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John Lee Hooker: Age 83
June 21, 2001
Died in his sleep
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John Lee Hooker

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Bluesman John Lee Hooker Dies at 80

By Kim Curtis / Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO - Veteran bluesman John Lee Hooker, whose foot stompin' and gravelly voice electrified audiences and inspired several generations of musicians, died Thursday at his Los Altos home. He was 83(sic).

He died at in his sleep at his home, said Hooker's agent Mike Kappus.

Hooker died of natural causes with friends and family near, Kappus said.

"He always had plenty of people around him," he said.

During a more than six-decade-long music career, the veteran blues singer from the Mississippi Delta estimated he recorded more than 100 albums. Some of his better-known songs include "Boogie Chillen," "Boom Boom" and "I'm In The Mood."

Throughout it all, Hooker's music remained unchanged. His rich and sonorous voice, full of ancient hurt, and his brooding and savage style remained hypnotic but unpredictable. To the strains of his own guitar, he sang of loneliness and confusion. Neither polished nor urbane, his music was raw, primal emotion.

His one-chord boogie compositions and rhythmic guitar work were a distinctive sound that influenced rock 'n' rollers as well as rhythm and blues musicians.

In 1991, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Last year at the Grammys, he recieved a Lifetime Achievement Award.

Among those whose music drew heavily on Hooker's style are Van Morrison, the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Bruce Springsteen, Bonnie Raitt and ZZ Top. In 1961, the then-unknown Rolling Stones opened for him on a European tour; he also shared a bill that year with Bob Dylan at a club in New York City.

Even in the '90s, when his fame was sealed and he was widely recognized as one of the grandfathers of pop music, Hooker remained a little in awe of his own success, telling The Times of London, "People say I'm a genius but I don't know about that."

Like many postwar bluesmen, Hooker got cheated by one fly-by-night record producer after another, who demanded exclusivity or didn't pay. Hooker fought back by recording with rival producers under a slew of different names: Texas Slim, John Lee Booker, John Lee Cocker, Delta John, Birmingham Sam and the Boogie Man, among others.

Hooker's popularity grew steadily as he rode the wave of rock in the '50s into the folk boom of the '60s. In 1980, he played a street musician in "The Blues Brothers" movie. In 1985, his songs were used in Steven Spielberg's film, "The Color Purple."

Hooker hit it big again in 1990 with his album "The Healer," featuring duets with Carlos Santana, Raitt and Robert Cray. It sold 1.5 million copies and won him his first Grammy Award, for a duet with Raitt on "I'm in the Mood."

Several more albums followed, including one recorded to celebrate his 75th birthday, titled "Chill Out."

In his later years, Hooker laid back and enjoyed his success. He recorded only occasionally; he posed for blue jeans and hard liquor ads. He played benefits from time to time, but mostly performed in small clubs, dropping in unannounced.

Mostly, though, he hung out with friends and family at his homes in Los Altos and Long Beach, watching baseball and enjoying a fleet of expensive cars.

Born in Clarksdale, Miss., in 1917, Hooker was one of 11 children born to a Baptist minister and sharecropper who discouraged his son's musical bent.

His stepfather taught him to play guitar. By the time Hooker was a teen-ager, he was performing at local fish fries, dances and other occasions.

Hooker hit the road to perform by the age of 14. He worked odd jobs by day and played small bars at night in Memphis, then Cincinnati and finally Detroit in 1943.

In Detroit, he was discovered and recorded his first hit, "Boogie Chillen," in 1948.

"I don't know what a genius is," he told the London newspaper. "I know there ain't no one ever sound like me, except maybe my stepfather. You hear all the kids trying to play like B.B. (King), and they ain't going to because, ooh, he's such a fine player and a very great man. But you never hear them even try and sound like John Lee Hooker."

"All these years, I ain't done nothin' different," he added. "I been doing the same things as in my younger days, when I was coming up, and now here I am, an old man, up there in the charts. And I say, well, what happened? Have they just thought up the real John Lee Hooker, is that it? And I think, well, I won't tell nobody else! I can't help but wonder what happened."


