“John Lee Hooker
—Boogie All the Time,”
Living Blues cover story,
John Lee Hooker interview copyright 1997 by Jas Obrecht. Used by author's permission.
A comfortable ranch-style home in Redwood City, California, is where John Lee Hooker-a confirmed homebody and avid Dodgers fan-spends most of his days. Our first interview took place in his small bedroom, where John Lee was sprawled across the bed in a silk three-piece suit. The second, five weeks later on January 20, 1997, was in his living room, surrounded by music posters, a Duke Snyder-signed Dodgers jersey, Grammy Awards, a large portrait of his daughter Zakiya, and photos of John Lee with celebrities-President Bill Clinton, Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Carlos Santana, Robert Cray and Bill Graham, among others-as well as with his many children and grandchildren.
Nearly a half-century after recording "Boogie Chillen," John Lee Hooker remains the world's baddest boogieman and one of the most idiosyncratic performers in blues history. While he has cut more than a hundred albums with some of the finest blues musicians, the heartbeat of his music has always been his mesmerizing voice, propulsive guitar and rhythm-driving foot taps. Like Lightnin' Hopkins, Muddy Waters and very few others, he's a musical law unto himself and a direct link to early blues. "With John Lee, there's a break in the continuity of styles," says Keith Richards, a lifelong fan who sat in on Mr. Lucky. "What he picked up has got to come from one generation further back than anybody else, and John Lee can still make it work."
Hooker confirms August 22, 1917, as his birth date, which makes him 80 this summer. He was raised in the Mississippi Delta on a farm between Clarksdale and Vance. He sang gospel in his father's Baptist church and at age 13 began learning guitar from his stepfather, Will Moore, who never recorded. John Lee ran away to Memphis in his youth and was brought back home, only to leave again for good. After a stint in Cincinnati, he moved to Detroit, determined to make his mark as a blues performer. He pushed a broom on the day shift in the Ford Rouge plant and spent nights prowling the clubs along Hastings Street. His earliest sessions at Allied Sound Studios produced a string of classic postwar blues, including "Hobo Blues" and "Boogie Chillen," an infectious piece of "get up and go," as B.B. King calls it, that became Hook's breakthrough R&B hit. "I wrote that song in Detroit when I was sittin' around strummin' my guitar," he says. "The thing come into me. It was just a old funky lick I found. I heard Will Moore do a song like that when I was a little kid down South, but he didn't call it 'Boogie Chillen.' But it had that beat."
Hooker's second hit, "Crawling King Snake," came out in '49, followed by "In the Mood" two years later. Recording alone or with a single sideman, John Lee produced dozens of tough 78s during the early '50s, such as the raw and raucous "Mad Man Blues" and "House Rent Boogie." Hook himself considers these some of his best records: "Back when I was younger coming up, I was playing more hard blues by myself. I could play more guitar and do more by myself. I had no band to interfere. I could do what I wanted to do when I wanted to do it." He played bare-fingered at these sessions, with the soundhole pickup on his Stella acoustic running into an Ampeg or Silvertone amp. Like his stepfather, John Lee kept time with his feet, patting quarter notes with one foot and eighths with the other, and retuned his guitar from standard to open A to play boogies.
While undeniably his own, Hook's music was perceived by some as a fond memory of Mississippi. "John Lee plays the blues like I heard 'em when I first started to play," details B.B. King. "The way Lonnie Johnson, Robert Johnson and Blind Lemon played, they were so themselves. Well, in the modern times-and what I call modern times is the time I started to play-John Lee Hooker was one like that. Lightnin' Hopkins was like that. You know who they were the minute you hear 'em play. When John Lee Hooker plays, it's like writin' his name: 'I'm John Lee Hooker.' I don't necessarily think of it as Delta or city or any other type of blues. I just think of it as John Lee Hooker playin' the blues. But it takes me home-of course!"
Like Lightnin', John Lee did a lot of label-hopping in the early '50s, using the pseudonyms Texas Slim, Delta John, Birmingham Sam, Johnny Williams and Johnny Lee to avoid contractual problems. "I was the hottest blues singer when I got my foot in the door with 'Boogie Chillen,' 'In the Mood,' 'Hobo Blues,' 'Crawlin' King Snake,'" Hook explains. "Everything I did just turned to gold. I had this manager, Elmer Barbara, and all these record companies would come to him. They said, 'This kid got something so different.' I was under contract with Modern Records in L.A., and they was crooked-some of the biggest crooks ever lived. So Barbara would come to me late at night and say, 'Man, I got a deal! This record company wants to do something with you. I know you're under contract, but we can change your name.' I said, 'Call me what you want to-as long as you got the money.'" Between 1949 and '53, it's likely he made more than 70 singles on 24 different labels, using a dozen different names.
In 1951 Hooker began recording with Eddie Kirkland, a scrappy guitarist whose slashing rhythms and savvy bass lines helped him keep a downhome feel while forging a more commercial sound. Signing with Chicago's Vee Jay Records in 1955, Hooker began cutting with a four-piece featuring guitarist Eddie Taylor. "Dimples," cut in March '56, became his first British hit a few years later. Hooker returned to his old style for his 1960 and '63 performances at the Newport Folk Festival, recording solo or with a bassist for the tracks released by Vanguard. He regards his Newport '60 appearance with the Muddy Waters band as an important turning point, confiding, "I never been so scared! My first big concert, and I couldn't get my body to stop shaking."
When John Lee paid his first visit to Europe with the 1962 American Blues Folk Festival, he was floored by the reaction in England: "It was just like God just let Jesus go over there. That's all you could hear: 'John Lee Hooker!' They had never saw me, but everybody over there was playing my stuff. This is the truth: Before I got to the concert hall-even if it was rainin'-the place be full with a line around the block. They had to start puttin' on two shows a night to accommodate those people. That's where it started from, and then I come back and it started catching over here real big."
The Animals' 1964 cover of "Boom Boom," a British Invasion hit, helped Hooker crossover to rock and roll audiences. He had written the song about an experience at Detroit's Apex Bar: "I was playing there every weekend before I got real famous, and every night there'd be a girl in there. Her name was Willa. She was a bartender. I always would be late comin' in, and she kept saying, 'Boom, boom-you late again.' Every night: 'Boom, boom-you late again.' I said, 'Hmm, that's a song!' I put it together and played it in that club, and people would go wild. They would get on their feets and holler, 'That's a great song, man.' I recorded it, and it just took off like wildfire."
John Lee signed with ABC, releasing albums on its Impulse and Bluesway subsidiaries. His House of the Blues, a collection of early-'50s Chess sides, reached #34 in the British charts in '67, while 1971's Hooker 'N' Heat charted in the U.S. As the '70s progressed, he made albums for Atlantic, Tomato, Stax and various European labels, with dwindling returns. Finally, Hooker recollects, "I got so disgusted, I said, 'I'm not gonna record no more.' The record companies, they rob you blind. Like Modern Records and Vee Jay and them-they just robbed you. You know they was takin' everything you had. I said, 'I'm gonna get out of the business.' I was out for about eight years, and then my manager, Mike Kappus, says, 'Let's get you a record deal.' He worked hard, got me a record deal. Got me pulled together. And that's how I come to be where I am today."
Hooker revitalized his career with 1989's The Healer, featuring guest appearances by Carlos Santana, Bonnie Raitt, Robert Cray, Canned Heat, Los Lobos, George Thorogood, Roy Rogers and Charlie Musselwhite. Reminiscent of Hook's early days, "Rockin' Chair" was a spine-chilling four minutes of ferocious solo guitar and haunting voice. In the wake of the album's commercial success came dozens of CD collections of John Lee's past work, as well as a string of new releases on Charisma/Point Blank-Mr. Lucky, Boom Boom, Chill Out and the just-issued Don't Look Back. John Lee has made recent guest appearances on albums by John Hammond, Van Morrison, B.B. King, Big Head Todd, and his daughter Zakiya Hooker, and his Pepsi ad is a staple of prime-time TV. He has retired from touring but still plays occasional dates.
Stacked side by side, there have been at least two feet of different John Lee Hooker CDs released in the past decade.
Oh, yeah, it's a lot. My pile's higher than that.
Only a few others have written as many blues songs as you-Lonnie Johnson, Tampa Red, Blind Lemon, Lightnin' Hopkins . . .
Oooh, yeah! Maybe Lightnin' Hopkins. He wrote a lot. He wrote 'em all the time.
Did you have that songwriting gift as a child?
Yeah. Since I was about 11 or 12 years old. I sang in the church, and I just had this gift.
Were you making up songs before you played guitar?
Were they blues songs or spirituals?
While you were growing up in Mississippi, who were you closest to?
It wasn't no musician. It was my mother and father.
What kind of a woman was your mom?
Wonderful woman. Her name was Minnie Ramsey. She was a church woman, made me go to church. My mother and father, they separated-divorced or whatever-and she got remarried to a guy they called Will Moore. This happened when I was just a kid, and then I went with my stepfather after that. My dad was a Baptist minister. I couldn't play guitar in his house. And my stepfather was a musician.
Did you like Will Moore when you first went to live with him?
Yeah! He was a good man. I liked him very much.
Did he work a day job?
Yeah. He had a farm.
Was your mom affectionate with you?
Very. She was affectionate with all of us.
What did she call you?
Johnny. Everybody call me "John Lee," but my real name is "Johnny Lee."
Were you a rebellious kid?
No. I always was kind of a Christian, because I was raised that way with Sunday school. You may not believe this, but I never had a fight since I been born. I never been in trouble, never been involved in violence. Never. I don't believe in fightin'. I'm a lover, not a fighter. If I find out anybody ain't right, I just cut 'em loose. I try to stay away from trouble. People have tried to get me in trouble, but it didn't happen. I never been sanctified and holy, but I been a good person. A very good person. I help a lot of people.
you to the guitar?
I used to see Will Moore play. He had a guitar, and he give me one-old Stella. I started off from there.
Did he show you any guitar parts?
Yeah, sometime he did. Will Moore taught me what I know. The things that I'm playing now, that's what he taught me. I got a lot from him.
Did he teach you to beat your feet in rhythm?
No, no. I did that myself! [Laughs.] But I seen him do that.
Was there any special place you liked to play?
Well, several places. I liked to sit on the porch, or I liked to go out in a little park in the woods and sit there to myself and play.
Were you out in the country?
Yeah, I sure was. I was in between Clarksdale and Vance, Mississippi. Clarksdale was a pretty good-sized city, and I used to go there all the time. They had everything around Clarksdale. More going on there than Vance. After I got out of the country, I lived in Clarksdale at one time on Isaquena Street. It was a nice city. A lot of people integrated in there.
Did Clarksdale have a blues scene?
Yeah, but not no big one.
Were guys playing on the streets or in jukes?
Probably. I don't know about now, but they used to.
Did you have jamming buddies?
In the country? No.
Were you by yourself a lot?
Did you have brothers and sisters?
Oh, yeah. They all gone now, though.
Were there other kids in the house when you were young?
No. Just me.
Did you listen to music a lot?
Oh, yeah. I loved it. I loved Charlie Patton, Blind Lemon, Blind Blake, Leroy Carr. I didn't see these people, but I heard their music. My stepfather had all those records.
Did you play along to records?
When I listened to them, yeah, sometimes.
ever learned another person's solo note-for-note?
Sometimes, yeah. Not too much. I liked my own stuff. I always leaned on myself. I never was a person for copyin' people. I like to be John Lee Hooker.
Did any of your brothers or sisters take up music?
No. I was the only one.
Did your mother ever hear any of your records?
No. Dad neither. I left them when I was young, come to Detroit. I left there when I was about 14 or 15, and I never did see them any more. Well, I went to Memphis once and they come and got me, but I didn't stay long-about a week-and left again.
So you weren't that close to them later on?
I loved them, but I wasn't close to them. I wasn't there.
Did your mom pass away before you made records?
[Very quietly.] Yeah.
How did you make it up to Detroit?
When I left home Memphis was my first stop. I worked there for a little while at the New Daisy Picture Show, a movie place. I left there and come to Cincinnati, stayed in Cincinnati for about a year, and then I come up to Detroit. I worked at the Phillips Tank & Pump Company in Cincinnati. I did general stuff.
Was there much of a blues scene in Cincinnati?
There was some, but not a whole lot.
What brought you to Detroit? Most musicians from the Delta wound up in Chicago.
