The Sound of Teardrops
At 80, John Lee Hooker still plays blues the right way.
By Ted Drozdowski
JANUARY 5, 1998: How deep is John Lee Hooker's blues? "You can't go no deeper than me and my guitar," he says. "I open my mouth, and it's there. I get so deep the teardrops come into my eyes. That's why I wear my dark glasses -- so you won't see the teardrops."
But you can hear them -- in a voice that's echoed with prickly lamentation ever since Hooker was a young man. They're right in his initial string of singles, which were cut for Modern Records from 1948 to '51 after he was discovered moonlighting in Detroit bars with a four-piece band.
Granted, Hooker's first record was the atypically themed solo performance "Boogie Chillun," his uptempo fantasy about a boy who's "got the boogie inside him, and it's just got to come out." But the rest of Hooker's Modern legacy -- "Crawlin' King Snake," "Weeping Willow Boogie," "Hobo Blues," "John L's House Rent Boogie, "I'm in the Mood" -- is steeped in unrequited desire, economic hardship, and brooding menace. Even if Hooker had never recorded again, those songs and his idiosyncratic take on vamping electric blues guitar would have guaranteed him a place in the history of American music.
Of course Hooker has spent the past four decades recording and touring, ascending the blues hierarchy until he's second only to B.B. King as its most important living figure. He's been embraced as a mentor and friend by pop stars such as Bonnie Raitt and Carlos Santana, and provided ZZ Top with the rudiments of their hit-making boogie-based sound. He's appeared on TV and in movies. For a time, his presence almost made Pepsi commercials tolerable.
Last year Hooker turned 80 and announced his retirement from touring. He was duly honored with his own star in Hollywood's Walk of Fame -- alongside such great American entertainers as John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe, and Fred Astaire. In a sense, that event marked Hooker's transition from bluesman to cultural icon. Yet through it all -- even with the string of lackluster CDs he's made in the late-'80s and '90s -- he's never lost touch with the well those teardrops spring from, never quite shaken all the Delta dust off his natty sharkskin pants cuffs.
Today, Hooker spends time between his homes in Los Angeles and a San Francisco suburb, occasionally playing clubs and recording major-label albums such as last year's Don't Look Back (Pointblank), or inspiring collectors' treats like the new compilation The Complete '50s Chess Recordings (MCA; due in stores January 13). He travels by limo and loves being surrounded by beautiful young women, who seem to enjoy surrounding him. He certainly seems to be living up to the title of his 1991 CD, Mr. Lucky (Charisma/Pointblank).
"I'm one of the greatest blues singers in the world, but I don't think of myself as that," he told me, with his usual mix of humility and pride, when we last spoke. "I never dreamed I would become this famous. But I knew I would do a lot of good music, that I wouldn't have to always work in a factory. I'm just a guy that's got something to give."
And that something is the chills. Like the other great Mississippi bluesmen who were his peers -- innovators such as Son House, Robert Johnson, Charley Patton, and Muddy Waters -- Hooker has made music that touches a nerve with its timeless humanity and power. His songs seem to echo not just the trials of urban life and his farmland upbringing, but something elemental -- perhaps spiritual -- that rises out of the rich Delta soil like a will-o'-the-wisp.
The rush of history and emotions he presses into a hellfire-and-retribution epic such as "Tupelo," about the disastrous storm that flattened that notoriously racist Mississippi town like a backhand from God, is nearly overwhelming. It's in tunes like "Tupelo" where Hooker's art approximates that of the African griot, the solo performer who chronicles the history of his village and its families, often accompanied by a kora or other stringed instrument used expressly to amplify the events of his stories. That quality surfaces in Hooker's playing even on songs that were written as singles. On his 1951 hit "I'm in the Mood," the short solo break he tosses in after a chorus does nothing more than amplify the pent-up sexual desire of his lyrics.
But to consider Hooker's playing a direct link to African culture would be an oversimplification. The basics of Hooker's percolating one-chord approach to the blues was directly handed down by his stepfather, the Louisiana-born guitarist Will Moore, in the late 1920s. Moore's primal funk was typical of the playing of rural Louisiana's country bluesmen, as the albums of fellow Louisianan Robert Pete Williams' verify.
Hooker recounts that Moore "taught me, 'Do it this way or no way. This is the blues. Don't come to no fancy chords, don't come to no fast playing.' And he was right. When I moved up north to Detroit, that's what made me stand out."
Actually, by the time Hooker left his native Clarksdale, Mississippi, at age 14, he was developing his own fusion of songwriting and picking -- drawing lyric inspiration from records by Charley Patton and lead-playing notions from the Texas bluesmen recording at the time. His sliding runs and rapid trills may owe something in particular to Blind Lemon Jefferson. When Hooker signed to Modern, he was still enamored of the flashy soloing associated with Texas blues. In fact, Hooker chose Detroit over Chicago as the destination for his migration north, fearing the Windy City's musical competition. But to his surprise, he discovered that the Texas hotshot T-Bone Walker had beaten him there. "He was the hottest guy around," Hooker admits. "I idoled him like God." After his Modern singles, Hooker's recordings have mostly been with bands -- from the trios, quartets, and quintets of his '60s recordings for the Riverside, Vee-Jay, BluesWay, and Chess labels, to his eight-piece collaborations with Van Morrison and Los Lobos on '97's Don't Look Back. In the '60s and '70s, however, he could still be frequently heard performing solo in coffeehouses. Yet his best album of that era is 1967's amazing Live at the Café Au-Go-Go (BluesWay), where he's backed by one of Muddy Waters's stellar bands -- Muddy plus Sammy Lawhorn and Luther "Guitar Junior" Johnson on guitars, pianist Otis Spann, bassist Mac Arnold, and Francis Clay on drums. It's there he delivers a blood-curdling version of his story of betrayal and intimidation, "I'm Bad like Jesse James." Hooker's performance, as the late music scholar Robert Palmer once put it, occupies "a twilight zone between speech and song."
Nearly 50 years after his first recording session, Hooker is still capable of potent performances -- whether he's moaning "Serve Me Right To Suffer" like a lone wolf, hammering out his pain in rapid cascades of biting low-end guitar notes, or leaping from his chair -- as he did during his last Great Woods concert -- to dash around the front of the stage and lead the crowd in boisterous choruses of his trademark "how-how-how-how."
Regardless of the context he's in, Hooker's ambition has been unswerving and ultimately lucrative through all the years. He states without hesitation that he's simply been interested in being himself.
"I was working in a plant as a janitor when 'Boogie Chillun' became a tremendous big hit. Everywhere you went that was all you'd hear," he recalls. "I said, 'I don't need this broom; I can make it on my own.'
"Nobody sounds like John Lee Hooker. John Lee Hooker is all different -- different stories, different worries, different sounds. That's what makes me outstanding, I would think."
How to hear 'the Hook'Want a crash course in John Lee Hooker's patented blues sound? Check out these recommendations.
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