John Lee Hooker - bluesman who influenced many

By Steve James

NEW YORK (Reuters) - John Lee Hooker, who has died at age 83 in San Francisco, was one of the great Mississippi Delta bluesmen whose singing and guitar-playing inspired generations of rock n' roll performers.

Known as "The Hook" and "The Boogie Man," he outlived most of the other blues greats -- such as Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Elmore James, Lightnin' Hopkins -- all men who learned their craft in the rural south.

These folk singers had moved north to Chicago where the emotional music of the cottonfields became one of the foundations of jazz and rock styles -- especially when they electrified their acoustic guitars, creating a new sound.

But unlike B.B. King and other blues elder statesmen, Hooker, famed for his droning one-chord grooves, made no concessions to popular taste, his music was always unique and uncompromising, with a distinctive staccato guitar and gravelly voice.

This quirky style made him a cult figure in the late 1980s when he was "rediscovered" and his 1989 album "The Healer," which teamed him with several rock performers, was critically acclaimed.

His "I'm in the Mood," first became a hit in 1951, and nearly 40 years later he re-recorded it with Bonnie Raitt and won a Grammy. In 1991, he was inducted into the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame.

He had pop hits in the United States and Britain in the 1960's with songs like "Boom Boom," and "Dimples," and his original recording of "I'm in the Mood," was used by the city of Chicago in its tourist advertising campaign in the late 1980's.

"Man, it's all blues to me -- comes from way back, from the Spirituals," he once said with typical modesty, of the style that prompted Waters to nickname him "the killer" and "the champ."


"Blues is the root of all our music," Hooker said.

"He knows all the blues there are," said his manager and producer Al Smith, during the American Folk Blues Festival that toured Europe in 1968.

"I can ask him to sing funky blues, or the R&B kind. Deep Chicago blues is second nature to him, and if I ask him to sing like he was in Mississippi, he does it easily."

Music historian Larry Cohn wrote of Hooker: "He shouts, growls and squeezes all that is possible out of every nuance. In addition to all of this, Hooker hums better than most bluesmen can sing."

Such was his cult figure status that in 1980 he was given a cameo role in the Dan Aykroyd/John Belushi movie "The Blues Brothers" and he later appeared in "The Color Purple."

After recording Boogie Chillin' in 1948, he had several periods of success separated by over 40 years.

After recording prolifically in the 1950s with the VeeJay label, Hooker became dormant until the blues revival of the 1960s brought him back to prominence, seeing him touring Europe. Bob Dylan played his first concert as the opening act for Hooker in 1961 at a Greenwich Village folk club in New York City.

He recorded albums for Bluesway and the legendary Chess label before dropping out of sight in the 1970s and early 1980s.

In 1989, he was "rediscovered" and producer Roy Rogers recorded Hooker playing with such performers as Carlos Santana, Raitt, Robert Cray and George Thorogood.

Thorogood borrowed heavily from his guitar style and narrative-type vocals, adapting Hooker's "Rent Money Boogie" and turning it into one of his showstoppers -- "One Bourbon, One Scotch and One Beer."

Former Who guitarist Pete Townshend used Hooker singing and playing on several tracks of his "Iron Man" album and in 1990, Hooker recorded with Miles Davis the soundtrack album of a movie "The Hot Spot."

In 1992, "Boom Boom" was re-released and became an even bigger hit in Britain than it had been in the 1960s.

Born in a shack near Clarksdale, Mississippi, on August 22, 1917, his church minister father left home when he was young and a stepfather taught him to play the guitar.


Blues Guitarist John Lee Hooker Dies at 83


John Lee Hooker, the bluesman whose stark, one-chord boogies were some of the feistiest and most desolate songs of the 20th century, died yesterday in his sleep at his home in Los Altos, Calif., said his agent, Mike Kappus. He was 83.

Mr. Hooker's music stayed close to its Mississippi Delta roots. Usually playing an electric guitar with a menacing hint of distortion, he picked barbed, syncopated guitar riffs that went on to become cornerstones of rock. Electrified for tough urban crowds, they harked back to the rural South and to West Africa. "I don't play a lot of fancy guitar," he once told an interviewer. "The kind of guitar I want to play is mean, mean, mean licks."

