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Artist

John Lee Hooker

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Biography

John Lee Hooker (c. August 22, 1912 – 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.

Some of his best known songs include "Boogie Chillen'" (1948), "Crawling King Snake" (1949), "Dimples" (1956), "Boom Boom" (1962), and "One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer" (1966). Several of his later albums, including The Healer (1989), Mr. Lucky (1991), Chill Out (1995), and Don't Look Back (1997), were album chart successes in the U.S. and U.K., and Don't Look Back won a Grammy Award in 1998.

Hooker's date of birth is a subject of debate. It is believed that he was born in Tutwiler, Mississippi, in Tallahatchie County, although some sources say his birthplace was near Clarksdale, in Coahoma County. He was the youngest of the 11 children of William Hooker (born 1871, died after 1923), a sharecropper and Baptist preacher, and Minnie Ramsey (born c. 1880, date of death unknown). In the 1920 federal census, William and Minnie were recorded as being 48 and 39 years old, respectively, which implies that Minnie was born about 1880, not 1875. She was said to have been a "decade or so younger" than her husband (Boogie Man, p. 23), which gives additional credibility to this census record as evidence of Hooker's origins.</ref>

The Hooker children were home-schooled. 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). Moore was his first significant blues influence. He was a local blues guitarist who, in Shreveport, Louisiana, learned to play a droning, one-chord blues that was strikingly different from the Delta blues of the time. Another formative influence was Tony Hollins, who dated Hooker's sister Alice, helped teach Hooker to play, and gave him his first guitar. For the rest of his life, Hooker regarded Hollins as a formative influence on his style of playing and his career as a musician. Among the songs that Hollins reputedly taught Hooker were versions of "Crawlin' King Snake" and "Catfish Blues".

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's recording career began in 1948, when Modern Records, based in Los Angeles, released a demo he had recorded for Bernie Besman in Detroit. The single, "Boogie Chillen'", became a hit and the best-selling race record of 1949. Despite being illiterate, Hooker was a prolific lyricist. In addition to adapting traditional blues lyrics, he composed original songs. In the 1950s, like many black musicians, Hooker earned little from record sales, and so he often recorded variations of his songs for different studios for an up-front fee. To evade his recording contract, he used various pseudonyms, including John Lee Booker (for Chess Records and Chance Records in 1951–1952), Johnny Lee (for De Luxe Records in 1953–1954), John Lee, John Lee Cooker, Texas Slim, Delta John, Birmingham Sam and his Magic Guitar, Johnny Williams, and the Boogie Man.

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. For much of this period he recorded and toured with Eddie Kirkland. In Hooker's later sessions for Vee-Jay Records in Chicago, studio musicians accompanied him on most of his recordings, including Eddie Taylor, who could handle his musical idiosyncrasies. "Boom Boom" and "Dimples", two popular songs by Hooker, were originally released by Vee-Jay.

Hooker performed "Boom Boom" in the role of a street musician in the 1980 film The Blues Brothers. In 1989, he recorded the album The Healer with various other notable musicians, including Carlos Santana and Bonnie Raitt.

He 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 Morrison several times; some of these performances released on the live album A Night in San Francisco. On December 19, 1989, Hooker performed "Boogie Chillen'" with the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton in Atlantic City, New Jersey. As part of the Rolling Stones' Steel Wheels tour, the show was broadcast live on cable television as a pay-per-view program. His last studio recording on guitar and vocal was "Elizebeth", a song he wrote with Pete Sears, accompanied by 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."

Hooker spent 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 hit songs.

Hooker fell ill just before a tour of Europe in 2001 and died in his sleep on June 21, 2001, in Los Altos, California, at around 88 years of age. He was interred at the Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland. He was survived by eight children, 19 grandchildren, and numerous great-grandchildren.

Among his many awards, Hooker was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1980, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991 and the Memphis Music Hall of Fame in 2016. Two of his songs, "Boogie Chillen" and "Boom Boom" were included in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's list of the "500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll". "Boogie Chillen" was also included in the Recording Industry Association of America's list of the "Songs of the Century". He was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000. He also has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Larkin, Colin, ed. (1995). The Guinness Who's Who of Blues (2nd ed.). Guinness Publishing. ISBN 0-85112-673-1.

Murray, Charles Shaar (1999). Boogie Man: Adventures of John Lee Hooker in the American 20th Century. ISBN 0-14-016890-7.

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