Too much competition there. Too many blues singers was there. I wanted to go to Detroit where there wasn't no competition between blues singers. I went there, and that's where I grew up. I never lived in Chicago.
Did you know people when you first got to town?
In Detroit? No.
How'd you get by?
I had a little money. I went to a place called Mom's, a rooming house. I played my guitar, and she told me to come on in. I sit around and play. They just liked to have parties, you know, and she took a real liking to me, and I stayed there. Fond memories.
blues change after you got to Detroit?
No. Same thing.
Do you remember the first time you saw somebody with an electric guitar?
Mm hmm. T-Bone Walker. He was my idol. He give me my first electric guitar. It was a Epiphone.
What stood out about his playing?
He was so good. Had a different style and an electric guitar too. He was nice. He loved to take me with him everywhere he went. He called me "The Kid." This was in Detroit.
There's that scene in The Blues Brothers where you're playing on the street.
Did you ever do that in real life?
No, I really didn't. People asked that a lot of times, and I really didn't. It was just something they filmed-boom, boom-right there on the street.
Once you started making 78s in Detroit, you recorded about 80 songs in the first year for various labels.
Yeah. There wasn't that many different labels. Modern and Crown were the same label.
What was their studio like?
Oh, it was nice. It didn't have all this stuff they got now, but it was good. The old United Sound Studios there in Detroit on West Grand Boulevard.
Were you cutting in a small room?
Sometime big, sometime small. They had sound rooms, and sometimes I'd be in a big studio, but they put a booth around me to keep the sound in. Not all the time, but most of the time. They put a ply board under your feet, and your feet would just tap it.
Would your amp be set up near you?
Were you cutting with one mike at first?
Yeah. One mike. They didn't have all that stuff they got now. The records was good quality, though.
Were you surprised hearing yourself on playback?
Oh, yeah. [Laughs heartily.] Felt good, yeah. Sure did.
Can you remember the first record that came out with your name on it?
On a big [78 rpm] record? I would say "Hobo Blues." It wasn't as big a hit as "Boogie Chillen," but I think that was the first record.
Do you recall writing that song?
I used to hear a lot of blues singers sing it years and years before I recorded it. I just did it.
What record changed your life the most?
"Boogie Chillen." It was my first hit.
Were you playing it before you recorded it?
Yeah. Played it around in clubs, right there in Detroit. That became a big hit. Everywhere you went, you could hear that. It was number one throughout the country, right up there with "In the Mood"-that was number one too.
Did the success ever cause you trouble?
People be jealous, some of them. I know some people hate to see you doin' good.
Isn't that something?
It sure is! [Laughs.] They hate to see you doin' good! I never did understand that. I was makin' money, doin' good. Quit a job. I was playin' music, buyin' cars. They jealous! I never could understand that-I don't think I ever will. They want to see you down so they can have pity on you.
the musicians you've worked with, who was your closest friend?
Well, it's pretty hard. The musician I worked with that was the closest, he's not real famous. He tried to be. Eddie Burns. You heard of Eddie?
He started playing harmonica for you in Detroit around '49.
Yeah! He could play harmonica. Oooh! He is so good. We was so close, good friends, and he listened to me a lot to get a lot of his stuff. But later he wasn't playing guitar as good as he was then. He adopted my style, and he could also play a different style, but it was still the blues. I liked him because he was such a nice person. Me and him was just like brothers. Still is. I never see him, but once in a while I talk to him. We were real close. When we come to Detroit, I was just starting out, you know. And Eddie Kirkland. You ever heard of Eddie Kirkland?
The records you made with him kick-ass.
It kicks butt, doesn't it? Yeah, the stuff I made with him was kick-butt, kick-butt. Oh, yeah. I got one on there now [on Don't Look Back] me and him wrote called "You Ain't No Big Thing, Baby." It's on that new record.
Whose idea was it to team you with Eddie Kirkland? In those days cutting with a second guitarist was something different.
Bernie Besman. You heard of him?
An executive at Modern?
Yeah. He was no connection with me-I was just on that label-but he knowed Eddie. Bernie had a big distributing company. Distribute the records all over the world-Modern and almost anybody else. So I met Eddie Kirkland. My first record was with him on the Sensation label. Then "Boogie Chillen" got so big Bernie couldn't handle it, so he threw it over to Modern.
