Paul interviews… blues legend John Lee Hooker

John Lee Hooker, by Robert Knight

One of the highlights of my music journalist career was the night I interviewed blues legend John Lee Hooker. Unfortunately, JLH was then in declining health and unable to travel so the interview had to take place over the phone, but it was a thrill to say the least to hook up with an originator of the music I love. (If only I had kept a copy of my interviews with Lemmy, Sting, Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull, Tony Iommi, Peter Cushing, Michael Nyman and the Velvet Underground! Ah well, maybe one day I’ll pluck up courage to descend into the vaults where my ancestors are interred and rummage through the archives. Until then here is the transcript of my conversation with ‘The Hook’.)  

At the grand old age of 74, legendary bluesman John Lee Hooker could claim to be the last living link with the oral tradition of the blues. Ironically, he is now enjoying greater success than at any other time in his career thanks to the extensive use of his music and image in television advertising and his adoption by the MTV generation as the godfather of the blues. I called him at his home in Chicago.

John Lee Hooker’s recorded output is staggering. His albums have been reissued and repackaged more often than almost any other artist – 140 LPs at the last count – and the list continues to grow.After all he has been through his enthusiasm for music remains undiminished. The Delta-born son of a sharecropper and one of eleven children, John Lee spent his childhood on his stepfather’s farm, a modest plot outside Clarksdale in the Mississippi Delta. Life was a constant struggle against economic hardship and Mother Nature, but when the sun went down his stepfather would teach him the stark simple beauty that was country blues.

“Blues was the music of the field, for the workers to release themselves from the harshness of their lives,” he explains in that familiar gravel voice. “The blues are as old as the world. Ever since Adam and Eve there has been the blues. And as long as there is a man and a woman to love and hurt each other there will be the blues. The blues will never die.”
Delta blues was raw and rhythmic, yet it still retained a rural feel. The area around Clarksdale alone produced such luminaries as Jimmy Reed, Robert Johnson, Son House, Big Joe Williams, Tommy McCLennan and Muddy Waters.

Ironically, for a man raised in the area with the greatest concentration of acoustic bluesmen, John Lee’s destiny was to define the post-war electric blues and in so doing he inspired a generation of white rock artists who saw him as the missing link between rock and its roots.
‘The Hook’, as he is affectionately called, can be brusque when he feels that the respect due to him is lacking, though I find him patient and polite when asked to recall a time he must have talked about on innumerable occasions.

“Mississippi is the root of all the blues singers. I didn’t get to see many of them play, but I knew them all through my stepfather. I was the black sheep of the family. I didn’t want to be a farmer. I wanted to play the blues. So I left home.John Lee took to the road in his early teens, playing and singing anywhere that would give him a gig and a hot meal.

“I played what we called house rent parties because I was still a kid and couldn’t play the clubs. They’d sell bootleg beer and I’d make a few dollars, which was a lot of money then.”

Occasionally he took odd jobs to keep body and soul together until in his early thirties his itinerant lifestyle came to an end.“I ended up in Detroit around 1940 because I found the money was good. I worked as a cinema attendant and a steel worker, but at night I played the clubs with a three piece band that I’d got together. There were small clubs, but we packed them every night.”

His early songs were largely improvised narratives, wry social commentary delivered in an idiosyncratic style and invariably based around one chord. One characteristic of his which remains constant is his scant regard for the rigid twelve bar, three chord structure that was standard for the blues. As he says on the autobiographical track ‘Teachin’ The Blues’, “Your fancy chords mean nothing if you ain’t got that beat”.

Nationwide hit

It wasn’t until 1947 that ‘The Hook’ finally decided to commit his songs to disc. After getting a four string box guitar out of the hock shop he cut a quarter dollar acetate, tapping his feet on a wooden plank to keep time. He then used the disc as a demo to get a deal.

A year later his patience was rewarded when ‘Boogie Chillun’ became a nationwide hit.“When ‘Boogie Chillun’ was a huge hit everyone wanted to record me. I was so hot, but the company I was with weren’t paying me. So I recorded for different people under various names and my friends so the tapes to the companies who paid the most money.”

The first professionally organised tour followed in 1952, but John Lee preferred to remain at home where Muddy Waters, BB King and Jimmy Reed would come round to jam on his front porch.

In the Sixties, he found himself the inspiration for the British blues boom, when his songs ‘Boom Boom’ and ‘Dimples’ became standards in the set lists of every R&B band in the land, but in America the blues were going out of fashion.

“Bands such as The Stones started because they loved my blues. It’s true that they diluted their blues later on, but I know that they still love that music, my music. I can still hear it in their records, but now it’s what I would call rock blues. People make a mistake if they think that blues is just for blacks. The blues has no colour. The blues is for every human being, rich or poor. Money can only pacify you. It can’t compensate for turning over at night and finding an empty bed. The white rock acts simply adapted the blues to a different style, but it’s still the blues. The blacks were the first to it and they sing it deeper, that’s all.”In the seventies and eighties the blues were in recession, as far as record sales were concerned, then a new generation of rock bands emerged and cited bluesmen such as Hooker as their influences.

The Healer

By 1991 a succession of famous musicians such as Bonnie Raitt, Robert Cray and Carlos Santana began to turn up at the Hook’s live shows and made it known to his manager that if he ever recorded again they would be more than keen to participate. The resulting collaboration, ‘The Healer’, was released to universal acclaim and ‘the Hook’ found himself back in the limelight. MTV put his video clip in heavy rotation and advertising execs picked up on the novelty of his image to promote everything from jeans to beer.

Away from all the hullabaloo ‘The Hook’ is simply enjoying recording again.

“All of the guests on ‘The Healer’ have been good friends of mine for years. We have a deep mutual respect for each other’s music. We are fans of each other and almost neighbours in San Francisco. They didn’t need to do it. They did it because they love my music.”John Lee and his producer Roy Rogers had agreed that if ’the Hook’ was to return to the studio it would be on condition that everything would be recorded live. Apparently even that didn’t deter the celebrities who lined up around the block to lend their talents.

“You get a better feel recording live. If you don’t like one take then you can keep doing it over, but when you get it, it’s the real thing – no overdubs. So many people trick up the music too fine. It’s unnatural and it sounds unreal. The blues is based on ‘I do it as I feel it’. I could dress it up. I dressed it up for ‘I’m In The mood For Love’ to get a pop hit in the Fifties, but the blues shouldn’t really be dressed up.  I play it the way I feel it. I rock back and holler! I AM the blues.”

© Paul Roland 1989 (Originally published in ‘Hi Fi News’ 1989)

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About RealPaulRoland

PAUL ROLAND is a prolific recording artist, producer and author of more than 30 books. He has been spinning his musical tales against a backdrop of gothic rock, psych pop and, occasionally, baroque strings. He has been called 'Edgar Allen Poe of psych pop' and the 'Godfather of Steampunk'.

Posted on April 27, 2012, in Paul Roland and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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