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John Lee Hooker Bio
| The World´s Greatest Blues Singer


Edited by Claus Röhnisch (updated October 6, 2008)


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The World´s Greatest Blues Singer | (skip intro)
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The World´s Greatest Blues Singer
An early photo of Hooker in Detroit.  John Lee Hooker at his prime. 


John Lee 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 tradition.

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" (1996).

Essential CDs  |   
The Best CD:
 "Hooker" (4CD box-set covering 1948-1998) - Shout!Factory 826663-10198
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) Search on John Lee Hooker
John Lee Hooker at Wikipedia
All music guide.on John Lee Hooker
John Lee Hooker at The Blues Database
John Lee Hooker singles discography at Soulful Kinda Music

Vee-Jay Records great Juke Box

R&B Top 10 Hits:

1949     Boogie Chillen´     #1 for 1w
1949     Hobo Blues
1949     Hoogie Boogie
1949     Crawling King Snake
1951     I´m In The Mood     #1 for 4w

Wanna know all about The Hook?
Then read:
The Adventures of John Lee Hooker
in the American Twentieth Century

by Charles Shaar Murray
ISBN 0-860-84423-3
(Viking, UK, 1999

Image above: The 2009 Hooker vinyl LP featuring early Detroit recordings.

Link to the Claus Röhnisch
presentation of
 John Lee Hooker
The World´s Greatest Blues Singer

Some of the Very Best of the Rest:
1949     Moaning Blues (as Texas Slim)
1950     Wandering Blues (as Johnny Williams)
1950     Give Me Your Phone Number
1950     Huckle Up Baby
1951     John L´s House Rent Boogie
1951     Leave My Wife Alone
            (as John Lee Booker)
1951     Just Me And My Telephone
1953     Boogie Rambler
1954     Stuttering Blues (as John Lee Booker)
1954     It´s My Own Fault
1954     Half A Stranger
1954     I´m Mad
1955     The Syndicator
1955     Hug And Squeeze (You)
1956     Every Night
1956     Dimples
1956     Baby Lee
1957     I´m So Excited
1957     Rosie Mae
1958     I Love You Honey
1959     Tupelo  (Riverside)
1959     Hobo Blues (The Hobo) (VeeJay)
1959     Maudie
1960     I Need Some Money
1960     No Shoes
1961     Teachin´ The Blues
1961     Don´t Turn Me From Your Door
1961     Want Ad Blues
1962     Boom Boom
1962     Frisco Blues (San Francisco)
1963     Birmingham Blues
1963     Don´t Look Back
1964     It Serves Me Right To Suffer
1965     Bottle Up And Go
1966     One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer
1967     I´m Bad Like Jesse James
1967     Mr Lucky
1970     Burning Hell (w. Canned Heat)
1970     House Rent Boogie (Blues)
1974     Homework
1986     We´ll Meet Again
1989     The Healer
1997     Frisco Blues

This R&B Extra-Vaganza Web Site will continuously be enhanced,
updated and expanded, so look for more news and nostalgia later on at this site!!!!!
Yours truly,  Claus Röhnisch

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Session Discography and JLH Time-Line plus Ultimate CDs