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John Lee Hooker

A True Legend Has Passed

Author: Scott Faller

[John Lee Hooker]
John Lee Hooker, last of the delta bluesman

When I started writing for TNT, I had in the back of my mind on doing a couple of different articles. I planned to do something like an Essential Blues and Essential Jazz article, where I pick out some of the best of each genre and give the newbie to Blues and Jazz some really good choices of music from different artists to help them get a good start in their appreciation of music.

Unfortunately, I find myself writing not as intended, but as an epitaph. A true legend has passed. John Lee Hooker passed away peacefully in his sleep at his home just south of San Francisco on June 21st, 2001 at the age of 83.

John Lee Hooker was born just outside of Clarksdale, Mississippi in Cohoma County, the heart of the Mississippi Delta. He came from a deeply religious family. His natural father was a preacher and share cropper who fathered eleven children. Religious beliefs aside, his mother and father would separate when he was a young boy.

John Lee's first exposure to music was in the church. He sang with the choir, quartets and at other church functions. As he matured, he discovered the what the older folks called "reels" or what we know today as the blues. The guitar was an essential part of this music but to his father, the guitar was an instrument of revelry. His natural father being strict, wouldn't allow a guitar in his house. He thought the blues was "the Devils music". Eventually, John Lee would leave his fathers house to live with his stepfather, Will Moore.

Will Moore, himself a bluesman, had worked with some of the best blues artists in the Clarksdale region like Blind Lemmon Jefferson, Charlie Patton and Blind Blake. Though John Lee never met or played with any of them he once stated in an interview "I only knew them through my stepdaddy". Most of John Lee's musical influence and style came from Will Moore. John Lee said "All I listened to mostly was my stepdaddy, 'cause I was into him just like he was God".

John Lee Hooker's sound is the true essence of the blues, passed down from generations before. It's been described as "hypnotic, one-cord drone blues". That just about says it all. Over the years he didn't change it much. Occasionally a producer or another artist would add a lot of background instruments to dress it up a bit, but you could still hear that Delta blues sound at the root of the song.

His sound is very different from the mainstream blues today or even that of the time. If you listen to the bluesmen from the forties and fifties, many of them started out playing the Delta style but many progressed to merge certain elements of swing, jazz and eventually rock and roll that would bring us to the modern blues style. John Lee stayed true to his musical heritage, the simple Delta blues. In fact John Lee was quoted in the London Times as saying "I know there ain't no one ever sound like me, except maybe my stepfather. You here all the kids trying to play like B.B. (King), and they ain't going to because, ooh, he's such a fine player and a very great man. But you never hear them even try and sound like John Lee Hooker."

Many of today's musicians attribute their style to John Lee. Take some of the older rock bands like Canned Heat. They actually recorded a double album with John Lee in 1970 called Hooker "N Heat. George Thoroughgood took some artistic liberties and combined Hookers' Rent House Boogie with Amos Millburn's One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer. Many more credit John Lee as a major influence like Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt, Van Morrison, The Rolling Stones and ZZ Top.

In John Lee's later years, he began to perform with some of his favorite musicians. After a ten year layoff from the studio, 1989 brought an album of duets, The Healer, where he finally won his first Grammy for I'm in the Mood performed with Bonnie Raitt. He then went on to receive Grammy nominations for 1991's Mr. Lucky, 1992's Boom Boom, and won Grammy's for 1995's Chill Out, the re-issue of the 1986 classic Jealous in 1996, and finally 1997's double Grammy winner Don't Look Back.

1999 brought John Lee's 50th year as a recording artist. To celebrate, he (and our friends at Virgin Records) released Best of Friends. It's a compilation of his best songs of the previous ten years. In that ten year span, he teamed up with some modern day greats like Bonnie Raitt, Carlos Santana, Ry Cooder, Van Morrison, Eric Clapton and others.

Each of the songs on those releases are really good but, it's different from who John Lee really is….a Delta bluesman. Each of the artists he recorded with added their trademark sounds to John Lee. The Santana cuts sound like Santana, Ry Cooder cuts sound like Ry Cooder and so on. Not that that's bad at all. There is some really good music made here. It's just that it's not the essence of John Lee Hooker. If you want to experience the real John Lee Hooker, pick one of the many Best Of releases that are out there. Make sure it has some songs from the forties, fifties and sixties. Here, you'll here what the blues and John Lee Hooker are really all about. Try the 1995 Virgin release Legendary Modern Recordings, that would be a good start.

As a sidebar to the Best of Friends release, there really are some really good cuts on there. A few of my favorites are The Healer and Chill Out with Carlos Santana, the updated version of Boom Boom with Jimmy Vaughn, and Don't Look Back with Van Morrison. Now, if you want to get a feel for the real John Lee Hooker, give a listen to the updated version of Tupelo. It's John Lee, an acoustic guitar and his stomping foot. Raw, the way the blues are to be played. Also check out B.B. King's, Blues Summit. Track 4 is B.B. and John Lee doing You Shook Me. This is as good as the Boogie gets, there ain't much better.

We all forget sometimes, a song is a story with music as an accompaniment. The story comes first. We sometimes let ourselves be fooled by a snappy riff, or a good beat. John Lee was a master story teller, one of the best. His gravelie voice inflected the feelings of a repressed society in the most difficult of times. His guitar just helped underscore his chronicles of those tales. His signature red Epiphone, Fender amp and ever present stomping foot were never the focus of the music, they just perpetuated his Boogie. He actually referred to it as "deep funk" but we all like to think of it as Boogie because he was THE Boogie King. We need to thank God for allowing him his long life and recording career that we all can enjoy. His music will live on forever.

Let me finish with a quote from B.B. King who may have said it best, "When they say true blues, pure blues, John Lee Hooker is as close to it as anyone I've ever heard."

© Copyright 2001 Scott Faller - http://www.tnt-audio.com

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