John Lee Hooker - Delta Blues to Blues Legend
John Lee Hooker's music was at once elemental and complex.
He could hold your attention fast with a boogie rhythm repeated over a
single chord. His guitar work was hypnotic to hear and mesmerizing to
see. Watching his fingers work, one could see his thumb pound out the
bass notes while his rubbery index finger tickled out the higher notes.
He played Africa with his guitar and sang America with his voice.
At age 14, John Lee headed north to escape the crush of the Great Depression and the omnipresence of the religious, who had decreed that blues music was the devil's music. He stopped off in Memphis where he worked at an African-American movie house as an usher. Then, he moved up to Cincinnati, Ohio, where he worked for a cesspool company while staying with relatives. All the while, he continued playing with blues musicians and singing from time to time with gospel groups.
In 1940, the war in Europe was beginning to alleviate the
harsh conditions of the American economy. In particular, Detroit, Michigan,
began to boom as the United States entered the war, producing tanks and
other military vehicles on the automobile lines. With such prosperity,
the black community was able to work the factories, earn money, and spend
it in bars and house-rent parties. John Lee Hooker was able to play the
blues music that he had learned from his stepfather and build a substantial
following among the workers who originated in the rural South.
He enjoyed a good deal of success with songs like "Crawlin'
King Snake" and "I'm in the Mood" climbing high on Billboard's
charts. From the late 1940s until the mid-1950s, solo blues singer/guitarists
had a steady audience, but once the popularity waned, John Lee Hooker
began playing with full bands and eased into the world of modern blues
musicians, like Elmore James and T-Bone Walker. He hooked up with Chicago's
Vee-Jay records, for which he eventually recorded his most recognized
song, 1962's "Boom Boom". The Animals recorded their own version
of the song, and introduced John Lee Hooker to England, where young musicians
seemed to be starving for older, American blues musicians to emulate.
Mr. Hooker, along with Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, T-Bone Walker, Elmore
James, BB King, Little Richard and Chuck Berry, became a major influence
on English rockers like Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Keith Richards and Mick
Jagger, and Van Morrison.
The 1980s provided another blues revival in which the styles and influences of the older generation were infused with rock overtones. Blues Musicians like Taj Mahal and Buddy Guy, who first broke out during the 1960s revival, now enjoyed the '80s revival. But by this time, John Lee Hooker was one of only a handful of the blues men, whose careers were rejuvenated in the '60s, who was still alive to enjoy another revival. In 1989, John Lee hooked up with several of the musicians he had influenced, like Carlos Santana and Bonnie Raitt, to record the album "The Healer", for which he received a Grammy. Throughout the 1990s, Mr. Hooker has made appearances in other performers' concerts and albums. For instance, he made an appearance with Eric Clapton at the end of the Rolling Stone's "Steel Wheels" tour. He also played a duet with BB King on King's 1993 album "Blues Summit". In 1991, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Over the past seventy years, John Lee Hooker was immersed
in the tradition, mysticism, inventiveness, and communication of blues
music. He was one of the great ones who should be remembered as an architect
of the blues, folk, country, rock, and even jazz music that has been strummed,
shouted, and blared for the past fifty years. He was one of the great
ones who should be thanked and praised for inspiring all of us to boogie-woogie.