And with his deep, implacable voice, he sang of lust and loneliness, rage and despair in songs so bleak that they sometimes made him cry behind his dark glasses.

"No matter what anybody says, it all comes down to the same thing," he once said. "A man and a woman, a broken heart and a broken home."

Mr. Hooker's songs stoked the blues-rock of the 1960's. They were picked up by English and American rockers, among them the Rolling Stones, Canned Heat, the Animals and, later, Z Z Top and George Thorogood and the Destroyers. Mr. Hooker estimated that he recorded more than 100 albums, and he toured everywhere from juke joints to concert halls.

Mr. Hooker was born Aug. 17, 1917, near Clarksdale, Miss. He was one of 11 children in a sharecropper family on a cotton plantation. His father was a minister, and he learned gospel songs in church. But he learned the blues and the beat he called the "country boogie" from his stepfather, William Moore. The bluesmen Blind Blake, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Charley Patton were among the visitors to the Moore household; Mr. Hooker also learned from other Mississippi musicians and from phonograph records. He started playing on strings made from strips of inner tube nailed to a barn, then moved on to the guitar.

As a teenager, he ran away to become a musician. "I was young and had a lot of nerve," he said in an interview with David S. Rotenstein. "I knew I would get nowhere down in Mississippi and I ran away by night. I thought for sure I was gonna make it."

Mr. Hooker made his way to Memphis, where he worked as an usher in the segregated W. C. Handy movie theater on Beale Street. He soaked up more blues playing with musicians like Robert Nighthawk before heading farther north. In Cincinnati at the end of the 1930's, he sang with gospel groups, including the Fairfield Four and the Big Six, and in 1943 he moved to Detroit. There, he worked in steel and automobile factories and played in the blues clubs.

Mr. Hooker made his first recordings in 1948 for Sensation Records, and he almost immediately had rhythm-and-blues hits, beginning with "Boogie Chillun," a guitar-driven tour of the Detroit ghetto. In the song, the narrator reminisces:

"One night I was layin' down/I heard Mama and Papa talkin'/I heard Papa tell Mama,/Let that boy boogie-woogie/It's in him and it got to come out!"

Soon he quit his job to play the blues full time. Evading exclusive recording contracts, Mr. Hooker's label leased his recordings under pseudonyms, including Delta John, John Lee Booker, Birmingham Sam and His Magic Guitar, The Boogie Man and Texas Slim. Although Mr. Hooker played clubs with a band, he often recorded solo, stomping his foot for a beat. He continued to make hits under his name, including "Crawling Kingsnake Blues," "Hobo Blues," "I'm in the Mood" (a million-selling single in 1951), "Dimples" and, in 1962, "Boom Boom." By then, he had moved to Chess Records, then to Vee-Jay Records, a Chicago label, and was recording with full bands.

Mr. Hooker was discovered by collegiate crowds during the blues revival, and switched in the early 1960's to the solo acoustic guitar format that pleased the folkies. But rock musicians soon latched on to his electric boogie, and during the 1970's he recorded with Canned Heat and Van Morrison. He moved to northern California, forming bands with local musicians. He appeared as a street musician in the movie "The Blues Brothers."

Mr. Hooker's career was revitalized in 1989 when he recorded "The Healer" (Chameleon Records) with guest musicians who included Carlos Santana, Los Lobos and Robert Cray. Its new version of "I'm in the Mood," a duet with Bonnie Raitt, received a Grammy Award.

Yesterday, Ms. Raitt said in a statement: "I'm deeply saddened by the loss of my dear friend and one of the last and greatest of the original Delta bluesmen. John Lee's power and influence in the world of Rock, R & B, Jazz and Blues are a legacy that will never die. Getting to know and work with him these last 30 years has truly been one of the great joys of my life. I'm so very grateful to have known him, and know that he went not in pain, truly loved and appreciated the world round."

