At the time of his death in 2001, John Lee Hooker was enjoying a measure of commercial success and public accolade that had rarely been extended to his generation of blues musicians in America. Rightly hailed as a national treasure and perhaps the last of the true Delta bluesmen, “the Hook” enjoyed a late-career popularity that was rare for a performer with 50 years in the music industry.
However, as Mr. Hooker may have been quick to remind you, “I had a good life, and I had a rough life. I’ve had both.”
According to most accounts, John Lee Hooker was born August 22, 1917 in Coahoma County, near the blues mecca of Clarksdale, MS. One of eleven siblings, Hooker was first exposed to gospel music from his father, William, a sharecropper and Baptist minister. After his mother remarried, John Lee began studying under his stepfather William Moore, a popular blues musician in the area. Moore taught Hooker the rudimentary elements of the blues, which he called the “country boogie,” and greatly influenced the young musician’s minimalistic and rhythmic style of guitar playing. The two began performing together at house parties, fish fries, and dances and the young John Lee was always taking notes: “Nobody can teach you, but I watched him night and day and I played like him.”
Wary of the hardships of picking cotton, John Lee Hooker ran off to Memphis at the age of fourteen and quickly made his way to Beale Street, the so-called “Black Main Street” of the South. He found a job as an usher at The New Daisy Theater, where he earned between two or three dollars a week. In the evenings, Hooker would perform on Beale Street alongside other future legends like Robert Lockwood, Jr. and Robert Nighthawk. Although his time living and playing in Memphis was poorly documented, everyone agrees that his sojourn to the Bluff City was a seminal moment in his professional and personal development.
After a pilgrimage throughout the South, Hooker landed in Cincinnati in the late 1930s and began performing with gospel groups like The Big Six and the Big Delta Four, before making his way to Detroit. When asked why he didn’t migrate to Chicago or back to Memphis, as most Delta musicians were doing, Hooker replied “Too much competition there…I wanted to go to Detroit where there wasn’t no competition between blues singers.” Now a legal adult, Hooker was finally able to access the blues and dance clubs that had previously been unavailable to him. He bolstered his income by working the day shift as a janitor in a Chrysler plant.
In the late 1940s, Hooker became a staple of the Detroit blues scene and began to consider himself a professional musician. T-Bone Walker, the pioneering electric blues guitarist, became a friend and mentor to Hooker and gifted him his first electric guitar. “He was my idol… He loved to take me everywhere he went. He called me ‘The Kid,’” Hooker said in 1997. He soon grew to love the sound of the electric guitar, especially the way it cut through noisy crowds: “I loved electricity. You barely have to touch the guitar, and the sound comes out so silky. I felt drawn into it.”
In 1948, Hooker met Elmer Barber, a local African-American record store owner who had heard Hooker at a house party. Recognizing his unique talent, Barber introduced Hooker to Bernie Bessman, owner of the small label, Sensation Records. With Bessman’s help, John Lee Hooker recorded an up-tempo stomp called “Boogie Chillen,” a barebones recording that featured little more than Hooker’s vocals, his electric guitar, and his soon-to-be-legendary foot stomps. The song was an immediate smash hit and quickly rushed to the top of the R&B charts, selling over a million copies. The following year, Hooker released ten other top-ten hits, each one in his simplistic down-home style.
Like many musicians of his era, Hooker was in a constant battle with his record company to recoup his royalties and was struggling to make ends meet. To earn money, he began recording for various rival labels under a plethora of pseudonyms. He was known as Texas Slim for the King label, Johnny Lee for Deluxe, and John Lee Booker for Chess. During this period, he continued to release some of his biggest hits including “Rock House Boogie,” “Crawling King Snake,” and the million-selling “In the Mood.” They were influential in the development of modern blues and also made him a huge draw on the national R&B circuit, where he played with Muddy Waters and his own live band.
The mid-1950s ushered in a bit of a creative shift for Hooker, who began to incorporate other musicians into his recordings. This expanded sound echoed the feel of his live shows and can be heard in his iconic hit “Boom Boom,” which was first released during this time. In 1959, he released his debut record album, I’m John Lee Hooker, and ushered in yet another new stage of his career. Now that his music was accessible to people across the world, Hooker gained a legion of new fans, many of them living overseas. His influence notably extended to the burgeoning British rock scene, which included the likes of the Rolling Stones, David Bowie, and Eric Clapton. In the following years, many of these British Invasion bands would cover his songs, often with great success. In Hooker’s mind, this only helped to boost his popularity. “The English bands were the ones who made the blues big,” Hooker said, “The success of the English bands helped introduce American blues to white audiences in the United States.”
Willing to adapt to the changing times, Hooker returned to his signature country blues during the folk revival of the 1960s. He toured relentlessly and became a staple of the coffeehouse and college campus circuit. “It wasn’t any problem to start playing the coffeehouses. I can switch to any style, you have to be versatile as a musician,” he told the New York Times. By the late 1960s, Hooker had returned to the electric guitar and began frequently collaborating with younger musicians. Hooker worked on an album with John Mayall and the Groundhogs, 1971’s Hooker ‘n’ Heat with the rock band Canned Heat, and with Charlie Musselwhite and Van Morrison on 1972’s Never Get Out of These Blues Alive. While public interest in the blues had waned by the 1980s, Hooker continued to perform throughout the next two decades. He made a brief appearance in the blockbuster film The Blues Brothers, but spent much of the 1980s out of the limelight. That all changed with the release of 1989’s The Healer, his first album in a decade. It featured appearances from Bonnie Raitt, Los Lobos, and Carlos Santana, becoming one of the best-selling blues albums of all time. Hooker earned a Grammy Award for the song “I’m in the Mood,” a duet with Bonnie Raitt from the album.
With his re-emerging success, John Lee Hooker rode into the 1990s with a sense of renewed purpose and possibility. The decade proved to be a period of great productivity for Hooker, as well as a time for the nation to recognize and celebrate one of America’s greatest living legends. Although he was well into his 70s, Hooker acted as a spokesman for brands like Pepsi and Lee Jeans and continued to release well-received albums well into the late ‘90s.
By the time of his death in 2001, John Lee Hooker had recorded over 500 songs and had amassed more official recognition in his last few years than most artists do in a lifetime. After a career spanning five decades, Hooker had achieved something truly amazing—maintaining a singular sound that was unmistakable his own. “I just got smarter and added things on to mine, 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 anymore.”