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John Lee Hooker Biography


Home > Music > H > Hooker, John Lee > Biography


Born: 1917/08/22
Birth Place: Coahoma County, Mississippi, U.S.
Died: 2001/06/21
Years Active: 1948-2001
Genres: Talking Blues, Electric Blues, Delta Blues


John Lee Hooker (August 22, 1917 – June 21, 2001) was a highly influential American blues singer-songwriter and guitarist. Hooker began his life as the son of a sharecropper, William Hooker, and rose to prominence performing his own unique style of what was originally a unique brand of country blues. He developed a “talking blues” style that was his trademark. Though similar to the early Delta blues, his music was metrically 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 blues guitar playing and singing.

Hooker's recording career began in 1948 when his agent placed a demo, 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 own streams of income. The Biharis used a number of pseudonyms for songwriting credits. One song by John Lee Hooker, "Down Child" is solely credited to the Biharis, with Hooker receiving no credit for the song whatsoever.

In 1949, Hooker was recorded while performing in an informal setting for Detroit jazz enthusiasts, his repertoire included down-home and spiritual tunes which he would not record commercially. The recorded set was been made available on the album “Jack O'Diamonds.”

Despite being illiterate, Hooker was a prolific lyricist. In addition to adapting the occasionally traditional blues lyric, 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. Because of his recording contract, he would record these songs under obvious pseudonyms such as John Lee Booker, notably for Chess Records and Chance Records in 1951-52, as Johnny Lee for De Luxe Records in 1953-54- as John Lee, and even John Lee Cooker,- or as Texas Slim, Delta John, Birmingham Sam and his Magic Guitar, Johnny Williams, or The Boogie Man.

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. For much of this time period he recorded and toured with Eddie Kirkland. 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 well.

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,” “Baby, Please Don't Go” and “Tupelo Blues.”

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.

Hooker recorded over 100 albums. His songs have been covered by Buddy Guy, Cream, AC/DC, ZZ Top, Led Zeppelin, Tom Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Van Morrison, The Yardbirds, The Animals, The Doors, The White Stripes, MC5, George Thorogood, R. L. Burnside, The J. Geils Band, The Gories, Cat Power, and The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion.

He fell ill just before a tour of Europe in 2001 and died on June 21 at the age of 83, two months before his 84th birthday. His last live in the studio recording on guitar and vocal was of a song he wrote with Pete Sears called “Elizebeth,” featuring members of his "Coast to Coast Blues Band" with Sears on piano. It was recorded in January. The last song Hooker recorded before his death was “Ali D'Oro,” a collaboration with the Italian soul singer Zucchero, in which Hooker sang the chorus “I lay down with an angel.”

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. “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.