"When I was a child he was the first circus I wanted to run away with," Mr. Santana, the guitarist, said of Mr. Hooker. "He, Jimmy Reed and Lightnin' Hopkins were the foundation for all of my music."

Mr. Hooker was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991, and received a tribute concert at Madison Square Garden with performances by Ms. Raitt, Gregg Allman, Bo Diddley and others. Although he announced he would retire from touring in the mid-1990's, he continued to record until 1997 with many other guest musicians for Pointblank/Virgin Records, and received two more Grammy awards in 1997 for his album "Don't Look Back" (Best Traditional Blues Album) and for a duet with Mr. Morrison (Best Pop Collaboration). A compilation from his 1989-1997 albums, "The Best of Friends," was released by Virgin in 1998.

In 1997, Mr. Hooker bought a San Francisco club to present the blues, calling it John Lee Hooker's Boom Boom Room.

Through five decades of recording and countless collaborators, Mr. Hooker maintained the Delta style. "I just got smarter and added things on to mine," he once said, "but I got the same bottom, the same beat that I've always had. I'd never change that, 'cause if I change that, I wouldn't be John Lee Hooker any more."

Mr. Hooker is survived by eight children: Francis McBee Hooker, Diane Hooker-Roan, Zakiya Hooker Bell, John Lee Hooker Jr., Robert Hooker, Shyvonne Hooker, Karen Hooker and Lavetta Williams. He is also survived by a nephew, Archie Hooker; 19 grandchildren; and numerous great-grandchildren.







All-Music Guide

He's beloved worldwide as the king of the endless boogie, a genuine blues superstar whose droning, hypnotic one-chord grooves are at once both ultra-primitive and timeless. But John Lee Hooker has recorded in a great many more styles than that over a career that stretches back more than half a century.

The Hook is a Mississippi native who became the top gent on the Detroit blues circuit in the years following World War II. The seeds for his eerily mournful guitar sound were planted by his stepfather, Will Moore, while Hooker was in his teens. Hooker had been singing spirituals before that, but the blues took hold and simply wouldn't let go. Overnight visitors left their mark on the youth, too — legends like Blind Lemon Jefferson, Charley Patton, and Blind Blake, who all knew Moore.

Hooker heard Memphis calling while he was still in his teens, but he couldn't gain much of a foothold there. So he relocated to Cincinnati for a seven-year stretch before making the big move to the Motor City in 1943. Jobs were plentiful, but Hooker drifted away from day gigs in favor of playing his unique free-form brand of blues. A burgeoning club scene along Hastings Street didn't hurt his chances any.

In 1948, the aspiring bluesman hooked up with entrepreneur Bernie Besman, who helped him hammer out his solo debut sides, "Sally Mae" and its seminal flip, "Boogie Chillen." This was blues as primitive as anything then on the market; Hooker's dark, ruminative vocals were backed only by his own ringing, heavily amplified guitar and insistently pounding foot. Their efforts were quickly rewarded. Los Angeles-based Modern Records issued the sides and "Boogie Chillen" — a colorful, unique travelogue of Detroit's blues scene — made an improbable jaunt to the very peak of the R&B charts.

Modern released several more major hits by the Boogie Man after that: "Hobo Blues" and its raw-as-an-open wound flip, "Hoogie Boogie"; "Crawling King Snake Blues" (all three 1949 smashes), and the unusual 1951 chart-topper "I'm in the Mood," where Hooker overdubbed his voice three times in a crude early attempt at multi-tracking.

But Hooker never, ever let something as meaningless as a contract stop him for making recordings for other labels. His early catalog is stretched across a roadmap of diskeries so complex that it's nearly impossible to fully comprehend (a vast array of recording aliases don't make things any easier).

Along with Modern, Hooker recorded for King (as the geographically challenged Texas Slim), Regent (as Delta John, a far more accurate handle), Savoy (as the wonderfully surreal Birmingham Sam and his Magic Guitar), Danceland (as the downright delicious Little Pork Chops), Staff (as Johnny Williams), Sensation (for whom he scored a national hit in 1950 with "Huckle Up, Baby"), Gotham, Regal, Swing Time, Federal, Gone (as John Lee Booker), Chess, Acorn (as the Boogie Man), Chance, DeLuxe (as Johnny Lee), JVB, Chart, and Specialty before finally settling down at Vee-Jay in 1955 under his own name. Hooker became the point man for the growing Detroit blues scene during this incredibly prolific period, recruiting guitarist Eddie Kirkland as his frequent duet partner while still recording for Modern.

