Great Vintage Blues #12: John Lee Hooker

Great Vintage Blues #12: John Lee Hooker

I'm pretty swamped today so I'll keep this short, although not as short as this timeline of John Lee Hooker's life taken verbatim from his Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame page:

August 22, 1917: John Lee Hooker was born to a sharecropping family in Clarksdale, Mississippi.

June 21, 2001: John Lee Hooker dies.

To be fair, they preface that with a three-paragraph bio that covers the basics pretty well, but I love how they got to the end of the article and basically said, "Ah, screw it. He was born, he died, what more do you want?"

But John Lee Hooker shouldn't need all that much introduction anyway. He's arguably the most successful and longest-lasting of the country blues singers, reinventing himself just enough as the decades went by to fit in with the latest style, but never really changing, or needing to. A John Lee Hooker song is instantly recognizable, because he basically did variations on the same simple but powerful idea over and over as long as he lived. He had a huge hit in 1949 with "Boogie Chillen," by which time he was already in his early 30s, but never looked back. He recorded dozens of albums, jumped easily into the 1960s folk-blues scene when the 1950s electric scene began drying up, and kept touring and recording until he died in 2001.

Here's "Boogie Chillen," captured at a benefit concert in Berkeley in 1992 when he was in his mid-70s.



And here's one of his other biggest hits, "Boom Boom," recorded solo in the 1960s:



Here's a full-band version of the same song from 1966:



Born near the hub of Mississippi's Delta Blues country, Hooker picked up the basics of what would become his own distinctive style from his stepfather William Moore, a guitarist from Louisiana who passed on to Hooker a shuffling boogie guitar style that was based around a single chord and a driving rhythm. He also learned from Moore's friends Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Blake, and Charley Patton, who visited their home when he was a child. Hooker left home at age 15 in 1933—I'm not sure if he was unhappy, or if he just wanted to go ride the rails, but he drifted through Memphis, Ohio, and elsewhere, hoboing, working in factories, and singing with blues and gospel groups on the side. (His real father was a preacher, and until he split with John's mother only allowed gospel music in the house.)

Here's "Hobo Blues," from the 1965 American Folk Blues Festival:



Hooker ended up in Detroit after World War II, where he worked in a hospital and an auto factory, married and had six kids, and revolutionized his style by picking up an electric guitar. In Chicago, guys like Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf were using the new electric instruments to make their sound bigger and louder, which (if I remember my music history correctly) spelled the end of the big-bands of the 1940s and the rise of the smaller three-to five-person combos that have been the staple of rock music ever since. Hooker also played with bands, but he mainly did his own thing, and his style both served as a bridge between early country blues and Chicago-style electric, and stood apart from each. Hooker's laconic singing style took advantage of his heavy guitar rhythm to float above the riff—a particularly effective trick when he played a slow, sad number like "Tupelo":



Here's "It Serves Me Right To Suffer." This song makes a lot of sense, and tells a tremendous story, because John Lee Hooker says so:



Here's "Milk, Cream & Alcohol," a song about what must be one of the least effective homeopathic remedies ever. Again, Hooker does some pretty heavy pre-sell: "I want you to pick up on this. These lyrics are something else. Just dig this."



Here's a short documentary interview/music-video shot in (I assume) 1996 or '97. The sound is awfully quiet during the interview, so I hope you guys can make out more of it than I could, though I was pleased to hear Hooker gravely explain why in his old age he preferred highwater pants and garishly colored socks: "What's the deal with them? It's no deal. I like dressing, and I like a lot of colors." Glad we cleared that up.



Here's "I Need Love So Bad":



Here he is with Muddy Waters' band and pianist Otis Spann, in 1960:



After Ry Cooder explains how Hooker gave him a tingly feeling in his lower spine when he was 13, here's Hooker on "I'm Bad Like Jesse James," showing how much more effective is it to threaten someone in a calm, slow voice:



(There must be some kind of a law of the universe, by the way, that whenever you start with "I'm pretty swamped today so I'll keep this short," you wind up writing something really long.)

Previously:

#1: Sister Rosetta

#2: Skip James

#3: Bukka White

#4: Howlin' Wolf

#5: Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee

#6: Bessie Smith (and Bo Diddley)

#7: Furry Lewis

#8: Son House

#9: Lightnin' Hopkins

#10: Lead Belly

#11: Big Mama Thornton

More The A.V. Club Blog