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Deep Blues


Kim Komenich

Boogieman: John Lee Hooker, the elder statesman of the blues.

Blues legend John Lee Hooker makes rare local appearance

By Greg Cahill

Where I came from in Mississippi was like being in hell," says bluesman John Lee Hooker, recalling his roots as the uneducated son of Delta sharecroppers. "And it was hell! You had to enter stores through the backdoor and sit on the back of the bus. Of course, in those days blacks had to do just about anything anybody told them to do.

"And when I look back on it, leaving that state as a kid was just like leaving hell."

At 75, Hooker has finally found his little patch of blues heaven. For the past six years, this influential guitarist, songwriter, and singer has been riding a wave of critical and commercial success the likes of which he hasn't seen since his landmark jump-style R&B recordings established him as the King of the Boogie in the late 1940s and resulting in three Grammy nominations (he also won the Best Traditional Blues category in 1990) and three W.C. Handy National Blues Awards.

In semi-retirement since 1994, Hooker is the elder statesman of the blues. "While I'm here, I'm just gonna try to do the best I can," he says, during a phone interview from his East Bay home, his Southern drawl shaded by a deep growl.

"I'm just gonna keep giving them what I've got."

His most recent release, last year's Chill Out (Pointblank/
Virgin), teams him with Van Morrison and Carlos Santana. But it was 1989's Grammy-winning album The Healer (Chameleon)--which featured Santana, Bonnie Raitt, Robert Cray, and George Thorogood, among others--that rekindled his career. "That really kicked it off, didn't it," Hooker laughs when asked about the comeback.

"I feel good about that."

The dream began amid the poverty and racial hatred of Coahoma County, in the heart of the Mississ-ippi Delta. Hooker, who spent his youth singing spirituals in the community church choir, credits his stepfather, Will Moore, with introducing him to the raw, African-derived sound endemic to the region. Hooker picked up his first guitar at age 13, and a year later, knowing that he wanted to play the blues, ran away to Memphis. "If I had stayed in Mississippi, I would have been a cotton picker and farmer," he muses. "I would have just struggled in a day job, paying the rent from day to day."

Hooker still had his share of struggles, drifting from jobs as a movie-house usher in Memphis to a gospel singer in Cincinnati. By 1948, he was working days in a Detroit auto plant and playing blues at night in Southside ghetto clubs. That year, he received his first electric guitar, a pawn shop gift from legendary Texas bluesman T-Bone Walker. "I thought he was Jesus," Hooker recalls. "I mean, if anybody said anything bad about T-Bone, they had me to whup. I followed him around like a pet dog follows his master.

"And he was a good man, too."

Hooker's big break came that same year. His recording of "Boogie Chillen," an up-tempo number with a lean, threatening edge, sold several hundred thousand copies--an unprecedented feat at that time for a blues record.

"The thing caught fire," Hooker says. "So I quit my job at the factory. I said, 'No, I ain't working no more.'"

Over the years, Hooker has adapted his sound to match musical trends. When R&B burned out commercially in the late '50s, he became a solo act, playing acoustic guitar and cleverly cashing in on the growing folk circuit hungry for authentic folk-blues. By the mid-'60s, he had re-emerged as an electric blues star, coming to the attention of a growing legion of white rock fans who had learned a paler version of the blues through such British Invasion bands as the Rolling Stones and the Animals. While Hooker had a bigger following in Europe, plenty of U.S. bands refined their own versions of his one-chord boogie beat, including Thorogood, Foghat, J. Geils, and ZZ Top.

Most of those acts have fallen by the wayside, but Hooker has continued to record a string of challenging recordings, including 1990's Hot Spot (Antilles) soundtrack with jazz legend Miles Davis and others. And the kid who wanted to be a blues star is a blues legend.

"It may sound stupid," he says with a gravelly laugh, "but I never knew what a legend was. I guess it's just someone who's paid a whole lot of dues. In my mind, my greatest achievement has been to make people happy all over the world and to know that when I'm gone I will never be forgotten--my name and my music will always be here for the people to enjoy, generation after generation.

"And that's a good feeling."


John Lee Hooker headlines A Celebration of the Blues on Tuesday, April 9, at 7 p.m., at LBC, 50 Mark West Springs Road, Santa Rosa. John Hammond and Duke Robillard also perform. Tickets are $22.50. 546-3600.

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From the April 4-10, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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