“Never Get Out of These Blues Alive”–John Lee Hooker (1917-2001) [Blues Stories, 8]

john-quincy-adams-pictureJohn Lee Hooker was a true survivor. A native of the Mississippi Delta, he fled that region’s endless toil and painful, humiliating racism during the Great Depression, eventually settling in 1943 in Detroit, which remained his base until the early 1970s. His recording career began in 1948, with the appearance of “Boogie Chillen”, and continues after a fashion fifty-five years later, with the posthumous release by his estate of the CD, John Lee Hooker: Face to Face, in 2003, and, more recently, Hooker, a boxed-set retrospective.

During his long career, Hooker, like older blues men, went through a series of changes in his musical persona, trying to earn a living as the country’s musical tastes evolved. Yet, paradoxically, through all these alterations in his clothing and in the songs he sang, his biographer, Charles Shaar Murray, writes, “The story of John Lee Hooker’s life is, essentially, the story of his resistance to any and all attempts to change him, to dilute an intrinsic sense of self which has successfully withstood all pressures, including those of institutionalized racism, family, church and the music business. . . .” (Murray, p.16)

From the beginning, Hooker created an urban Blues that retained a country Blues feel. Not one to worry about rhyme schemes or consistent rhythms, he seems never to have performed a song the same way twice. Most of his tunes dealt with that archetypal trio of Blues themes–money, whiskey, and, especially, women. As he said, “If it weren’t for women, there wouldn’t be no blues.” (Quoted in Tom Pomposello, liner notes to the CD, Sittin’ Here Thinkin’, p.7) Or, as he remarked at another time—and without the misogynous undertone—“No matter what anybody says, it all comes down to the same thing, a man and a woman, a broken heart and a broken home.” (Gibson Guitars press release, 22 June 2001)

John Lee Hooker was born near Vance, Mississippi, on August 22, perhaps in 1917, though he also claimed other birth years between 1912 and 1923. His parents were The Reverend William Hooker, a tenant farmer and part-time evangelical preacher, and Minnie Ramsey Hooker. As a youngster, Hooker received his first guitar, a beat-up model, from an itinerant blues man who was courting one of his sisters. John Lee’s father, who believed, like many religious African Americans, that the blues was “the Devil’s Music,” reluctantly allowed his son to keep the guitar, but only on condition that he never bring it into the house. Eventually Hooker’s parents separated, and, unlike his ten brothers and sisters, young John Lee moved in with his mother and stepfather, Will Moore. Moore was a Louisiana-born guitarist who frequently played with such blues luminaries as Charlie Patton, Son House, and Blind Lemon Jefferson. Hooker’s new stepfather bought him a mail-order guitar and taught him all he knew about playing it, knowledge that, Hooker always claimed, shaped his playing throughout his long career.

About 1933, the teen-aged John Lee Hooker fled the Delta for the greater musical opportunities he felt awaited him in the big city of Memphis. Although he was quickly returned to his mother and stepfather by relatives, Hooker ran away again and this time escaped the Delta permanently. He moved from Memphis to Knoxville, then to Cincinnati, before finally settling in Detroit. At each stop along the way, John Lee worked a day job in a factory and played blues joints and house parties at night and on weekends. He launched his career as a conventional blues singer, whose Delta style, and perhaps erroneous birth date of 1917, allowed him to claim to be of the same lineage as already established performers like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. Because of the need to be heard over the noise in the blues clubs, John Lee quickly adopted an electric guitar, for, as he said, “You barely have to touch the guitar, and the sound comes so silky. Electric sound is so lovely. I felt drawn to it. It’s the feel of it, the touch of it.” (Mark Humphrey, liner notes to the Rhino compilation, The Very Best of John Lee Hooker, p.7) Hooker tells about his early career in the song “That’s My Story,” from 1960.

