Well, my mama, she didn't 'low me just to stay out all night long, oh LordBorn near Clarksdale, Mississippi on August 22, 1917, John Lee Hooker was the youngest of the 11 children of William and Minnie Hooker, sharecroppers whose parents were slaves. His father was a preacher. His mother home-schooled them and the only music they could listen to was gospel.
Well, my mama didn't 'low me just to stay out all night long
I didn't care what she didn't 'low -- I would boogie-woogie anyhow
-- John Lee Hooker, "Boogie Chillen."
But when he was four, his parents split and his mother re-married the next year.
To a blues singer.
His stepfather, William Moore, taught Hooker to play guitar. He lived in the Mississippi Delta. He learned Delta blues. At 14, Hooker decided he did not want to pick cotton for the rest of his life. He split and headed for Beale Street in Memphis. He worked as an usher at a theater. He played in clubs and at house parties. Slowly he made his way north to Knoxville and then Cincinnati. The war broke out. The auto factories went into overdrive producing war matériel. In 1943, he moved to Detroit and took a job at Ford.
When I first came to town, people, I was walkin' down Hastings StreetDelta blues was acoustic. He made it electric. His style was unique and yet familiar. His voice could be playful and menacing at the same time. His talking blues made rap sound like baby talk. Illiterate, he wrote songs that influenced and inspired two generations of Rock and Roll Hall of Famers.
Everybody was talkin' about the Henry Swing Club
I decided I drop in there that night
When I got there, I say, "Yes, people"
They was really havin' a ball
Yes, I know
-- John Lee Hooker, "Boogie Chillen."
In 1948, he met Lester, Jules, Saul and Joe Bihari, owners of Modern Records, who never wrote a note but nevertheless succeeded in getting royalties from music written by people like Hooker. It wasn't race. White artists faced the same problems. The only color that mattered was green. And both sides played all the angles. Under contract, Hooker moonlighted as John Lee Booker for Chess Records, Johnny Lee for De Luxe Records, John Lee Cooker, and a host of other pseudonyms. However, the Bihari brothers worked hard and knew talent. Their roster included B.B. King, Elmore James, and Etta James. Modern Records was a good place to record. B.B. King said, "The company was never bigger than the artist. I could always talk to them."
Hooker's first single, "Boogie Chillen" in 1948, was No. 1 in R and B, which at the time was a euphemism for black. Selling a lot of records did not mean riches, but the hit freed him from working at Ford. He hit the road and stayed there. He married three times. In 1943, he married and divorced Alma Hopes with whom he had a child. He had six children with his second wife, Maude Mathis. In 1969, they divorced after 25 years of marriage. His third wife was Sarah Jones.
In 1962, he worked the Apex Bar in Detroit, where a bartender named Willa inspired his greatest song, "Boom Boom."
"I would never be on time [for the gig]; I always would be late comin' in. And she [the bartender Willa] kept saying, 'Boom boom – you late again'. Every night: 'Boom, boom – you late again'. I said 'Hmm, that's a song!' I got it together, the lyrics, rehearsed it, and I played it at the place, and the people went wild," Hooker later said.
Boom, boom, boom, boomThe recording was a minor R and B hit, reaching No. 16. But the people who recorded it included Mae West, Shadows of Knight, Dr. Feelgood, Tony Joe White, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, and Big Head Todd and the Monsters. The Animals were the first pop act to record it in 1964.
I'm gonna shoot you right down
Right off your feet
Take you home with me
Put you in my house
Boom, boom, boom, boom
I love to see you strut
Up and down the floor
And when you talking to me that baby talk
-- John Lee Hooker, "Boom Boom"
Hooker's influence led to a tribute in 1973 by ZZ Top called, "La Grange." A federal judge later dismissed a copyright infringement claim. In 1980, the makers of "The Blues Brothers" included him in a cameo role as a street musician. A small part in "The Color Purple." In 1989, he collaborated with Bonnie Raitt and Carlos Santana on the album, "The Healer."
But it was an ad for Lee Jeans in 1992 -- the 30th anniversary of "Boom Boom" -- that propelled John Lee Hooker into the mainstream. He had become the iconic -- and last -- Delta blues singer with his hat, his sunglasses, his guitar, and his feet tapping out the rhythm.
The sharecropper's son died in Los Altos, California, at age 83 on June 21, 2001. He left behind enough money to start the John Lee Hooker Foundation -- and a huge influence on music.
Boom, boom, boom, boom.
My first collection of "Exceptional Americans" is available here. And the Kindle version is here.
Volume 2's publication will be on September 1, my 62nd birthday. It will be available here, and on Amazon and Kindle.