John Lee Hooker

“I don’t play a lot of fancy guitar,” John Lee Hooker once said. “I don’t want to play it. The kind of guitar I want to play is mean, mean licks.” 

“When I was a child,” said Carlos Santana, “he was the first circus I wanted to run away with.”

I was watching the Stones series I wrote about the other day. A video came on of a young blues guy who sounded great. I found the video and it was a young John Lee Hooker doing “Hobo Blues.”

A little history courtesy of Wikipedia: John Lee Hooker (August 22, 1912, or 1917– June 21, 2001) was an American blues singer, songwriter, and guitarist. The son of a sharecropper, he rose to prominence performing an electric guitar-style adaptation of Delta blues.

Hooker often incorporated other elements, including talking blues and early North Mississippi hill country blues. He developed his own driving-rhythm boogie style, distinct from the 1930s–1940s piano-derived boogie-woogie.

He was the youngest of the 11 children of William Hooker, a sharecropper, and Baptist preacher, and Minnie Ramsey  The Hooker children were homeschooled. They were permitted to listen only to religious songs; the spirituals sung in church were their earliest exposure to music.

In 1921, their parents separated. The next year, their mother married William Moore, a blues singer, who provided John Lee with an introduction to the guitar (and whom he would later credit for his distinctive playing style). At the age of 14, Hooker ran away from home, reportedly never seeing his mother or stepfather again.

In the mid-1930s, he lived in Memphis, Tennessee, where he performed on Beale Street, at the New Daisy Theatre, and occasionally at house parties. He worked in factories in various cities during World War II, eventually getting a job with the Ford Motor Company in Detroit in 1943. He frequented the blues clubs and bars on Hastings Street, the heart of the black entertainment district, on Detroit’s east side.

In a city noted for its pianists, guitar players were scarce. Hooker’s popularity grew quickly as he performed in Detroit clubs, and, seeking an instrument louder than his acoustic guitar, he bought his first electric guitar.”

Hooker had recorded a demo called “Boogie Chillen'” which became the biggest selling “race record” of 1949.

“His early solo songs were recorded by Bernie Besman. Hooker rarely played with a standard beat, but instead, he changed tempo to fit the needs of the song. This often made it difficult to use backing musicians, who were not accustomed to Hooker’s musical vagaries. As a result, Besman recorded Hooker playing guitar, singing, and stomping on a wooden pallet in time with the music.”

“Crawlin’ King Snake”

By the time he was fifty (ish) in 1962, Hooker toured Europe, and his song “Dimples” became a hit. (I know this tune from Duane Allmans’ lame attempt to sing it.) The good news is that this was the time period when the British blues guys were active, Black people started losing interest in blues and white audiences were picking up on it like crazy.

In 1971, American blues band Canned Heat released an album called Hooker ‘n Heat. (It was common in those days for young, white acolytes to record with the Black bluesmen. The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions were recorded that same year with some of the Stones, Eric Clapton, and Steve Winwood.) This was the first Hooker album to chart.

Here’s Canned Heat and Hooker doing “Let’s Make It.” How-how-how-how.

Here’s an ass-kicking version of “Boom Boom.”

Hooker collaborated with so many people it’s damn near impossible to feature a song from each collaboration. Here’s a great live cut with Carlos Santana, Paul Butterfield and Elvin Bishop. (Whoever captioned it fucked up big time. No mention of Butterfield and Bishop and there is no woman on that stage.)

I happened to stumble on the fact that Hooker’s classic collaboration, The Healer, with Bonnie Raitt, Carlos Santana, George Thorogood, Los Lobos, Canned Heat, Charlie Musselwhite, and Robert Cray (!) is due for re-release on October 28th. You’ll find a cut from that on the Spotify list. (With Bonnie Raitt.)

Like B.B. King, Hooker wasn’t just some name you throw around. He was the real deal. How-how-how-how. You-you-you-you.

One more for ya. Hooker and Van doin’ “Baby Please Don’t Go.”

John Lee Hooker was ranked 35 in Rolling Stone’s 2015 list of 100 greatest guitarists. He died in his sleep on June 21, 2001, at home in Los Altos, California.

