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John Lee Hooker: 'Soul to soul'

A new biography explores the how-how-how-how and why of the blues legend

"Boogie Man: John Lee Hooker in the American Twentieth Century" examines the pioneer blues musician from his childhood in the Mississippi delta to his induction into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame and beyond  

In this story:

Primal and revolutionary

A total sweetheart


RELATED STORIES, SITES Downward pointing arrow


(CNN) -- Can a man have the blues for more than 60 years? John Lee Hooker certainly has. And what blues! "Utterly primal," as Charles Shaar Murray describes Hooker's raw style in his new biography, "Boogie Man: John Lee Hooker in the American Twentieth Century" (St. Martin's Press). "A direct link from soul to soul."

As Murray tells the story, Hooker's blues -- in classics like "Boom Boom," "Serves You Right to Suffer" and "Crawlin' Kingsnake" -- aren't simply the accretion of a lifetime's trouble and sorrow. In many ways Hooker is Mr. Lucky, like the title of one of his songs.

  MESSAGE BOARD
 
  ALSO
Living blues legends King, Hooker share their influences
 
  REVIEW
Review: 'Boogie Man' well-crafted bio of John Lee Hooker
 
  AUDIO
TEST

John Lee Hooker sings "Dimples," courtesy Virgin Records, at the 1997 Playboy Jazz Music Festival in California

576K WAV sound
 

The sheltered son of a rural preacher, Hooker escaped sharecropping in the Mississippi delta during his teens. He eventually wound up in Detroit where World War II had created a manufacturing boom. Work was plentiful and the music scene was open enough for a newcomer to make his mark. He cut his first record, "Boogie Chillen," in 1948, because or in spite of -- depending on who's telling the story -- a stutter that miraculously disappeared whenever Hooker began to sing.

With its incessant one-chord riff that Hooker learned from his stepfather, and its autobiographical lyrics --

"One night I was layin' down,
I heard Mama and Papa talkin'.
I heard Papa tell Mama,
"Let that boy boogie-woogie.
It's in him
And it got to come out"

-- "Boogie Chillen" was an immediate hit. Hooker didn't let go until advancing age and poor health began to slow him down in the 1990s.

Still, there was plenty of blues-inspiring fodder: years spent on the road to feed his family, failed marriages and a fortune in song royalties he was denied until late in his career.

Primal and revolutionary

But none of that even comes close to explaining Hooker's unique place in American culture. Where Hooker, now past 80 -- he was born in 1917 or 1920, take your pick -- differed is that he fashioned a blues that was primal and revolutionary simultaneously.

Charles Shaar Murray says John Lee Hooker's Chicago-style blues
Charles Shaar Murray says John Lee Hooker's Chicago-style blues "provided a formative influence for the Rolling Stones and a thousand bands who followed in their wake"  

"John Lee Hooker is unique in that he is an ambassador from another time," Murray says in an interview. "His style is so archaic and so firmly rooted that he fulfilled this function almost from the onset of his career. And he's a speaker for eternal verities of the human condition."

Together with fellow Mississippian Muddy Waters and Texas native Lightnin' Hopkins, Hooker largely invented and popularized a new form of music. It was based on the down-home blues of the rural South, but electrified for the streets of the big cities where the sons and daughters of sharecroppers and the grandchildren of slaves came in the thousands just before and after World War II.

"The main trend in urban African-American music had been the brassier and more sophisticated 'jump' style epitomized by Louis Jordan and T-Bone Walker," says Murray, a veteran British music critic and author of "Crosstown Traffic: Jimi Hendrix and the Rock 'n' Roll Revolution." "But the Southern migrants' desire for a music that reflected their own journey transplanted the delta basics into an urban milieu."

"Chicago-style" blues, as it became known, "provided a formative influence for the Rolling Stones and a thousand bands who followed in their wake," Murray says.

This is not only Hooker's first publicity shot, but also the earliest known photo of him
This is not only Hooker's first publicity shot, but also the earliest known photo of him  

Even among the rough-edged Chicago bluesmen, Hooker's sound was different. More than the others, he placed his emphasis on the African half of the African-American equation, Murray says.

"John Lee's style is an almost undiluted echo of West Africa -- the music of the Timbuktu province of Mali, via Louisiana and Mississippi. His music uses a Western vocabulary but an African grammar -- unrhymed, irregularly structured, monochordal and based on an irresistible groove."

A total sweetheart

All these elements are in play in "Boom Boom," a 1962 song during which a randy Hooker famously growls "how-how-how-how."

Murray calls it "one of the sexiest songs I know. 'Boom Boom' is one of Hooker's signature songs, and one of his biggest hits. The title phrase came from a barmaid at a place he was working, who'd say, 'boom boom' when he came in late, meaning, 'uh-oh, you're in trouble.' "

It took Murray eight years to produce "Boogie Man," "which it certainly wasn't supposed to," he says. He interviewed Hooker extensively at the musician's home in the San Francisco Bay area, visiting him daily at certain points, and going out on the road with Hooker.

Hooker recorded
Hooker recorded "The Healer" in 1989 with such guests as Bonnie Raitt, above, Carlos Santana and Los Lobos. The album has since become one of the biggest-selling blues albums of all time  

While Hooker has his gripes, he's remarkably free of bitterness, Murray says. "He's a total sweetheart, tolerant of others almost to a fault. But once he makes up his mind and puts his foot down, it stays put down."

In the '80s, Hooker let his recording career lapse. "He'd grown massively disillusioned with the record business," Murray says. "Producers tended to cut records they thought were fashionable rather than record him in his own style."

But in 1989, he cut "The Healer," in which he fronted musicians like Carlos Santana, George Thorogood and Bonnie Raitt, younger blues enthusiasts whom he had profoundly influenced.

"The Healer" goosed Hooker's career and led to more albums with members of the rock generation, and a 1991 induction into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame. Hooker was getting his just reward from a generation whose rebellious attitude he anticipated in "Boogie Chillen."

Born the year the first blues record was released, Hooker's career is in its twilight as the American 20th century comes to an end. In "Boogie Man" Hooker offers his own testament:

"When I die they'll bury the blues with me. But the blues will never die."



RELATED SITES:
San Francisco Chronicle: Interview with John Lee Hooker
Salon: Review of "The Complete '50s Chess Recordings"
Downbeat: John Lee Hooker
John Lee Hooker lyrics
John Lee Hooker in Blue Flame Cafe
St. Martin's Press

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