Hooker passed away in his sleep in his home at Los Altos, California
(San Francisco Bay area), during the night between June 20 and June 21, 2001
(official death Thursday 21).
He still is the Greatest Blues Singer of the World.
"The Boogie Man" -
"Po´ Slim" - "The Hook" - "The Blues Giant"
Guitarist and modern urbanized country blues singer, with roots in the rich Delta
Born in Mississippi, raised up in Tennessee
Born August 22, 1917 on a
sharecropper farm south of Clarksdale, Coahoma County, Mississippi
close to Highway 49 (Hooker himself has given other dates of birth,
- often 1920 and other files say anything between 1912 and 1923).
After his death - in his home in Los Altos, California on June 21,
2001 - the Hooker family confirmed his birth date as August 22,
1917. Recent findings by Bob Eagle suggest Hooker was born already
in 1912 (information found in the 1920 and 1930 Census / Routledge
enumerations outside and in Tutwiler town, Tallahatchie County).
John Lee´s mother was Minnie Ramsey (born in Glendora, Miss 1875 or
possibly 1880; died around 1950), married to his father (sharecropper and spare-time
preacher) William (indexed Wildred) Hooker, who was born in North
Carolina around 1871 (or possibly 1865). John had six brothers and
four sisters - of which not all survived. Only religious music was
allowed in the Hooker family. The family moved to a new farm (the
Fewell plantation) at Vance, Miss (again not far from Clarksdale) in
circa 1920 (where John said he met Snooky Pryor and Jimmy Lane -
later known as Jimmy Rogers). The parents separated in circa 1926
(or according to the Bob Eagle findings much earlier since John´s
father was re-married to Anna from Louisiana already in circa 1922).
Johnnie, who was the only child leaving with his mother, got a
stepfather - William Moore (from Shreveport, Louisiana, no
recordings, but a local Clarksdale blues musician, who died before
John Lee got to Detroit). From Moore
Johnnie learned to play the boogie on guitar, and tunes like "Pea Vine special"
(via Charley Patton), "Rather drink muddy
water", "My starter won´t start", "Don´t turn me from your door" and
"When my first wife quit me". Hooker claimed Blind Lemon Jefferson
came to visit Moore, and he also remembered Blind Blake and Charley
Patton. Around 1928-30 Hooker had started playing the guitar, which
he said was given to him by blues singer Tony Hollins, who had
courted his sister - and later he got his second from William Moore.
Hooker was also influenced by Tommy McClennan and much of Hooker´s
greatness may be due to his natural youth mix of gospel and blues.
Hobo Blues - Drifting from door to door
Hooker left Mississippi and moved to Memphis in circa 1933 - first staying at an aunt´s and
later working at the cinema "New
Daisy" (and possibly also the W.C. Handy Theater) on Beale Street.
Johnnie claimed that he during his Memphis stay worked with Robert
Nighthawk, Eddie Love (brother of pianist Willie) and the pianist
Joe Willard. He soon "hoboed" again - this time he spent a period in
Knoxville, Tennessee and arrived in Cincinnati, Ohio in circa 1935,
singing the blues and working with gospel groups like the Big Six,
the Delta Big Four, and the Fairfield Four in the evenings - and in
factories, theatres-cinemas and warehouses during daytime. The years
between 1939 and 1943 are unaccounted for (except for a short spell
in the army - stationed near Detroit; Hooker even may have traveled
to the South).
Starting out - Boogie Chillen´
Hooker started his career (eventually leading to become the world´s foremost
"traditional blues" singer) via his arrival in Detroit in circa 1943, first
working at a receiving hospital and later at Dodge and Comco Steel (possibly also as a
janitor at the Chrysler car plant). He first married Alma Hopes - one daughter, Francis
(or Frances) - but they soon parted and he later married Sarah Jones. In late 1944 he met
Maude Mathis, married her and had two sons and four daughters (after his separation with
Maude in 1970 Hooker has been married to Millie Strom). In the evenings of the mid 1940s
John got small jobs at the clubs around Hastings Street (like Forest Inn and Club Basin).
Legend has it: T-Bone Walker handed Johnny Lee the first electric guitar, as John became
T-Bone's "kid" when T-Bone was working in Detroit during 1946-48. "Johnny
Lee" (as most of his friends called him) invented his own "unique" style
(non-rhyming, sometimes out-of-rhythm) and was introduced in 1948 to Bernie Besman (of
Sensation Records at Woodward Avenue; and co-owner with John Kaplan of the Pan American
Record Co.) by Elmer Barbee, Hooker´s original "manager", who
"discovered" Hooker playing with his trio at the "Apex" bar on Monroe
Street (although "legend" says Besman "discovered" Hooker at Lee
Sensation´s bar "Russell & Orange" - or at the "Monte Carlo").
Barbee continued to promote Johnnie, after the Besman introduction, for other record
labels, mostly recording in Barbee´s record shop at 609 Lafayette Street, but the main
records of Hooker´s up into 1952 were recorded by Bernie Besman at United Sound Studios
Inc. at 5840 2nd Blvd. Besman leased several tracks to the Bihari brothers (Modern - of
Hollywood) and soon issued others on Sensation. Almost a hundred alternates and variations
were "kept in the can" and later issued on album compilations.
First recordings - When my first wife left me
Hooker´s first recording was done for manager Elmer Barbee in Detroit
June 12, 1948 - "Rocks" (originally unissued) and shortly thereafter
he cut unissued demo recordings of circa July/August 1948: "Leavin´
Chicago" (aka "Highway Blues"), "Wednesday Evening Blues" and two
demos of "My First Wife Left Me" (one konwn as "When My Wife Quit Me"
and the other as
"When My First Wife Left Me"). The song was issued as "Drifting From Door To
Door" on Modern in 1949).
First recordings for Bernie Besman
- Henry´s Swing Club
Hooker´s debut record was cut at
United Sound Studios for Bernie Besman (born 1912 - dies January
10, 2003) - with Joe Siracuse, engineer, in September 1948. It was
"Sally May" c/w "Boogie Chillen´" (B 7003 and B 7006) - released
November 3, 1948 on the West Coast Bihari-owned Modern label, #
20-627 - with "Sally May" titled "Sally Mae" on later issues (just
as the second take of that song). The matrix numbers of this session
were B 7003 - B 7006, used both by Besman himself and Modern
Records. On that session a further titles
were recorded. One was "Highway Blues" (B 7004) issued in 1971 as "War
Is Over (Goodbye California)" on Specialty LP 2127 and in an
alternate as "See, See Baby" on Greene Bottle LP 3130 in 1972. The
other was "Wednesday Evening Blues" (B 7005) issued on United
Artists LP 5512 as "She Was In Chicago" in 1971 and in an alternate
as "Crazy ´Bout That Woman"" on Greene Bottle. Hooker´s two
alternate boogies, possibly also recorded that day, were later
titled "Johnny Lee´s Original Boogie" (better-suited title would
have been "Detroit Boogie") and "Henry´s Swing Club". Today Fancourt and other discographers are agreeing on that the matrixes B
7007 - B 7009 were recorded at the same session as "Boogie Chillen´", since Besman
offered those matrixes to the Biharis at the same time as "Boogie
Chillen´". "Hobo Blues" (B 7008B), "Drifting From Door To Door" (B
7007), "Playin´ The Numbers" (B 7009 - originally issued as "Numbers
Blues" on the Ace CD "House Rent Blues" as late as 2001 and in an
alternate as "She
Ain´t Good For Nothin´" on Greene Bottle). These versions of "Numbers
Blues" are not to be mixed-up with B 8013 "Playin´ The Races" aka "Dream A
Number" on Greene Bottle (which also has an alternate titled "Well
I Got To Leave" on United Artists LP 127 in 1973), which were
re-recordings from late 1949. There is also a first version of
"Alberta" (from Specialty LP 2125), which may be master B 7010.
In all ten recordings were waxed (plus the alternates) in September,
1948 - the tracks listed above plus "Howlin' Wolf" (B 7011)
and "Crawling King Snake" (B 7012). "Hobo Blues"
c/w "Hoogie Boogie" (B 7036B from a later session) was Besman´s follow-up
record to "Boogie Chillen´", released in March 1949. Before
that at least
four 78´s by Hooker, recording under different pseudonyms were
issued, all recorded by manager Elmer Barbee (although three of them
were sold to Joe Von Battle, who resold them to King and Savoy). All
of Modern´s B-matrixes 1948-1950 (and they were assigned in
recording chronology - not in order of actual issue date) are Bernie
Besman productions issued as "John Lee Hooker And His Guitar".
Poor Slim´s Battle - Stomp Boogie
After Hooker´s local success with "Boogie Chillen´" (later known as
"Boogie Chillen" - also issued as "Boogie Children" - and in several
re-recordings as "Boogie Chillun") Hooker started "moonlighting"
under different pseudonyms for other Detroit producers, especially
for manager Elmer Barbee and for Joe Von Battle in Joe´s Record Shop
at 3530 Hastings Street. Hooker called himself Poor Slim, Poor Joe,
and Tony on many of the early Barbee recordings. The first five
pirate issues were: "Black Man Blues" c/w "Stomp Boogie", released
on King in November 1948 as Texas Slim, "Goin´ Mad Blues" c/w "Helpless
Blues", released in February 1949 on Regent (as Delta John), "Low
Down Midnite Boogie" c/w "Landing Blues", released in March on Savoy
(as Birmingham Sam), "Do The Boogie" c/w "Morning Blues", released
in April on Acorn (as The Boogie Man). All of these were Barbee
recordings, although sold to Battle. There was also a Barbee
recording, "Wayne County Ramblin´ Blues" c/w "Grievin´ Blues" on
Danceland (as Little Pork Chops with an unknown lead singer on the
flip). Around August 1949 Joe Von Battle produced "The Numbers" c/w
"Devils Jump", by himself (although Fancourt nowadays
states they also are Barbee productions sold to Battle) - released on King as Texas Slim. Idessa
Malone´s production of "Miss Rosie Mae" c/w "Highway Blues" was
released on Prize (as Johnny Williams) during 1949 and later several
records were made as "John Lee Booker" (for Battle and Henry Stone);
and Idessa Malone continued her "Johnny Williams" recordings - even
Gotham (a Philadelphia label) recorded Hooker as "Johnny Williams"
and as "John Lee". 26 original pirate singles (that's more then the
Besman-produced singles) were issued from December 1949 - June 1952
(under pseudonyms - with only two exceptions for Chess, and
including a reissue on King by John Lee Cooker) with the last one on
Chance as John L. Booker ("609 Boogie" c/w Road Trouble"). Eddie
Burns, hca; John T. Smith, gtr; Andrew Dunham, gtr; James
Watkins,pno; Curtis Foster,dms and Johnny Hooks, tenorsax
sporadically worked with Hooker during the early years.