29 thoughts on “John Lee Hooker

  1. “Mean, mean licks” – I like that a lot. The ’92 re-release of Boom Boom was one of first CD singles I bought with my own dosh from a paper round (having lied about my age). I must’ve played the arse off the thing. Great selection here as usual, sir.

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    1. I must be a little older than you, Tony. I bought his 1989 album The Healer on cassette with my money from working at McDonalds. The video from his duet with Bonnie Raitt was my introduction to Hooker, and he’s now one of my heroes

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        1. Yeah, we saw B B. a bunch of times. I guess my big coup in guys from that generation – aside from Buddy Guy – was Muddy Waters. This was in a small club in Boston in 1980, about three years before he died. Worth every penny of the (probably) 10 bucks I spent to get in. We were hoping Johnny Winter might show up but alas.

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    2. I am way, way the fuck overdue for a Hooker post. Seeing that clip on the Stones bio led me to say, Who IS that guy? I’d only ever seen him when he was older. Great stuff. That Santana/Butterfield summit is hot.

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      1. It’s certainly on a quiet swing at the moment. The fact that she considered the orange goon a complete fucking idiot (an official quote, I believe) only stands in her favour

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        1. Rumor (and video has it) that when Charles was scratching his nose he was actually giving Trump the finger. However, your version of it is two fingers as I recall so maybe not.

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        2. No we’re plenty keen on flipping the bird here especially to a puffed up clown like that – I also understand that there was a wave of disgust and reproaches made that May had invited him for a state dinner. I think in her desperation to secure some form of trade deal she’d have bowed down and lubed up for him if it helped

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        3. Over here we thought that was Boris Johnson’s job. What does he do now? Become a back bencher? Open a fish ‘n chip shop?

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        4. I have to wonder if his ego would allow him to sit on the back benches but I wouldn’t be surprised if he thinks he can pull off a Berlusconi and return. Personally I’d like to see him suffocate in a pool of his own excrement

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        5. That sounds like a fitting demise for Orange Pustule as well after we tar and feather him. Then we hang them Mussolini-like. They can then bury them side by side at one of Trump’s golf courses. (He buried his ex-wife at one you know.) For good measure we dig up Maggie Thatcher and toss her in a pit.

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        6. Did I hear correctly that in doing so he managed to get said golf club out of paying a trio of taxes as it’s now a cemetery… I mean, aside from a hell of a shit final resting place, what a cock

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        7. I had not heard that but it’s likely true. If he thought he could make 5 bucks by selling his mother’s dead bones to Putin he’d grab a shovel. We are pretty convinced over here that he has already sold nuclear secrets to another country and that the Department of Justice knows this. Can’t prove it but this is a completely amoral man with no love of country only what’s best for him. And he needs money as he has major debt and the Republican National Committee will no longer pay his legal fees. They have paid $2million since last October.

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      1. It’s good and greasy. Hooker and Hopkins are my two most go to blues guys along with Muddy and Wolf. ‘Healer’ is still like a new album to me because he was around so long. Many resurgences in his career.

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      1. Played or plays with Greg Brown who did one of my fave records ‘Slant 6 Mind’. He also plays with Lucinda Williams. Obviously Hooker influences on that tune.
        I probably told you this story about John Lee. Seen him in concert and he scared the shit out of the women sitting next to me. “What a horrible man”. All he did was play some great boogie and drink wine.

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  2. Great stuff, Jim! Buddy Guy has cited John Lee Hooker and “Boogie Chillen” as key reasons he decided to become a blues guitarist. Also, apparently, Hooker stuttered pretty heavily when he was talking but not when he was singing the blues.

    Again there is a Buddy Guy anecdote when he met John Lee Hooker for the first time at some blues festival – I believe it was in Germany. Supposedly, Hooker overheard him playing “Boogie Chillen” and asked him what he was doing, stuttering. Guy who had head Hooker would be at the same festival answered he was hoping to meet John Lee Hooker. When Hooker told Guy he was talking to him, Guy did not believe him. Big Mama Thornton witnessed the scene and confirmed to Guy that the other person he was talking to was in fact John Lee Hooker!

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  3. What did you think of Charles’ speech? I thought it was pretty good – short, inclusive, heartfelt. Dropping my usual snark in the event you’ve been crying buckets these past few days

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