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Hooked on the Blues

[whitespace] John Lee Hooker
Herman Leonard

Always in the Mood: The long lineage of the blues lives on in John Lee Hooker.

John Lee Hooker's 'Best Friends' celebrate his place in musical history

By Gina Arnold

REDWOOD CITY is one of the last places you'd expect to come upon a 20th-century American musical legend. Legends don't tend to congregate in places where soccer moms cruise along cul de sacs in SUVs and children bike in and out of their driveways.

In the midst of this dull suburban idyll, almost any member of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame would look somewhat out of place, but perhaps none more so than John Lee Hooker. Seated on his sunny front porch with his arm around an old gold cocker spaniel named Ginger, Hooker looks exactly as if he had been swooped up from the Mississippi Delta and then set down in the bright bland sunlight of a California Indian summer.

This afternoon, Hooker is clad in a well-tailored black suit with bright red shirt, and when he smiles, which is frequently, one sees more gums than teeth. But although physically he certainly is an old, old man--much older than the houses here--in some ways Hooker seems eternally young.

Musically, for instance, he hasn't changed since the days when he wrote groundbreaking electric blues numbers like "Boom Boom" and "Boogie Chillun." Those songs are both ancient and contemporary, providing a blueprint for music that doesn't really have a set time frame or era. Blues musicians Jonny Lang and Ben Harper, for example, who appear on Hooker's new album, The Best of Friends (Virgin), play music that uses his chords and his feelings, and both musicians are a quarter Hooker's age.

The Best of Friends features collaborations between Hooker and many other contemporary artists who admire his music, including Van Morrison, Carlos Santana, Bonnie Raitt, Ry Cooder and Los Lobos, as well as Lang and Harper. The music consists of classic Hooker songs like the 1961 hit "Boom Boom"--redone here with the help of Jimmie Vaughan--"I'm in the Mood" (a duet with Bonnie Raitt) and 1956's "Dimples," backed up by Los Lobos, as well as the 50-year-old "Boogie Chillun," the song that rocketed Hooker to fame. This time out, it's done with famous side people like Jim Keltner on drums and Little Feat's Bill Payne on keyboards.

There are also newer songs, like "Tupelo" and "This Is Hell," but inevitably, all of the songs on the record feature the now classic 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 Hooker brought from Mississippi with him to Detroit, then across the Atlantic and back to California.

HOOKER WAS BORN in either 1917 or 1920--the history books aren't exactly sure--in Clarksville, 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.)

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 considered as the main link between the blues and rock & roll. When he was only 14 or 15, he lit out for the "city."

First he moved to Memphis, then to Cincinnati, staying with people and working day jobs, playing at house parties at night. He spent 10 years in Cincinnati, singing mostly with gospel groups, but eventually he wound up playing the blues in Detroit. Why not Chicago, where the blues scene was centered?

"I was pretty smart," Hooker says. "I was leery of Chicago because there was so many blues singers there, too much competition. I see that in Detroit there wasn't many blues singers, no competition. So I think, 'Why move to Chicago when every blues singer is there already?' They were all cutting each other's throats getting jobs; one night you'd get pretty good money, then next night someone come up under you and get your job. In Detroit, it wasn't like that. I was the only blues singer there, so I had Detroit wrapped round my finger!"

In 1943, in Detroit, Hooker was "discovered" by a 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.

Throughout the '50s, Hooker made records and toured mostly to black audiences, but by the late '50s, the blues were gaining popularity with white audiences, 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 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 covered his songs. The Rolling Stones publicly worshipped him. And Jimi Hendrix often cited Hooker as a big influence as well.

Did Hooker ever feel resentful that these groups might be stealing his stuff? "Yeah, I did," he says vaguely. "But I wanted them to do it. They got ahold 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 come close, though."

Hooker actually lived in London for a while, before returning to Detroit and later Oakland. He lived there for many years before relocating to the other side of the Bay in the early '80s. He actually owns quite a bit of property in the South Bay (in Los Altos and Redwood City), although one of his houses here recently burned down in broad daylight.

Hooker quit recording in the late '70s, concentrating mainly on personal appearances. But in the early '80s, thanks in part to the renewed economic vigor of records by Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughan, the blues began a resurgence. Hooker started touring and, in 1989, when he was 72, recording again as well.

Since then, he has released five albums of highly polished and produced material (The Healer, Mr. Lucky, Boom Boom, Chill Out and Don't Look Back), as well as The Best of Friends. Last year, he won the Grammy for Best Traditional Blues album and Best Pop Vocal duet, with Van Morrison. And on Oct. 30, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is sponsoring a tribute concert at Dinkelspiel Auditorium at Stanford to celebrate his 50th anniversary of recording. The show will feature Johnnie Johnson, John Hammond, Elvin Bishop, Charlie Musselwhite, Little Milton and Zakiya Hooker (John Lee's daughter) playing versions of Hooker's songs.

Next month, his hometown, Clarksdale, plans to name a street after him, so you can't say Hooker hasn't been appreciated for his gift to American culture. And perhaps that's why he's so at peace with the world. "I love people, that's what I really care for," he says. "Not money or success ... just the people. I'm proud of the people I've worked with. I'm proud of everything on my records."

John Lee Hooker performs Friday (Oct. 30) at 8pm at Dinkelspiel Auditorium, Stanford. Tickets are $30. (BASS or 650/725-ARTS)

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From the October 29-November 4, 1998 issue of Metro.

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