Once tied in with Vee-Jay, the rough-and-tumble sound of Hooker's solo and duet waxings was adapted to a band format. Hooker had recorded with various combos along the way before, but never with sidemen as versatile and sympathetic as guitarist Eddie Taylor and harpist Jimmy Reed, who backed him at his initial Vee-Jay date that produced "Time Is Marching" and the superfluous sequel "Mambo Chillun."

Taylor stuck around for a 1956 session that elicited two genuine Hooker classics, "Baby Lee" and "Dimples," and he was still deftly anchoring the rhythm section (Hooker's sense of timing was his and his alone, demanding big-eared sidemen) when the Boogie Man finally made it back to the R&B charts in 1958 with "I Love You Honey."

Vee-Jay presented Hooker in quite an array of settings during the early '60s. His grinding, tough blues "No Shoes" proved a surprisingly sizable hit in 1960, while the storming "Boom Boom," his top seller for the firm in 1962 (it even cracked the pop airwaves), was an infectious R&B dance number benefiting from the reported presence of some of Motown's house musicians. But there were also acoustic outings aimed squarely at the blossoming folk-blues crowd, as well as some attempts at up-to-date R&B that featured highly intrusive female background vocals (allegedly by the Vandellas) and utterly unyielding structures that hemmed Hooker in unmercifully.

British blues bands such as the Animals and Yardbirds idolized Hooker during the early '60s; Eric Burdon's boys cut a credible 1964 cover of "Boom Boom" that outsold Hooker's original on the American pop charts. Hooker visited Europe in 1962 under the auspices of the first American Folk Blues Festival, leaving behind the popular waxings "Let's Make It" and "Shake It Baby" for foreign consumption.

Back home, Hooker cranked out gems for Vee-Jay through 1964 ("Big Legs, Tight Skirt," one of his last offerings on the logo, was also one of his best), before undergoing another extended round of label-hopping (except this time, he was waxing whole LPs instead of scattered 78s). Verve-Folkways, Impulse, Chess, and BluesWay all enticed him into recording for them in 1965-66 alone! His reputation among hip rock cognoscenti in the states and abroad was growing exponentially, especially after he teamed up with blues-rockers Canned Heat for the massively selling album Hooker 'n' Heat in 1970.

Eventually, though, the endless boogie formula grew incredibly stagnant. Much of Hooker's 1970s output found him laying back while plodding rock-rooted rhythm sections assumed much of the work load. A cameo in the 1980 movie The Blues Brothers was welcome, if far too short.

But Hooker wasn't through — not by a long shot. With the expert help of slide guitarist extraordinaire/producer Roy Rogers, the Hook waxed The Healer, an album that marked the first of his guest star-loaded albums (Carlos Santana, Bonnie Raitt, and Robert Cray were among the luminaries to cameo on the disc, which picked up a Grammy).

Major labels were just beginning to take notice of the growing demand for blues records, and Pointblank snapped Hooker up, releasing Mr. Lucky (this time teaming Hooker with everyone from Albert Collins and John Hammond to Van Morrison and Keith Richards). Once again, Hooker was resting on his laurels by allowing his guests to wrest much of the spotlight away from him on his own album, but by then, he'd earned it. Another Pointblank set, Boom Boom, soon followed.

Happily, Hooker is now enjoying the good life. He's in semi-retirement, splitting his relaxation time between several houses he's acquired up and down the California coast. Baseball also takes up much of his interest during the summer months; he's an inveterate Dodger fan. When the right offer comes along, though, he takes it, as that amusing TV commercial for Pepsi indicates.

The King of the Boogie is also one of the last living links to the pre-war blues tradition. He's a true original. — Bill Dahl








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