How did your studio setup change when you started bringing in a second guitarist?
Eddie Kirkland and I used different amps in the studio, different mikes.
Did he play slide on any of your early tracks?
No. I never known Eddie to. He wasn't a slide person.
Were the two of you aware of what Muddy Waters and Jimmy Rogers were doing on two guitars?
Later on, yeah.
When you hooked up with Kirkland, which of you was the better guitar player.
I never say I'm better than anybody, you know. That's a word I wouldn't use-I'm "better" than you or he's "better" than me. Different styles. You just play. I never say I'm better than Eddie, and Eddie never say he's better than me. I just got a bigger break than he got. He never did get the break he should. He still ain't got it. Muddy said you can never be the best musician-you can only be a good one.
Right. That's true. You can be a good one, but you can never be the best one. Who is the best one?
I don't know.
It could change from night to night.
It can. I don't like a lot of fast pickin', loud music. [Imitates a shred solo.] That ain't music. That's a lot of fast notes. Showin' off-that's all it is! A lot of fast notes and loud too! If I'm there with people like that, I gets up and go. I says, "Let's go. Take me to my car." A lot of loud music ain't got no feelin'. It's fast, but that's all it is. I like it so funky. When I play the boogie, I play with a funky beat, but not [imitates a shred solo]. I go [sings a walking bass line]-that's it. This fast stuff, that's for the birds. That's not the real blues. You can't play really hard, deep blues really fast.
Few people can do an effective one-chord song like you or Muddy.
They don't do that. That's the real, real blues. Deep, deep blues. It ain't a lot of fancy notes-you don't need a lot of notes-although I can do that if I want to.
That seems like something white rockers brought to it.
Yeah. A lot of black kids doin' it, but not as many as white kids doin' it.
feel closer to the electric guitar than the acoustic?
Now I do. I'll tell you why I love acoustic: That's all I used to play. I loved it. Still do. Now everybody plays the electric guitar because you got to because of the clubs you play in. There is no more coffeehouses. Everybody drinkin', they loud. You got to have electric guitar to be heard-not real loud, but so people can hear you without drowning their ears out. Playing acoustic guitar, if people talk they can't hear you. In the old days in the coffeehouses, you'd sit there and just play the acoustic guitar and people enjoy when you playin'. They'd just sit there, and the waitress don't even serve 'til you get through playin'. Dead quiet. They wanted to hear. Now people don't want to hear. They want to be dancin' and jumpin'. So you got that, but I still don't play too loud. I had a guy with me who was so loud, I had to let him go. I couldn't get him to slow down. He was good too.
When you were cutting at Chess with Eddie Burns, did you work parts out in advance
Sometimes, yeah. Eddie, he liked to work out things, which is good.
Would you take turns soloing?
No, I really didn't do that. I did mostly rhythm. I'd do it sometimes though.
It must be tough to find rhythm players who can do your style right.
Yeah. Rich Kirch can. [Snaps fingers] Like that. He's a nice guy. Oh, he's my buddy.
In his autobiography B.B. talks about how tough it was to cross over to the mainstream audience in the '60s.
Yeah! It was tough! I was the first who did it.
Was that because you were lucky, or because Lonnie Johnson was gone?
Yeah. Well, Lonnie Johnson did it. He was the first that did it.
When he went over to Europe in '59.
Oh, boom! He was right there. And I was the next one. Muddy asked me. He said, "God-damned motherfucker, how you get over there? All those god-damned white kids love you." He said, "Yeah, those white kids love John Lee Hooker. How in the hell you get that?" I said, "I don't know, Muddy. They all like me there." B.B. told me one time, "John, I'm out there with all them white kids, and they all be asking me about you." "They do?" "Yeah!" So I said, "Well, B.B., I don't know. They just like what I do."
Didn't T-Bone play piano on a record you made in Germany in '62?
You talkin' about "Shake It Baby." Whoo! He was good on piano. He could rock away.
Did you ever play piano?
No. I wanted to, but I didn't.
Have you learned any instruments besides guitar?
Harmonica. I play it once in a while around the house.
Who did you like among the harp players?
