John Lee Hooker
(1920 - 2001)

From the first it was obvious there had never been a bluesman like this. Boogie Chillen, Crawling King Snake, Nightmare Blues - were not songs but voodoo chants, underscored by a stamping foot and repeated riffs on an open tuned guitar. Amidst the automobile production lines of 1940s Detroit, John Lee Hooker offered a blues that was unmistakably handmade. What he may have learned at home in Clarksdale, Mississippi, or later in Memphis or Cincinnati can only be guessed. The man who broke into the recording scene in the winter of 1948 with Boogie Chillen seemed weird and willful, but it would soon be apparent that this was not the effect of youth or inexperience. (He was 28 after all.) John Lee Hooker was a fully formed musician. Almost 50 years on, he had hardly progressed an inch.

At first, his music was so captivating that everyone wanted a piece. Ostensibly an exclusive Modern artist, he moonlighted for any company that knocked on his door, masking his identity with pseudonyms - a laughable subterfuge, given the singularity of his style. So he was Delta John on Regent, Birmingham Sam & his Magic Guitar on Savoy, Johnny Williams on Staff, the Boogie Man on Acorn and flimsiest of all, John Lee Booker on Chess, a label for which he made some particularly compelling sides in 1950 - 1951. His work for King (as Texas Slim) was even better, the misty acoustics of the back-of-the-store recording lending a disturbing ambience to Moaning Blues and Late Last Night.

While most of the freelance recordings quickly disappeared most of the Modern recordings were better distributed, some reaching the R&B charts, like Hobo Blues and Crawling Kingsnake (1949), and I'm in the Mood (1951). In 1955 he signed with the Chicago label Vee Jay and from that time on recorded with supporting groups as a matter of policy. This had the effect of flattening some of his more baroque contours and some of the hectic excitement was gone forever, but commercially the move was astute.

Meanwhile, he launched a parallel career, unplugged, as a folk-blues soloist making albums for Riverside and appearing at the Newport Folk Festival as early as 1960. Two years later he toured Europe for the first time with the first American Folk Blues Festival, and in 1964 he made his first trip to Great Britain. By the late 60's, his folk-blues venture over, he was swimming in the electric blues mainstream, composing songs about Vietnam and miniskirts. He fell in with younger white musicians, like Canned Heat, Elvin Bishop and Van Morrison, whose admiring collaborations kept him in the blues vanguard through the seventies. In the following decade, however, he vanished, until his agent and producer conceived of the best selling blues album ever, The Healer (1989). Since then, Hooker's darkly murmuring voice and throbbing guitar have been internationally recognized blues soundbites on disc, in movie soundtracks and in ads.

Copyright 2003 by Tony Russell/

Blues Beginnings: The Blues in Popular Music