Young John Lee

Young John Lee

Hooker’s dedication to his craft, and his persistence, eventually paid off. His reputation spread by word of mouth in the Motor City. Bernie Bessman, who later became his record distributor, recalled John Lee’s performance at a Saturday night concert in the Capitol Theater in the late 1940s:

“John came on last. . . and sat down in front of the 90-percent white audience to play his music. He was alone, unaccompanied, and at first he could hardly be heard over the conversation and noise from the audience. Then, after a minute or so, a strange hush fell over the crowd and continued until the end of the song, when they erupted with roaring applause. They weren’t quite sure what they were hearing, but they weren’t slow to recognize that they were witnessing something very special. To see that audience respond so strongly to John Lee Hooker was one of the most profound experiences of my life.” (Humphrey, op. cit., p.5)

Hooker made his recording debut in 1948, with “Boogie Chillen,” on Modern Records, which became a monster hit by the standards of that era, selling over a million copies. Hooker biographer Charles Shaar Murray has this to say about that first recording:

“On one level ‘Boogie Chillen’ was an extraordinarily simple record: a one-man show with zero chord changes, repetitive lyrics and little melody. On another, it was a work of sheer genius in which one man’s personal story deftly encapsulated the collective experience of a community in the throes of profound and far-reaching social change. Plus—in the finest traditions of what was, a little later, to become rock and roll—it had a great beat and you could dance to it.” (Murray, p.18)

The success of “Boogie Chillen” determined Hooker’s future: “It was ringin’ all around the country,” Hooker later told Living Blues magazine. “Every jukebox you went to, every drugstore you went, they were playin’ it. . . So I quit my job in the factory. I said, ‘No I ain’t workin’ no more!’” (John Milward, liner notes from the post-2001 compilation, John Lee Hooker Live at Newport, n.p.)

Between 1949 and 1955, John Lee cut records for just about any label that offered him a deal, because he “preferred upfront cash to the promise of royalties” (Milward, op.cit.)—and it was probably just as well, since music companies in that era were notoriously averse to sharing their profits with the talent. To avoid contractual conflicts, Hooker and his Detroit distributor, Bernie Bessman, saw to it that these records were issued “under a number of fake names, nicknames, or names that were a variation of his own.” Among these noms de blues were the following, the label first, then the alias Hooker used when recording there:

Staff (Johnny Williams)
Gotham (John Lee)
Regent (Delta John)
Savoy (Birmingham Sam and his Magic Guitar)
Gone (John Lee Booker)
Danceland (Little Pork Chops)
Fortune (Sir John Lee Hooker)
King (Texas Slim and John Lee Cooker)
Acorn (The Boogie Man)
Deluxe (Johnny Lee)
Chance (John L. Booker)

In 1955, Hooker signed with the Vee Jay label. When the blues came upon hard times with the advent of rock ‘n’ roll, Hooker moved into rhythm and blues and recorded a string of hits, including one of his signature tunes, “Boom Boom,” in 1962.

An r&b star by the end of the 1950s, John Lee next took advantage of the folk music revival of the early 1960s, appearing several times at the Newport Jazz Festival, where, dressing down but keeping his electric guitar, he won over a new, largely white audience. It was also during the early ‘60s that Hooker’s music caught on in Great Britain, where performers like the Animals, the Rolling Stones, and Eric Clapton became fans. By the time Hooker himself went to Europe, he later told an interviewer immodestly, “It was just like God let Jesus go over there.” (Humphrey, op. cit., p.7). Hooker’s attempt to straddle two musical styles is clearly apparent in performances available in a wonderful video collection, Come See About Me. See, for example:

“Maudie”–about his then wife–recorded live at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1960
“Hobo Blues”–American Folk Blues Festival, 1965
“Serves Me Right to Suffer”–1969

Folk Singer

Folk Singer

Then, when “the real folk blues” lost out to more popular styles in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, Hooker made a series of jazz- and rock-oriented records in an only partially successful effort to keep his career afloat. He went into semi-retirement following his move to the Bay Area in the early 1970s, occasionally fronting a group of his own, the West Coast Blues Band. A gripping song by this group, “Never Get Out of These Blues Alive,” was recorded in 1981.