Little Walter. I like his style. He brought harp up to date. He could make it sound like a saxophone or do anything he wanted to do with it. Everybody tryin' to be like Little Walter. He was a mean guy, but he was nice. He didn't take no stuff off of nobody. He was a fighter, but he didn't pick fights, though. He just didn't back down.
Who's the meanest bluesman you ever met?
That's a good question. [Long pause.] Everybody was nice to me. They say Sonny Boy [Williamson], but I never knew Sonny Boy.
The first one or Aleck Miller?
The old one.
He had a tough sound.
Yeah, he did. I know the other Sonny Boy Williamson real good. I liked him, but he was a mean one when he got to drinking.
Do you have good memories of your years in Detroit?
Very good! I grew up there. I got a son back there now. Robert's back there. Got a lot of memories there, but I don't want to live there any more.
What made you leave Detroit in the '70s?
After me and my wife broke up-I divorced her-there was nothin' there for me no more, so I come out here [to California]. I'd been out here a few times and I liked it, so after my divorce I come back.
Have you been married more than once?
Four times. I ain't never gonna get married again. I mess around some now, you know, but not like I used to. I may shack. When you're shackin', you do wrong and you can get the hell out! No, I ain't gettin' married no more. That's a big responsibility, and you might get a woman you don't know. You think you do, but she starts running around, cheating and going on-I don't want that. Just come in, stay awhile and get out. Sometimes a woman thinks she wants to marry you, and after she gets married to you, she gonna find different and want to start trouble. And if God call you today, you want someone that's gonna take care of your kids.
In his new book, B.B. King writes of having 15 children.
Is that what he said? I don't believe that.
He had most of them in the '50s.
That's new to me. Fifteen kids-hmmh!
How many kids do you have?
Are you in touch with all of them?
Yeah. They're all grown up. Sometimes they ain't always right, but you still love 'em. They do little things you don't appreciate, but you love 'em.
Were you a strict dad?
Well, you know, I didn't go overboard, but they lived according to my rules. My rules wasn't hard rules: Do the right thing. Be home at a decent hour. When kids do some things that you don't approve of, you talk to 'em. You tell them what you don't like and what you do like, and hope that they don't do that anymore.
Did you raise your kids to believe in God and Jesus?
Oh, yeah, because I do. I'm a Jehovah's Witness.
Were you that most of your life?
No. I was a Baptist. My family was too.
What led you to become a Jehovah's Witness?
God is Jehovah. I come to believe in that. You don't have to be sanctified, but you do the right thing in life and love people and believe in him. I always do.
Do you think there's a heaven?
I believe in paradise. It's here on earth. "He will clean the wicked and save the righteous." God will never destroy this earth. He'll destroy the evil on this earth, but he invented this earth. When, we don't know. It's been here forever. He's not gonna destroy this earth. He'll destroy the people that are on it and do evil. He will clean this up, and the righteous will survive. That's what I believe in. I could be wrong.
Once you pass away, will your spirit know other spirits?
That I don't know.
Have you ever been visited by a spirit?
Oh, yeah. My mother. I have seen her in my dreams and in my sleep. I've seen her vision walk into my room as a spirit.
Do you believe in the power of prayer?
Yes. May be wrong to believe it, but I believe in prayer. I was taught to believe in prayer. What do you go to church for? You just pray in the church. I believe there's a God, but can he hear you? I don't know. I hope he do.
Did God give you your special talent for blues?
Yeah, I believe he did. Nobody can tell me different. I don't read and write that good, so God give it to me. See, God gave you your talent. God give you everything you got. I don't think he gave you evil, though. I think the devil put evil in you, and God put the good things in you-the prayer, the gift, the talent. What I got, it's not in a book. The blues is not in a book. It's here [taps forehead] and here [taps heart]. If it's in a book, it's fictitious. Oh, you can write the lyrics down as you think of 'em, but it comes from here [the head] and here [the heart], and then you put it in the book so you don't forget it. I can go into a studio [snaps fingers] and just write on the spot. The talent that I got is a natural-born gift from God.
People say, "How you do it?" I say, "I can't tell you how to do it. You got to have a talent and a gift." When people get it out of a book and study for days to make a song, it takes the feeling away. It can't come from there. You got to feel it. Sometimes when I get so deep into it, teardrops come into my eyes. I get so commotion from the blues that the good feeling make me so sad that I feel the teardrops.
