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Hooker (August 22, 1917 – June 21, 2001) was an influential American post-war blues singer, guitarist, and songwriter born in Coahoma County near Clarksdale, Mississippi. From a musical family, he was a cousin of Earl Hooker. John was also influenced by his stepfather, 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. John developed a half-spoken style that was his trademark. Though similar to the early Delta blues, his music was rhythmically free. John Lee Hooker could be said to embody his own unique genre of the blues, often incorporating the boogie-woogie piano style and a driving rhythm into his masterful and idiosyncratic blues guitar and singing. His best known songs include "Boogie Chillen" (1948) and "Boom Boom" (1962).
Hooker was born on August 22, 1917 in Coahoma County near Clarksdale, Mississippi, the youngest of the eleven children of William Hooker (1871–1923), a sharecropper and a Baptist preacher, and Minnie Ramsey (1875–?). Hooker and his siblings were home-schooled. They were permitted to listen only to religious songs, with his earliest musical exposure being the spirituals sung in church. In 1921, his parents separated. The next year, his mother married William Moore, a blues singer who provided John's first introduction to the guitar (and whom John would later credit for his distinctive playing style). The year after that (1923), John's natural father died; and at age 15, John ran away from home, never to see his mother and stepfather again.
Throughout the 1930s, Hooker lived in Memphis where he worked on Beale Street and occasionally performed at house parties. He worked in factories in various cities during World War II, drifting until he found himself in Detroit in 1948 working at Ford Motor Company. He felt right at home near the blues venues and saloons on Hastings Street, the heart of black entertainment on Detroit's east side. In a city noted for its piano players, guitar players were scarce. Performing in Detroit clubs, his popularity grew quickly, and seeking a louder instrument than his crude acoustic guitar, he bought his first electric guitar.
Hooker's recording career began in 1948 when his agent placed a demo disc, made by Hooker, with the Bihari brothers, owners of the Modern Records label. The company initially released an up-tempo number, "Boogie Chillen", which became Hooker's first hit single. Though they were not songwriters, the Biharis often purchased or claimed co-authorship of songs that appeared on their labels, thus securing songwriting royalties for themselves, in addition to their streams of income.
Sometimes these songs were older tunes renamed (B.B.King's "Rock Me Baby"), anonymous jams ("B.B.'s Boogie") or songs by employees (bandleader Vince Weaver). The Biharis used a number of pseudonyms for songwriting credits: Jules was credited as Jules Taub; Joe as Joe Josea; and Sam as Sam Ling. One song by John Lee Hooker, "Down Child" is solely credited to "Taub", with Hooker receiving no credit for the song whatsoever. Another, "Turn Over a New Leaf" is credited to Hooker and "Ling".
Despite being illiterate, Hooker was a prolific lyricist. In addition to adapting the occasionally traditional blues lyric (such as "if I was chief of police, I would run her right out of town"), he freely invented many of his songs from scratch. Recording studios in the 1950s rarely paid black musicians more than a pittance, so Hooker would spend the night wandering from studio to studio, coming up with new songs or variations on his songs for each studio. Due to his recording contract, he would record these songs under obvious pseudonyms such as "John Lee Booker", "Johnny Hooker", or "John Cooker."
His early solo songs were recorded under Bernie Besman. John Lee Hooker rarely played on a standard beat, changing tempo to fit the needs of the song. This often made it difficult to use backing musicians who were not accustomed to Hooker's musical vagaries: As a result, Besman would record Hooker, in addition to playing guitar and singing, stomping along with the music on a wooden pallet. For much of this time period he recorded and toured with Eddie Kirkland, who is still performing as of 2008. Later sessions for the VeeJay label in Chicago used studio musicians on most of his recordings, including Eddie Taylor, who could handle his musical idiosyncrasies very well. His biggest UK hit, "Boom Boom", (originally released on VeeJay) had a horn section to boot!
He appeared and sang in the 1980 movie The Blues Brothers. Due to Hooker's improvisatory style, his performance was filmed and sound-recorded live at the scene at Chicago's Maxwell Street Market, in contrast to the usual "playback" technique used in most film musicals. Hooker was also a direct influence in the look of John Belushi's character Jake Blues, borrowing his trademark sunglasses and soul patch.
In 1989, he joined with a number of musicians, including Keith Richards, Carlos Santana and Bonnie Raitt to record The Healer, for which he and Carlos Santana won a Grammy Award. Hooker recorded several songs with Van Morrison, including "Never Get Out of These Blues Alive", "The Healing Game" and "I Cover the Waterfront". He also appeared on stage with Van Morrison several times, some of which was released on the live album A Night in San Francisco. The same year he appeared as the title character on Pete Townshend's The Iron Man: A Musical.
Hooker recorded over 100 albums. He lived the last years of his life in the San Francisco Bay Area, where, in 1997, he opened a nightclub called "John Lee Hooker's Boom Boom Room", after one of his hits.
He fell ill just before a tour of Europe in 2001 and died soon afterwards at the age of 83. The last song Hooker recorded before his death, is "Ali D'Oro", a collaboration with the Italian soul singer Zucchero, in which Hooker sang the chorus "I lay down with an angel". He was survived by eight children, nineteen grandchildren, numerous great-grandchildren and a nephew.
Among his many awards, Hooker has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and in 1991 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Two of his songs, "Boogie Chillen" and "Boom Boom" were named to the list of The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll. "Boogie Chillen" was included as one of the Songs of the Century. He was also inducted in 1980 into the Blues Hall of Fame. In 2000, Hooker was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
Hooker's guitar playing is closely aligned with piano Boogie Woogie. He would play the walking bass pattern with his thumb, stopping to emphasize the end of a line with a series of trills, done by rapid hammer-ons and pull-offs. The songs that most epitomize his early sound are "Boogie Chillen", about being 17 and wanting to go out to dance at the Boogie clubs, "Baby Please Don't Go", a blues standard first recorded by Big Joe Williams, and "Tupelo Blues", a stunningly sad song about the flooding of Tupelo, Mississippi in April 1936.
He maintained a solo career, popular with blues and folk music fans of the early 1960s and crossed over to white audiences, giving an early opportunity to the young Bob Dylan. As he got older, he added more and more people to his band, changing his live show from simply Hooker with his guitar to a large band, with Hooker singing.
His vocal phrasing was less closely tied to specific bars than most blues singers'. This casual, rambling style had been gradually diminishing with the onset of electric blues bands from Chicago but, even when not playing solo, Hooker retained it in his sound.
Though Hooker lived in Detroit during most of his career, he is not associated with the Chicago-style blues prevalent in large northern cities, as much as he is with the southern rural blues styles, known as delta blues, country blues, folk blues, or "front porch blues". His use of an electric guitar tied together the Delta blues with the emerging post-war electric blues.
His songs have been covered by The White Stripes, MC5, The Doors, George Thorogood, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Van Morrison, The Yardbirds, The Animals, R. L. Burnside, the J. Geils Band and The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion.