"First comes the class in the small, crinkled, slightly seedy person of John Lee Hooker, a.k.a. The Hook, Doctor Feelgood, and, by way of formal onstage introduction, 'The Godfather of the Blues'. . . . The first great recorded practitioner of the electric blues-rock-funk and stream-of-consciousness boogie, he introduced a style to which every white blues band since 1962 must trace at least half its roots." John Lee Hooker was 72 when his 1979 appearence at New York's Lone Star Cafe brought on that tribute from Patrick Carr in the Village Voice. Hooker's influence on blues, blues-folk and blues-rock musicians remains vital ten years later.
Born in Clarksdale, Mississippi, he learned his "Delta licks" style of guitar playing from his stepfather, William Moore, and his colleagues James Smith and Coot Harris. He ascribed his style—with, in writer Fred Stuckey's words, "tonal 'bendings' of the third, fifth and seventh degrees of the scale and abrasive two-finger picking"—to them in an interview with Stuckey in Guitar Player, stating that "Down in Clarksdale, my stepfather taught me all I know about playing the guitar. . . . After this uprising of fancy music, I never did drop what I learned back then. I'm doin'what the blues singers was doin' back then, and it sounded good. It still sounds good, and I'm always goin' to keep it just the way it is."
Hooker travelled to Memphis, Cincinnati and Detroit where, in the mid-1940s, he made a demo for distributor Bernie Besman. Hooker recorded his first single, "Boogie Chillen" and "Sally Mae," for the Sensation label. As distributed by Modern Records, it became a hit on the blues charts of 1949. He followed this record with "In the Mood for Love" and "Crawling King Snake" for Modern. From 1955 to 1964, he recorded for Vee Jay, making singles and albums for that Chicago-based firm, such as Travelin' (1961) and Big Soul: Best of John Lee Hooker (1963). He also recorded under a confounding variety of pseudonyms—among them, Delta John, Johnny Lee, and Birmingham Sam and his Magic Guitar—for a large number of companies. Many of these one-time contracted recordings have been collected and re-mastered in recent years.
During the revived interest in traditional guitar music and performance styles prompted by the popularity of folk music in the 1960s, Hooker was "rediscovered" for the first of many times. He performed at the Newport Folk Festival in 1960 and appeared at coffee houses and college campuses. Hooker was also being rediscovered in Great Britain, where he was an important influence on groups that equated blues with rock and roll, such as the Rolling Stones and the Animals, who recorded his "Boom Boom." Hooker performances became as famous for the rock superstars who appeared in the audience as for his own music. In an engagement at Ungano's in 1969, for example, the Village Voice reported that "three nights after opening, Eric Clapton, Delaney and Bonnie, Ginger Baker and Chris Wood came down to jam with the Doctor and returned the next night for more. And on Saturday, Richie Havens with his whole band in tow showed up to sing and jam."
In the 1970s, as musical forms fused, he concertized with performers from the rock group Canned Heat (with whom he recorded Hooker 'n' Heat) to folk vocalist Bonnie Raitt. He was frequently honored as one of the creators of his genre in joint and group concerts by the long-time greats of blues music. In the Blues Variations concert at Lincoln Center in 1973 he was paired with Muddy Waters and Mose Allison, while in A Night of the Blues at the Brooklyn Academy of Music two years later, he shared the program with Albert King and folk harmonicist Peg Leg Sam.
Hooker plays flexible blues of 10-13 bar phrases punctuated with foot tapping and an electric guitar sound that has been described as "percussive. . . just shy of dissonance and distortion." Each song is a monologue that retells a story of emotional pain that requires a unique verbal pattern. Reviews of Hooker performances, generally by music historian/journalists who are long-term admirers, provide vivid pictures of his unique song structures and performance style. Carmen Moore wrote in 1970 in the Village Voice that "in his entire set, John Lee sang only one rhymed song. As usual, he paid little heed to the famed three blues chords: all, it seemed, were present at once. What his guitar did was talk, in snaky lines, in sitar quivers, in sudden shocks, in hilly phrases. . . . Gifted with one of the richest voices in contemporary music, this serious of serene of bassos sat down, the mike at his lips, and shared a few instances from his personal black life." Ian Dove, reviewing the Blues Variations concert, also noted the personal delivery style: "He is a complete, closed-in performer, who accents the rhythmic drive of his performances by chopping off phrases and choking off the ends of his rhythmic lines. He keeps things simple, rarely straying from a couple of chords, and delivers his autobiographical blues with growing menace and much vibrato." Almost a decade later, Patrick Carr wrote that Hooker "continues to perform and record with the same slow mastery of blue-life imagery, the same spare, quirky, throttled-violence guitar technique, and the same beautifully resonant leather-and-raw-silk vocal genius that were his from the start."
The optimal way to hear Hooker is in live performance, but there are scores of albums featuring his work. He has made over forty albums under various names. Chess Records has recently begun to re-issue tapes and studio cuts in series of albums simply called The Blues, Volumes 1-3. Amiga Records also distributes a Hooker anthology, Blues, Collection 2.
"Godfather of the blues" or simply one of its greatest practitioners, Hooker has maintained one of the great native art forms of the United States. He described its universal importance and appeal to Guitar Player: "Everybody understands the blues now—the young, all races, all over the world. Back then people pretended they didn't know, but now they know. The young people have really brought it out. . . . It's a tremendous thing because it's true. It's the truest music that ever been written. . . . Everything comes right from the blues—spirituals, jazz, rock. The blues is the root of all this."
Born August 22, 1917, in Clarksdale, Miss. ; son of a Baptist minister, stepson of William Moore (a guitarist).
Learned to play guitar from his stepfather, played in Mississippi, then in Memphis, Tenn., Cincinnati, Ohio, and Detroit, Mich.; began recording in the mid-1940s; has performed and recorded under a variety of pseudonyms.
"Boogie Chillun" (single), Sensation/Modern, 1948.
Travelin', Vee Jay, 1961.
Big Soul: Best of John Lee Hooker, Vee Jay, 1963.
Hooker 'n' Heat, (with Canned Heat), Liberty, 1971.
Boogie Chillun (includes a new version of the title song), Fantasy, 1972.
The Cream, Tomato, 1979.
Blues, Collection 2, Amiga, 1986.
Jealous, Pausa, 1986.
Source: Barbara Stratyner
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