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[whitespace] John Lee Hooker
Photograph by Dave Lepori

Boom, Boom, Out Go the Lights

Remembering blues legend--and Redwood City resident--John Lee Hooker

By Gina Arnold

ALTHOUGH THE San Francisco Bay Area is chockablock with famous people, not many of them live south of San Francisco. Blues legend John Lee Hooker, who passed away last Thursday at the age of 83, was an exception. He spent the last few decades of his life in a modest tract home on a cul-de-sac in Redwood City. He also owned a home in Los Altos where he died.

Twice in the last eight years, I visited Mr. Hooker at this home off the Alameda de las Pulgas, and both times I was struck by the strangeness of his presence there: not just in Redwood City but in late-20th-century California. He almost seemed like evidence

that the time-machine concept works, since he looked as though he'd been swooped up by one from the Mississippi Delta 75 years ago.

He was an active musician to the very end, collaborating with a myriad of other artists (Bonnie Raitt, Ry Cooder, Santana, Los Lobos and Ben Harper, to name a few) and even occasionally playing a short set at his nightclub, the Boom Boom Room, directly across from the Kabuki and the Fillmore.

In the last five years, Mr. Hooker had certainly gotten his due from the public and maybe then some, being inducted in to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and receiving a lifetime special-achievement award from the Grammys, among other honors. But this was only right and good, given that he invented the electric boogie-blues style, a sort of one-chord rhythmic stomp associated with so many other rock & roll bands, from Canned Heat to Foghat to Phish.

It's a style that made him rich and famous, but it's made others richer and even more famous along the way. Happily, Hooker was one of the least bitter artists of his time. "I love people, that's what I really care for," he told me in 1999. "Not money or success ... just the people. And I'm proud of the people I've worked with. I'm proud of everything that I do, everything on my records."

THAT'S A PRETTY pleasant thing to remember him saying, at this juncture, and it seems to exemplify the attitude that Hooker had ever since he first left home at the age of 14 to become a professional musician. At the time he first hit the road, he recalled, he was taken in by various families. He made it sound easy and like a lot of fun, two things one doesn't usually associate with being black and a blues singer in America in the '30s and '40s.

But when I asked Hooker if he thought people had to "pay their dues" to "sing the blues," he shook his head emphatically.

"No. I've heard it said, often and often, but I wish people wouldn't say that. Some people who play the blues ... a lot of them never had a hard time in their life. I didn't. My father and my stepfather, they was sharecroppers, but we had plenty of land, plenty of food, plenty everything. I didn't have a hard time, I just didn't want to stay on the farm with all the cows and horses and pigs."

Nor did he. He was born in either 1917 or 1920--the history books aren't exactly sure--in Clarksdale, Miss. His parents were divorced when he was very little, and he chose to live with his mother, because his stepfather, William Moore, was a musician who allowed him to play guitar music in the house. (His real father, a preacher, only approved of gospel music.)

Hooker's first instrument was an old inner tube hooked over a door frame, which he twanged on. Moore knew lots of Mississippi Delta bluesmen, including Blind Lemon Jefferson and Charlie Patton, personally, and he taught the young Hooker to play guitar in a style that would later come to be attributed as the main link between blues and rock & roll.

When he was only 14 or 15, Hooker lit out for "the city." First he moved to Memphis, then to Cincinnati, working day jobs and playing at house parties at night. He spent 10 years in Cincinatti singing mostly with gospel groups, but eventually he wound up singing the blues in Detroit.

In 1943, Hooker was "discovered" by record-store owner named Elmer Barber, who helped record him and get him gigs. Presently, he was signed to Modern Records, which put out the single "Boogie Chillun," which was an immediate hit.

People say the music industry is corrupt now, but in those days it was really fast and loose. "They got me really big," Hooker said, "but record companies is all crooks. They wasn't giving me that much money, not my royalties. And what makes it bad is, you know they're dealing from the bottom of the deck. ... Ain't no wool on my eyes; I know what they're getting [from me], but I want to get famous, and that's what it took. If I would fight with 'em to get a fair deal, I wouldn't a got nowhere."

THROUGHOUT THE 1950s, Hooker made records and toured mostly to black audiences, but by the late '50s, blues was gaining popularity with whites, coasting on the coattails of the folk revival. In 1959, Hooker played at the Newport Folk Festival with Joan Baez and Bob Gibson, and later on that year he went to London for the first time.

Hooker was huge in London, where he was wildly embraced by--among others--young rock musicians who covered his songs. In the '60s, the Animals, the Yardbirds and the Spencer Davis Group all recorded versions of his songs. The Rolling Stones publicly worshipped him, and Jimi Hendrix often credited Hooker as a big influence.

Did Hooker ever feel resentful that they were stealing his stuff? "Yeah, I did," he told me. "But I wanted them to do it. They got a hold of me and did my sound, but that way people know where they got it from. They knew it come from me and 'Boogie Chillun.' And I knew they cared a lot, that was the thing. They tried to sound like me, but they just couldn't. They came close, though."

Back in the United States, his relationship with the mother of his children broke up, and he came to California, driving himself all alone in a Cadillac to Oakland. He lived there for many years before relocating to the other side of the Bay in the early '80s and having his career resurrected by a renewal of interest in the blues by white pop stars.

To me, Redwood City always seemed like the oddest place on earth to find the living embodiment of the blues. But on second thought, why not? The blues, as Hooker said, are universal. They belong everywhere, in town and in the country, in Europe and in America, in heaven and in hell. The blues belong to the past, but they also belong to the future--and for life everlasting, amen.

Remember John Lee Hooker: On Sunday (July 8), JJ's Blues presents a barbecue and blues day for friends and musicians to celebrate the great bluesman's life and music. The event takes place at JJ's, 3439 Stevens Creek Blvd., San Jose. (831.243.6441)

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From the June 28-July 4, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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