented many songs from scratch. Recording studios in the 1950s rarely paid black musicians more than a pittance, so Hooker would spend the night wandering from studio to studio, coming up with new songs or variations on his songs for each studio. Because of his recording contract, he would record these songs under obvious pseudonyms such as John Lee Booker, notably for Chess Records and Chance Records in 1951/52, as Johnny Lee for De Luxe Records in 1953/54 as John Lee, and even John Lee Cooker, or as Texas Slim, Delta John, Birmingham Sam and his Magic Guitar, Johnny Williams, or The Boogie Man.
His early solo songs were recorded under Bernie Besman. John Lee Hooker rarely played on a standard beat, changing 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 would record Hooker, in addition to playing guitar and singing, stomping along with the music on a wooden pallet. For much of this time period he recorded and toured with Eddie Kirkland, who was still performing until his death in a car accident in 2011. Later sessions for the VeeJay label in Chicago used studio musicians on most of his recordings, including Eddie Taylor, who could handle his musical idiosyncrasies very well. His biggest UK hit, Boom Boom, (originally released on VeeJay) was recorded with a horn section.
He appeared and sang in the 1980 movie The Blues Brothers. Due to Hooker's improvisational style, his performance was filmed and sound-recorded live at the scene at Chicago's Maxwell Street Market, in contrast to the usual "playback" technique used in most film musicals. Hooker was also a direct influence in the look of John Belushi's character Jake Blues.
In 1989, he joined with a number of musicians, including Carlos Santana and Bonnie Raitt to record the album The Healer, for which he and Santana won a Grammy Award. Hooker recorded several songs with Van Morrison, including Never Get Out of These Blues Alive, The Healing Game, and I Cover the Waterfront. He also appeared on stage with Van Morrison several times, some of which was released on the live album A Night in San Francisco. The same year he appeared as the title character on Pete Townshend's The Iron Man: The Musical by Pete Townshend.
On December 19, 1989, Hooker appeared with The Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton to perform Boogie Chillen' in Atlantic City, N.J., as part of The Rolling Stones Steel Wheels tour. The show was broadcast live on cable television on a pay-per-view basis.
Hooker recorded over 100 albums. He lived the last years of his life in Long Beach, California. In 1997, he opened a nightclub in San Francisco's Fillmore District called John Lee Hooker's Boom Boom Room, after one of his hits.
Hooker fell ill just before a tour of Europe in 2001 and died in his sleep on June 21 at the age of 83, two months before his 84th birthday. He was interred at the Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland, California.
His last live in the studio recording on guitar and vocal was of a song he wrote with Pete Sears called Elizebeth, featuring members of his Coast to Coast Blues Band with Sears on piano. It was recorded on January 14, 1998 at Bayview Studios in Richmond, California. The last song Hooker recorded before his death was Ali D'Oro, a collaboration with the Italian soul singer Zucchero, in which Hooker sang the chorus "I lay down with an angel." He is survived by eight children, nineteen grandchildren, eighteen great-grandchildren, a nephew, and fiance Sidora Dazi. He has two children that followed in his footsteps, Zakiya Hooker and John Lee Hooker, Jr.
Among his many awards, Hooker has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and in 1991 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Two of his songs, Boogie Chillen and Boom Boom were included in the list of The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll. Boogie Chillen was included as one of the Songs of the Century. He was also inducted in 1980 into the Blues Hall of Fame. In 2000, Hooker was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
Hooker's guitar playing is closely aligned with piano boogie-woogie. He would play the walking bass pattern with his thumb, stopping to emphasize the end of a line with a series of trills, done by rapid hammer-ons and pull-offs. The songs that most epitomize his early sound are Boogie Chillen, about being 17 and wanting to go out to dance at the Boogie clubs, Baby, Please Don't Go, a blues standard first recorded by Big Joe Williams, and Tupelo Blues, a song about the flooding of Tupelo, Mississippi in April 1936.
He maintained a solo career, popular with blues and folk music fans of the early 1960s and crossed over to white audiences, giving an early opportunity to the young Bob Dylan. As he got older, he added more and more people to his band, changing his live show from simply Hooker with his guitar to a large band, with Hooker singing.
His vocal phrasing was less closely tied to specific bars than most blues singers. This casual, rambling style had been gradually diminishing with the onset of electric blues bands from Chicago but, even when not playing solo, Hooker retained it in his sound.
Though Hooker lived in Detroit during most of his career, he is not associated with the Chicago-style blues prevalent in large northern cities, as much as he is with the southern rural blues styles, known as delta blues, country blues, folk blues, or front porch blues. His use of an electric guitar tied together the Delta blues with the emerging post-war electric blues.
His songs have been covered by Buddy Guy, Cream, AC/DC, ZZ Top, Led Zeppelin, Tom Jones, Bruce Springsteen, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Van Morrison, The Yardbirds, The Animals, The Doors, The White Stripes, MC5, George Thorogood, R. L. Burnside, The J. Geils Band, Big Head Todd and the Monsters, The Gories, Cat Power, and The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion.
Hooker issued a large number of singles, with almost a hundred releases by 1960.
Here are ten of his early classic recordings:
Listed below are the original albums with notable reissues.
The Detroit Years (recordings 1948-1955)
The Chicago Years
The Folk Years (recordings 1959-1963)
The ABC Years (recordings 1965-1974)
The Rosebud Years (recordings 1975-2001)