Never Get Out of These Blues Alive

Never Get Out of These Blues Alive

Finally, in the mid-1980s, Mike Kappus took over as Hooker’s agent, convinced that John Lee’s career had not yet run its course. And, sure enough, the release in 1989 of a CD entitled The Healer, pairing John Lee with musical “fans” like Bonnie Raitt, Carlos Santana, and Van Morrison, enabled Hooker to resurrect his career and take both his fame and his bank account to new heights. The sensuous centerpiece of that CD, a duet with Bonnie Raitt, is “I’m in the Mood.” (1990)

The Healer

The Healer

Hooker continued to record throughout the 1990s, and it was during this decade that he won Grammys for his duet with Bonnie Raitt on “The Healer” and for Best Traditional Blues Album, Don’t Look Back, in 1997. John Lee also received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Grammys in 1990 and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame that same year (he had been elected to the Blues Hall of Fame in 1980). In 1997, he opened his own blues club, “John Lee Hooker’s Boom Boom Room,” in San Francisco. He was, at long last, as the title of his 1991 CD had it, Mr. Lucky

Mr. Lucky

Mr. Lucky

To Hooker, it was all about the music. As he told his biographer in 1991, “When I die, they’ll bury the blues with me, but the blues will never die.” (Quoted in Murray, p.13) When he passed away, on June 21, 2001, John Lee Hooker was mourned as a beloved elder statesman for the blues, a pop icon to be sure, but also a skilled performer whose influence helped to shape the blues, rhythm and blues, and rock ‘n’ roll for more than half a century, and, because he “Never Got Out of These Blues Alive,” continues to do so.

Blues Icon

Blues Icon

SOURCES:

Bill Dahl, “John Lee Hooker,” in Michael Erlewine, et al., All Music Guide to the Blues. San Francisco: Miller Freeman Books, 1996, pp.115-118.

Charles Shaar Murray, Boogie Man: The Adventures of John Lee Hooker in the American Twentieth Century. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000.

John Lee Hooker: Come See About Me/The Definitive DVD. Eagle Eye Media (EE 39029-9).

John Lee Hooker: That’s My Story. A film by Joerg Bundschuh. Docurama (NVG-9549).

DISCOGRAPHY:

1. “That’s My Story” (1960; 4:34)—That’s My Story: John Lee Hooker Sings the Blues. Riverside (OBCCD-538-2 [RLP-12-321]).

2. “Boogie Chillen” (1948; 2:42)—The Very Best of John Lee Hooker. Rhino (R271915).

3. “Boom Boom” (1962; 3:08)–The Very Best of John Lee Hooker. Rhino (R271915).

4. “Maudie” (Newport Jazz Festival, 1960; 3:02)—John Lee Hooker: Come See About Me/The Definitive DVD. Eagle Eye Media (EE 39029-9).

5. “Hobo Blues” (American Folk Blues Festival, 1965; 2:54)—John Lee Hooker: Come See About Me/The Definitive DVD. Eagle Eye Media (EE 39029-9).

6. “Serves Me Right to Suffer” (1969; 4:40)—John Lee Hooker: Come See About Me/The Definitive DVD. Eagle Eye Media (EE 39029-9).

7. “Never Get Out of These Blues Alive” (1981; 5:05)—John Lee Hooker: Come See About Me/The Definitive DVD. Eagle Eye Media (EE 39029-9).

8. “I’m in the Mood” (1989; 4:30)—John Lee Hooker: The Healer. Chameleon (D2-74808).

9. “Mr. Lucky” (1991; 4:38)—John Lee Hooker: Mr. Lucky. Charisma/Pointblank (91724-2).

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About georgelamplugh

I retired in 2010 after nearly four decades of teaching History at the "prep school" level with a PhD. My new "job" was to finish the book manuscript I'd been working on, in summers only, since 1996. As things turned out, not only did I complete that book, but I also put together a collection of my essays--published and unpublished--on Georgia history. Both volumes were published in the summer of 2015. I continue to work on other writing projects, including a collection of essays on the Blues and, of course, my blog.
This entry was posted in Delta Blues, History, John Lee Hooker, Research, Retirement, Southern History, The Blues and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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