From Detroit to Chicago; and from Coast to Coast
- I´m In The Mood / It serves me right to suffer
In 1951 and 1952 JLH cut two sessions direct for Chess Records in Chicago (or possibly
Detroit - experts still argue if it was Besman, Battle, Barbee or Leonard Chess who
produced the sessions). On April 26, 1951 "Ground Hog Blues" coupled with
"Louise" - which were issued on both Chess and Modern - were waxed together with
six other great songs. On April 24, 1952 the second Chess session took place - this time
twelve songs were recorded (a.o. "Walkin´ The Boogie"). In between those
two sessions Hooker recorded his biggest hit, "I´m In The Mood" for Besman
(Modern Records) in Detroit. From mid 1952, when Bernie Besman moved to Los Angeles - Joe
Bihari took over as producer in Detroit (still with United Sounds´ Joe Siracuse as
engineer) and Hooker toured with "second" guitarist Eddie Kirkland, with whom he
worked several times thruout the years. JLH worked with his own band from 1953 - the
Boogie Ramblers in Detroit (including Bob Thurman and sometimes Vernon "Boogie Woogie
Red" Harrison, pno; Tom Whitehead, dms; Jimmy Miller, tpt; and Johnny Hooks and later
Otis Finch, sax). Hooker´s contract with Modern was terminated around mid or late 1955
(Hooker made some Specialty recordings in mid and late 1954, but the Modern recordings
continued for a little longer). Hooker signed a contract with Vee-Jay Records around
October 1955 and switched recording locations to Chicago (Universal Studios) during 1955 -
1964 (with Jimmy Bracken, Ewart Abner and Calvin Carter producing - later also Al Smith).
From 1965 Hooker regularly recorded in New York, due to his new-signed contract with ABC
Records after Vee-Jay´s bankruptcy (the first couple of albums produced by Bob Thiele).
Hooker moved to Oakland, California in 1970 (something he had longed for, and came natural
after his separation with Maude). He regularly recorded in Los Angeles and San Francisco
during the early ´70s - often produced by Ed Michel. His accompanying Coast To Coast
Blues Band of the Frisco/L.A. area (with several famous white rock musicians) backed him
in the ´70s (and variations including his son Robert Hooker, Luther Tucker on guitar and
later Deacon Jones on keyboard toured with him during the ´80s and ´90s). Hooker settled
in the San Francisco Bay suburbs during the ´90s. The Blue Rose organization from 1989:
(making Hooker a rich man during later years): manager Mike Kappus, producer Roy Rogers,
artist John Lee Hooker.
John Lee Hooker on Records - Boom Boom
Hooker made records for Modern and Sensation as John Lee Hooker 1948-1952; plus under
pseudonyms for a.o. Savoy, King, Gotham, Chess, DeLuxe, and Fortune 1948-1954. Then came
Modern 1952-1955, Specialty 1954, VeeJay 1955-1964, Riverside 1959-1960, Chess 1966,
ABC/Bluesway 1965-1974, Tomato 1977, Chameleon (Silvertone in Europe) 1989,
Pointblank/Virgin 1990 plus. Among his most notable recordings are: "Boogie
Chillen´" (1948), "Hobo Blues" and "Crawling
King Snake" (1949), "House Rent Boogie" (1950),
"I´m In The Mood" (1951), "Down Child"
(1953), "The Syndicator" (1955),
Dimples" (1956), "I Love You Honey" (1958),
"Tupelo Blues" (1959), "No Shoes"
and "Whiskey And Wimmen" (1960), "Boom
Boom" (1961), "Birmingham Blues" (1963),
"It Serves Me Right To Suffer" (1964), "One
Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer" and "I´ll Never Get Out Of
These Blues Alive" (1966), "Homework" (1974),
"The Healer" (1988) and "Don´t Look Back"
| Essential CDs
The Best CD:
(4CD box-set covering 1948-1998) -
For the Collector: "Live at the Cafe au Go-Go (and Soledad
Prison)" - Universal MCD 11527
Boogie Man - The Adventures of John Lee Hooker by Charles Shar
Murray (Viking, 1999)
John Lee Hooker
Lee Hooker at Wikipedia
on John Lee Hooker
John Lee Hooker at The Blues Database
Lee Hooker singles discography at Soulful Kinda Music
Vee-Jay Records great Juke Box