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John Lee Hooker 500June 21, 2001 – John Lee Hooker was born on August 22, 1912, in Tutwiler or Clarksdale, Mississippi. The Hooker children were home-schooled. Since they were only permitted to listen to religious songs, the spirituals sung in church were their earliest exposure to music. In 1921, his parents separated. The next year, his mother married William Moore, a blues singer who provided Hooker with his first introduction to the guitar (and whom he would later credit for his distinctive playing style).

Moore was his first significant blues influence. He was a local blues guitarist, who learned in Shreveport, Louisiana, to play a droning, one-chord blues that was strikingly different from the Delta blues of the time. Another formative influence was Tony Hollins, who dated Hooker’s sister Alice, helped teach Hooker to play, and gave him his first guitar. For the rest of his life, Hooker regarded Hollins as a formative influence on his style of playing and his career as a musician. Among the songs that Hollins reputedly taught Hooker were versions of “Crawlin’ King Snake” and “Catfish Blues”.

At the age of 14, John Lee Hooker ran away from home, reportedly never seeing his mother or stepfather again. In the mid 1930s, he lived in Memphis, Tennessee, where he worked on Beale Street at the New Daisy Theatre and occasionally performed at house parties. He worked in factories in various cities during World War II, eventually landing a job in 1943 at the Ford Motor Company in Detroit. 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. By day, he was a janitor in the auto factories, but by night, like many other transplants from the rural Delta, he entertained friends and neighbors by playing at house parties. “The Hook” gained fans around town from these shows, including local record store owner Elmer Barbee. Barbee was so impressed by the young musician that he introduced him to Bernard Besman ̶ a producer, record distributor and owner of Sensation Records. Hooker’s popularity grew quickly and, seeking a louder instrument than his acoustic guitar, he bought his first electric guitar.

By 1948, Hooker ̶ now honing his style on an electric guitar ̶ had recorded several songs for Besman, who, in turn, leased the tracks to Modern Records. Among these first recordings was “Boogie Chillun,” (soon after appearing as “Boogie Chillen”) which became a number one jukebox hit, selling over a million copies. This success was soon followed by a string of hits, including “I’m in the Mood,” “Crawling Kingsnake” and “Hobo Blues.” Over the next 15 years, John Lee signed to a new label, Vee-Jay Records, and maintained a prolific recording schedule, releasing over 100 songs on the imprint.

Despite being illiterate, Hooker was a prolific lyricist. In addition to adapting traditional blues lyrics, he also wrote originals. In the 1950s, many black musicians saw little money from their record sales. So Hooker often recorded variations on his songs for new studios for an upfront fee. To get around his recording contract, he used various pseudonyms, such as John Lee Booker, for Chess Records and Chance Records in 1951–1952; Johnny Lee for De Luxe Records in 1953–54; John Lee, John Lee Cooker, Texas Slim, Delta John, Birmingham Sam and his Magic Guitar, Johnny Williams, and the Boogie Man.

When the young bohemian audiences of the 1960’s “discovered” Hooker along with other blues originators, he and various he and others made a brief return to folk blues. Young British artist such as the Animals, John Mayall, and the Yardbirds introduced Hooker’s sound to the new and eager audiences whose admiration and influence helped build Hooker to superstar status in the mid – 60’s England. By 1970 he had moved to California and worked on several projects with rock musicians, notably Van Morrison and Canned Heat. Canned Heat modeled their sound after Hooker’s boogie and collaborated with him on several albums and tours.

By 1970, John Lee had moved to California and begun working with rock musicians, notably Van Morrison and Canned Heat, with whom he collaborated on several albums and tours. Hooker continued to tour the U.S. and Europe throughout the ’70s and ’80s, but grew disenchanted with recording. it was however the release in 1989 of his album, The Healer, that catapulted him back to million-seller status and began what has been the most successful period of his extensive career.

He followed The Healer with Mr. Lucky, Boom Boom, Chill Out, Don’t Look Back and Best of Friends. On September 11, 1997 he received a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame and on October 3rd, 1997 John Lee Hooker’s Boom Boom Room opened in San Francisco. (He never owned it, but licensed his name for 5 years). Don’t Look Back, produced by Van Morrison and featuring a track by long time admirers, Los Lobos, was released in Spring of ’97.

He received two Grammy Awards for this album in 1998. In late October of ’98, John Lee released his latest album, Best Of Friends, which features the best of his collaborations with legendary musicians and friends over the last 10 years and includes a 50th anniversary version of his first hit, “Boogie Chillun.” through his appearance in the Blues Brothers movie resulted in a heightened profile.

He contributed to recordings by B.B. King, Branford Marsalis, Van Morrison, and Big Head Todd and the Monsters and portrayed the title role in Pete Townshend’s 1989 epic, The Iron Man.

His influence on younger generations has been documented on television with features on Showtime and a special edition of the BBC’s ‘Late Show’ as well as appearances on “The Tonight Show” and “Late Night With David Letterman” among many others. John Lee was invited to perform The Rolling Stones and guest Eric Clapton for their national television broadcast during The Stones’ 1989 Steel Wheels tour. In 1990, many musical greats paid tribute to John Lee Hooker with a performance at Madison Square Garden. Joining him on some or all of these special occasions were artists such as Bonnie Raitt, Ry Cooder, Joe Cocker, Huey Newton, Carlos Santana, Robert Clay, Mick Fleetwood, Al Cooper, Johnny Winter, John Hammond, and the late Albert Collins and Willie Dixon.

Hooker’s 1991 induction into the Rock n’ Roll Hall Of Fame was fitting for the man who has influenced countless fans and musicians who have in turn influenced many more. Honors continue, with recent inductions into Los Angeles’ Rock Walk, The Bammies Walk Of Fame in San Francisco, and, in 1997, a star in the Hollywood Walk Of Fame.

John Lee’s style has always been unique, even among other performers of the real deep blues, few of whom remain with us today. While retaining that foundation he has simultaneously broken new ground musically and commercially. At the age of 80, John Lee Hooker received his third and fourth Grammy Awards, for Best Traditional Blues Recording (Don’t Look Back) and for Best Pop Collaboration for the song “Don’t Look Back” which Hooker recorded with his long time friend Van Morrison. This Friendship and others are celebrated on Hooker’s newest Pointblank / Virgin album, The Best Of Friends. The album also celebrates a return, exactly 50 years later, to Hooker’s first hit, Boogie Chillen and serves as a perfect bookend for Hooker’s first fifty years in the business.

On June 21, 2001 at age 88 or thereabout, he died in Los Altos California of natural causes, just before a European tour was scheduled to start.

Enjoy this 1989 rendition of Boogie Chillun with the help of Hooker’s British friends the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton.