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Artist

John Lee Hooker

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Biography

John Lee Hooker (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. Additionally, Don't Look Back won a Grammy Award in 1998.

Hooker's date of birth is the subject of debate. He is believed to have been born in Tutwiler, Tallahatchie County, Mississippi, although some sources cite his birthplace as being near Clarksdale, Coahoma County, the youngest of the eleven children of William Hooker (1871–after 1923), a sharecropper and Baptist preacher, and Minnie Ramsey (circa 1880–date of death unknown). The Hooker official website, however, indicates he was born on August 22, 1917.

The Hooker children were home-schooled. Since they were only permitted to listen to religious songs, the spirituals sung in church were their earliest exposure to music. 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). Moore was his first significant blues influence. He 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. At the age of 14, John Lee Hooker ran away from home, reportedly never seeing his mother or stepfather again.

In the mid 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, eventually landing a job in 1943 at the Ford Motor Company in Detroit. 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 performing in Detroit clubs and, seeking a louder instrument than his acoustic guitar, he bought his first electric guitar.

Hooker's recording career began in 1948, when Los Angeles-based Modern Records released a demo he had recorded for Bernie Besman in Detroit. The single, "Boogie Chillen'", became a hit and the biggest selling race record of 1949. Despite being illiterate, Hooker was a prolific lyricist. In addition to adapting traditional blues lyrics, he also wrote originals. In the 1950s, many black musicians saw little money from their record sales. So Hooker often recorded variations on his songs for new studios for an upfront fee. To get around his recording contract, he used various pseudonyms, such as John Lee Booker, for Chess Records and Chance Records in 1951–1952; Johnny Lee for De Luxe Records in 1953–54; 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. John Lee Hooker rarely played with a standard beat, 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, 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. Later sessions for Vee-Jay Records in Chicago used studio musicians on most of his recordings, including Eddie Taylor, who could handle his musical idiosyncrasies. "Boom Boom" and "Dimples", two popular Hooker numbers, were originally released on Vee-Jay.

Hooker performed as a street musician in the 1980 film The Blues Brothers. In 1989, he recorded the album The Healer with a number of guest musicians, including Carlos Santana and Bonnie Raitt. 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. 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 on a pay-per-view basis.

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. He is believed to have been two months shy of his 89th birthday. He was interred at the Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland, California.

His last 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" is 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 was influenced by his stepfather William Moore. He played bass patterns with his thumb, stopping to emphasize the end of a line with a series of trills, done by rapid hammer-ons and pull-offs. "Boogie Chillen'" epitomizes this early North Mississippi sound. 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.

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 increasingly more people to his band, changing his live show from simply Hooker with his guitar to a large band, with Hooker singing. 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. His use of an electric guitar tied together the Delta blues with the emerging post-war electric blues.

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