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King of Country BoogieCopyright © 2001The Scotsman, 2001
John Lee Hooker succeeded in turning a restricted musical idiom into one of the signature sounds of 20th century music, as instantly recognisable as it was literally inimitable. His major commercial success came late in life, but his artistic vision was formed very early, and he never wavered from it. He ended up feted by rock stars, with his records in the charts and his voice and image used to sell jeans, soft drinks and hard liquor, all a far cry from his roots in rural Mississippi.
He was born on a sharecropping farm near Scarsdale, probably in 1917, but the date has also been given as 1915, and even 1923, a confusion largely created by Hooker's own contradictory statements. In addition, he claimed to his biographer, Charles Shaar Murray, that he had been born in 1920, and had lied about his age to get in the army, in which he claimed to have served for several months until the deception was discovered. As with much in Hooker's life, the precise details remain murky, and bare facts intermingle with the colourful fictional twists beloved of blues singers.
He began singing in church, although his father, a Baptist minister as well as a sharecropper, tried to discourage his interest in music in any other context. His father abandoned his large family when John Lee was still quite young, and he cited his stepfather, Will Moore, as being a major influence on his musical style and development.
That music is deeply rooted in the dark southern soil, even if he joined the familiar migration out of the region, travelling north at first, and ultimately settling in California. His first instrument was a discarded length of inner tyre tube attached to a barn door, and it is tempting to see his classic chording style having its origins in this primitive contrivance.
He began playing in public at the age of 13 or 14, often with his stepfather, who brought a flavour of exotic Louisiana musical roots to his adopted Mississippi home. Moore was also friendly with other bluesmen, including well-known names like Blind Blake, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Charley Patton, and they would visit the house for impromptu sessions.
Hooker picked up the essence of what he described as his "country boogie" style from these associations, but felt that he would make little headway in Mississippi, and ran away as a teenager to pursue a career in music. He spent some time in Memphis, then sang in gospel groups in Cincinnati in the late 1930s. He moved to Detroit looking for work in the motor industry in 1943, where he began to build a reputation on the local blues scene.
Then, in 1948, he went into a recording studio for the first time, and laid down a slice of history. It went by the name of "Boogie Chillen'", and its deep, oddly eerie vocals, its raw, hypnotic one-chord vamp, and his relentlessly stomping feet went all the way back to the most primal country blues. It was a world away from the slick urban sound fashionable at the time, but it climbed all the way to the top of the R 'n' B charts, and established his unique style.
He quickly became well acquainted with the studio environment, recording prolifically for a variety of labels and under a variety of pseudonyms, but has always claimed that he was shamelessly ripped-off by record producers ("they took their share and they took mine as well, and that ain't right", was show he put it to me in an interview in 1997).
He made several more hit records in the late 1940s and early 1950s, including classic tracks like "Crawling Kingsnake Blues", "Hobo Blues", "I'm In the Mood" (a single which sold over a million copies in 1951), and "Dimples", another of his signature tunes. He was taken up by college audiences in the folk and blues revival of the early 1960s, and recorded another of his famous boogie tunes, "Boom Boom", in 1962.
The rise of rock in that decade sparked further interest in his music, but if the folk crowd preferred his acoustic guitar work, it was his raw electric guitar boogie tunes which brought him to the notice of the burgeoning rock audience, boosted by the public approbation of artists like The Rolling Stones, Eric Burdon (The Animals covered "Boom Boom" in 1964, and out sold their mentor), Van Morrison and Canned Heat, who owed him a particularly strong stylistic debt (he recorded Hooker 'n' Heat with them in 1970).
He featured in a cameo role as a street musician in the cult movie The Blues Brothers in 1980, but the most commercially successful phase of his career began with the release of his album The Healer in 1989. The guests who lined up to play on the record included Carlos Santana, Robert Cray and Bonnie Raitt, whose duet with him on a new version of his 1951 hit "I'm In the Mood" won them a Grammy Award.
He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991, and was once again squarely back in the public eye. He announced his retirement from touring in the mid-1990s, but continued to record until 1997, always in the company of stellar guests like Carlos Santana, Bonnie Raitt, Keith Richards and Van Morrison. He bought a blues club in San Francisco in 1997, which he called John Lee Hooker's Boom Boom Room, where he would occasionally play an unannounced performance.
Throughout his long career, he remained faithful to his concept of the blues, refusing to bend to musical fashion, which always seemed to have a way of coming back round to his earthy, laconic style again. In that same interview in 1997, he laid down the definition of the blues which had always driven his music.
"The blues? The blues was born when the world was born, see, 'cause the blues was born between a man and a woman. Man loved that woman, woman loved that man, but they got so they was sad and lonely. They got the blues, and they got to singing them sad songs. That's what the blues is. It's about love and jealousy between man and woman. It's about being human, see? Everybody gets the blues. Even a rich man gets the blues sometime."
He is survived by eight children and numerous grandchildren and great grandchildren.
With a pin-stripe suitby Gregg Juke
Copyright © 2001 Gregg Juke
With a pin-stripe suit and a white tie,
a Gibson ES-335, and
sometimes a pork-pie
"Boogie Chillun" dig the one-chord jive,
as The Ancient Man with the Timeless Voice
keeps the Delta Blues alive with the real-deal "electric slide"
(you can feel it . . . boogie-woogie-woogie . . .)
Rhythms grind with a gritty, flowing lightnin' bolt jolt and freestyle no big
pun, "I'm 'mo bust a cap in yo HEAD" rapper ever wrote
John Lee Hooker, "the healer," one-of-a-kind;
without you and your classic single-string lines
no one would ever find a Miles, an Ornette, even a B.B. or a James
"Blood" Ulmer... your Keeper never sleeps, nor slumbers --
Rest In Peace, Mr. Soulful-Number One --
Keep Playing 'till the Fat Lady Sings --
-- Blues Brother . . .