Are there times it makes you happy?
All the time, yes. Real happy. Sometimes I'm so happy that that's what cause the tears-feelin' so good. They not hurtin' tears. They happy tears.
Being able to express yourself with blues songs is a good way to let go of stress.
Very easy. That's what I do. You can pick up a guitar and sing-it heals you. There's a song called "The Healer"-"blues is a healer." You play that song, and it heals your mind. Just keep on doin' that, and it takes away a lot of the evil and the stress, because you know you can't change nothin', but you can try to forget it or live with it through your music. The name of my new album is called Don't Look Back. Don't look back to the things that happened to you in the past-the bad, the ugly. Leave it behind. You can't change it. When you think of some of the good things you did, you hope that you keep on doing good things in life, like lovin' people. I believe in one race-that's the human race. God made us all. We's all different colors and different languages, but we all God's children. He created us all. Everyone.
Why have so many women been attracted to blues music?
Well, it tells the story about women and men. That's what music is all about. It's about being human and love and hate. You hear the blues talk about "my woman have left me." "I love you baby." "Honey, don't go." "Come on back." You talking about a woman, you talking about a man. They feel different things. Every song I write says something about a human being, just like a man write about a woman. I don't write about no man! [Laughs.] I wrote about a woman for a song called "Dimples," you know. [Sings "She got dimples in her jaw."] She says, "Well, I like that," because it saying good things about her. "She got dimples in her jaw." "I like the way she walk." "She wiggle when she walks." You know, they like stuff like that. You ain't gonna write a song called "I Hate You-You're No Good." They wouldn't like that! So you got to say good things about women-they love it then.
Are any of your songs closest to your heart?
Yeah. "In the Mood," "Dimples," "Boom Boom" and "Boogie Chillen," I would say.
Have you ever had a hard time writing songs?
Yeah. I write it one way, I don't like it. I try to change it, do it another way, then I don't like that. Try to do it another way, and it still not what you want.
Have your most popular songs come quickly?
Yeah. "Boom Boom," "Boogie Chillen," "Dimples."
Are there songs where the only time you ever played them was when you recorded them.?
Yeah, a few. Not too many of them, though. Most of them I played. Like you said, once you record them, sometime you don't do them again. You got so many to pick from when you're playing nightclubs, you pick the best ones that you like and people like. Some songs you do on record just to fill the record out.
What do you think when people want you to sound like you did decades ago?"
I don't ever play it. Them days are gone. You don't ever sound like that again. You sound kind of like that, but you don't sound altogether like that. B.B. don't play that stuff anymore, although I love it. I love that downhome feeling of "Rock Me Baby"-that's my favorite of what he played. Every time I see him, when I walk into the room, he says, "Uh-oh. I gotta play 'Rock Me Baby.' Here's my man! I gotta play that song or I can't get out of here!" I like that and "The Thrill Is Gone."
Is it safe to say you're making more money off your Pepsi commercial than you made all during the '50s?
Ooh-wee! Oh, man, five time more. Ten time more! That one commercial [snaps fingers], they owe a million. A hundred thousand up front, and every time they show it I get a royalty. I'm ready for another one! That's better than the studio, and it didn't take that long.
Are you happy with the way your life has gone?
Yeah. I'm doin' better than ever with money and success and stuff like that-just got older. I still got six houses in California, and I'm set for life. But I don't care about being rich.
What do you care about most of all?
People. People, people, people. Love and friendship. People getting along-that's what I like. I don't believe in who is you-God made us all. I want to love people.
Are you a peace maker?
I try. Sometimes it work, sometimes it don't. I usually have a piece of mind and give a piece of mind.
What's the best reason for becoming a blues performer?
Some of them do it for the money, some of them do it to be famous. Some get into it and be serious, some get into it and want to be a star and be heard. I'm not in it for the money. I'm in it because I love it. I love it! I'll never retire from music, 'cause it's in my blood. Sometime I'm not able to play-sometimes I'm sick and I can't play-but it's always here [thumps his heart]. Always here.
John Lee Hooker interview copyright 1997 by Jas Obrecht. Used by author's permission.