Blesok no. 21, June-July, 2001
“The Healer” went into the Light
John Lee Hooker (1917-2001)
“… There are no superlatives to describe the deep impact and influence that John Lee Hooker left in our hearts. All of us, who at least once were touched by the rhythm of his music, we feel so great gratitude, respect, admiration and love towards him and his spirit. When I was a child, he was the first who made me to pull my fingers through the strings. Hooker, Jimmy Reed and Lightnin' Hopkins were the fundaments for all of my music. The work on his albums “The Healer” and “Chill Out”, as well as our joint performance on several Blues Festivals are the most precious thing I carry inside me!” – claims Carlos Santana, immediately after the news on the death of the 83 years old Hooker, one of the greatest legends of the blues and the contemporary music in general.
The story of the great John Lee Hooker – the mortal who didn’t make to see the sunrise of the June 22, this God given year of 2001, the mortal who – dreaming in his home in Los Altos, California – USA, turned into the ray of light living behind himself a fruitful and by many things amazingly exciting life. Born on August 17, 1917 at one of the cotton farms near Clarksdale, Mississippi as one of the 11 children in the family of the local priest, sang Gospel in the church were his father preached, and the blues and his own “country boogie” he “encountered” in the home of his stepfather William Moore, where the local blues-”beasts” were gathering to listen to the popular blues records at the time. He started to play on a kind of home-made string instrument, and soon on the guitar. He lives home on age of 14 and starts to realize his wish to be a professional musician through the clubs by the river of Mississippi. “I was young and sure of myself. That’s why I left at night, not to be seen. I was convinced that I will succeed!” – says Hooker in one of his interviews much later, recalling his beginnings. In Memphis he wanders through the local cinemas and performs with the blues-musicians like Robert Nighthawk. At the end of 1930, in Cincinnati he becomes a member of a Gospel band, and four years later he moves in Detroit were he was common worker in a steel and car factories through the day, and a club musician through the night.
He recorded his first record in 1948, and when the song “Boogie Chillen” will become a hit, he decides to leave his “day-work” and completely to dedicate to his career as a musician. Accordingly to that, during the 50’s, as an author and performer, John Lee Hooker is amazingly fruitful, although because of his exclusive and obligatory contract with his recording company, much of his songs are signed by a pseudonyms: Delta John, John Lee Booker, Boogyman, Texas Slim, Birmingham Slim and his magic guitar… In spite of a fact that he has accompanying band for his performances, he often records solo – tapping only with his feet for rhythm. We will mention only few of his classics from that period (signed by his name): “Crawling Kingsnake Blues”, “Hobo Blues”, “I’m in the Mood” (the single that in 1951 was sold in a million copies), “Dimples”, “Boom Boom”… Successively, he is Chess Records’ exclusive, after that is Vee-Jay Records’ from Chicago and he publishes all of his songs with the accompanying band.
At the start of the 60’s John Lee Hooker goes back to the acoustics, but only for a while, and soon, with the blues-revival on the both sides of the Atlantic and the accented interest of the young rockers for this musical form will make him to increase his “rolling of electric boogie”. In the 70’s, in few occasions he is in the studios and at the concert podiums with Canned Heat and Van Morrison, then he moves to California and he makes his own band there with the local blues musicians. Later, with the Coast To Coast Blues Band cruises through America and Europe, consistently and permanently “dwelling” at the studios, but only some of it has that outstanding quality like earlier, and in spite of his large new production, he capitalizes his name mainly on the re-editions of his old albums, greatly forced by his producers he signed with.
In the first half of the 80’s he plays the role of a street musician in the cult film “The Blues Brothers” by John Badham, and in 1989 happened the excellent “The Healer” (with the guest musicians as Carlos Santana, Robert Cray, Los Lobos…) and then also happened the complete revival of his career, too. For the “remake” of his classic “I’m in the Mood”, in which he sings in duet with Bonnie Wright, he will get the prestigious Grammy. In 1991, with the large number of his friends and admirers of his boogie, he makes the excellent “Mr. Lucky”, and after that he is introduced and “made” into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. At the “tribute” concert he does in “Madison Square Garden” he will perform accompanied by all of the above-mentioned, but also by the legendary Bo Diddley, Ray Cooder, Keith Richards, John Hammond, Johnny Winter, George Thorogood, Charlie Musselwhite, Greg Alman…
In 1995 Hooker will sin the album “Chill Out”, and two years later the “Don't Look Back” (Grammy – in the category “Best traditional blues album”), but because of his age he admits to the world and to himself that he has no more strength for the exhausting tours and he retires in his “dwelling” in San Francisco (“John Lee Hooker Boom Boom Room”) and in the comfortable and cozy atmosphere of that club he continues to preach the blues – the way only he can…
John Lee Hooker, in more of the five decades of recording his grieves, pain and the great happiness of having the gift with his suggestive “mumbling” (“everything always come to a few things: a man, a woman, broken hearts and broken home!”) and with the simple pulling of the guitar strings, to reach the very depths of one’s soul, in that five decades, he raised and honored the “Delta style” in the blues music. In one occasion he will admit: “I was smart and let the things to impact me. But, I always had the same rhythm, the same beat I always had. I never changed anything much, because if I did change that, I wouldn’t be John Lee Hooker anymore, but someone completely different – somebody else.”
Because of his specific style of playing the electric guitar, the intentional play with the distortion and syncope riffs close to rock music, Hooker not only fingered on the real roots of the blues – South and West Africa (on this issue, in the midst 90’s, recording there joint album, will “magistrate” two other extraordinary guitarists and musicians: Ray Cooder and Ali Farka Toure), but also he showed the path to many of the future rock’n’roll stars: The Rolling Stones, The Animals, Canned Heat, ZZ Top, George Thorogood and The Destroyers…
And finally, John Lee Hooker left 8 children behind (some of them has quite solid career as blues musicians, as his daughter Zakya Hooker Bell), 19 grandchildren, a large number of grand-grandchildren… Finally, his catalogue of editions exceeds the “hundred” with the tendency (now especially) with the re-editions and “recovering the unpublished recordings” to stretch his work endlessly.
Anyway, forget for a moment on everything in this tensed days and reach for the simplicity of the irresistible boogie of the Magician and the Healer John Lee Hooker. Let the shine of the light-rays start the fight with the pain you carry deep inside…
And believe me, it helps!
Translated by: Petar Volnaroski