Hooked on boogie: Two exhibits cater to fans of blues legend John Lee Hooker

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Photo by Paul Natkin / Getty Images

John Lee Hooker

“I’m the first person that really got the boogie goin’. Everybody now is boogie-this and boogie-that — but I am the original. And the word comes from Boogie Chillen. When Boogie Chillen first came out, everywhere you went you would hear that, ’cause that was a new beat to the blues then. And that was the boogie. And then it laid dead for years and years and then I revived it …”

— John Lee Hooker, 1979 interview with Living Blues magazine

John Lee Hooker’s Boogie Chillen reached No. 1 on the R&B charts in February 1949 and, with its “new beat,” it launched one of blues’ most remarkable, resilient and singular careers.

A one-chord paean to simple pleasures that mixed traditional and modern sounds, Boogie Chillin’ resonated with the sensibilities of many contemporary African Americans who, like the then Detroit-based Hooker, had left the Deep South for a new life up North. Nearly 70 years later, the appeal of Hooker’s music has hardly waned, and his inimitable sound and his iconic cool persona continue to symbolize blues authenticity.

Hooker has been honored via multiple Mississippi bicentennial celebrations, including coordinated exhibits at Grammy Museum Mississippi in Cleveland — John Lee Hooker: King of the Boogie opened Aug. 22 — and the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale — John Lee Hooker: Endless Boogie opened in late July. Both are being staged in tandem with the Fourth Annual International Conference on the Blues, Oct. 1-3 at Delta State University, which will have a John Lee Hooker theme.

Photo by Will Jacks

John Lee Hooker: King of the Boogie will be on exhibit through Feb. 18, 2018, at Grammy Museum Mississippi in Cleveland.

Hooker was born on a farm 10 miles southeast of Clarksdale, near Vance, on Aug. 22, 1917, one of 11 children of Minnie and William Hooker. He got his first guitar from his sister’s boyfriend, Tony Hollins, a recording artist whose Crawlin’ King Snake would later provide Hooker with his second hit and whose Traveling Man Blues Hooker would later record as When My First Wife Quit Me.

The main inspiration of his sound, though, was his stepfather, Will Moore, who never recorded.

“I’m doin’ it identical to his style,” Hooker once said of Moore, a native of Shreveport who had performed with Charley Patton.

Hooker decided early on that sharecropping wasn’t for him, and by his mid-teens he left home for good, stopping in Memphis and Cincinnati before settling in Detroit in 1943. Hooker initially worked day jobs, playing at house parties and clubs in Detroit’s Black Bottom district on the weekends. His first real recording session in late 1948 yielded Boogie Chillen, which was leased to Los Angeles’ Modern label.

“The thing caught afire,” he recalled in Living Blues. “It was ringin’ all around the country. When it come out, every jukebox you went to, every place you went to, every drug store you went, everywhere you went, department stores, they were playing it there.”

Hooker continued to produce hit after hit, including I’m In The Mood, Hobo Blues and Crawling King Snake, and avoided contractual restrictions by recording for various labels under aliases — the relatively transparent John Lee Booker, John Lee Cooker and Johnny Lee, as well the more arcane sobriquets Birmingham Sam and His Magic Guitar and Little Pork Chops.

Photo by Paul Natkin / Getty Imges

John Lee Hooker

Hooker’s ability to find so much work owed much to his rare ability to improvise new and high quality songs on demand, and the breadth of his recording legacy is expressed through the release of more than 100 albums. Hooker’s predilection for label hopping ended, temporarily at least, in 1955, when he signed with the Chicago-based label Vee-Jay, for whom he recorded, among others, the 1956 hit Dimples.

In the latter ’50s, Hooker became one of the first bluesmen to benefit from the emergent folk/blues revival, appearing at the 1960 and 1963 Newport Folk Festivals, recording albums for folk-oriented labels and gigging on the coffeehouse circuit. These new audiences also were interested in buying his older recordings, which were readily repackaged as “authentic folk blues.”

After a 1962 tour of Europe with the American Folk Blues Festival, Hooker became a frequent guest in the United Kingdom, staying for extended tours, recording with the Groundhogs in 1964 and drawing the attention of the rock crowd after the Animals had a hit with Boom Boom, originally recorded by Hooker for Vee-Jay in 1962.

With the collapse of Vee-Jay in 1965, Hooker returned to label hopping, but he was now largely recording albums instead of singles. In 1971, he gained the attention of the American rock audience when he recorded the album Hooker ‘n Heat with the band Canned Heat. Despite his continuing power as a performer, Hooker’s career declined during the ’70s, though he gained renewed attention in 1980 with his appearance in the Blues Brothers, performing outdoors on Chicago’s famed Maxwell Street.

His career rebounded in 1989 with the success of his album The Healer, which paired him with younger admirers, including Bonnie Raitt, Robert Cray, Los Lobos, Carlos Santana and fellow Mississippian and friend Charlie Musselwhite.

Over the course of his last decade, Hooker became a wealthy man, selling millions of records, appearing in high-profile commercials for Lee jeans and Pepsi and commanding top dollar for his performances with his Coast to Coast Blues Band. Hooker’s increased celebrity coincided with the growing prominence of the blues in popular culture, and he arguably became the blues’ most recognizable icon. In his expensive suit, hat and dark glasses, attire he also donned while at home, Hooker stood as regal and the epitome of cool, a man Miles Davis called “the funkiest man alive.”

Hooker, who remained quite vigorous in his frequent performances, died in his sleep on June 21, 2001, at his home in Los Altos, Calif. He’s fondly remembered by his friends for his style, humility, generosity, love of family and friends, passion for baseball (he was an avid Dodgers fan) and as a ladies’ man whose charms captivated the women and left men in awe.

Photo by Danny Clinch

Blues musician Charlie Musselwhite

His close friend Charlie Musselwhite recalled, “He was always the same John Lee as the first time I met him. His outlook, his personality, his character, his humor, the way he looked at things, he was always John Lee.”

One of Musselwhite’s favorite stories about Hooker concerns his famously laid-back nature. Hooker had promised to overdub a part for a musician’s album, but kept putting him off until they finally agreed that they could record at Hooker’s home.

“So this guy comes over there one day and knocks on the door and this girl answers the door and says, ‘Well, John’s in the bed watching TV.’ So they go back there … and John never even gets out of the bed. He’s layin’ there with his shades on watchin’ the ballgame and they turn the sound down on the TV and hold the microphone to him and put the headphones on him. And they played the cut and he does his part and they leave and he never even raised up. So that’s being pretty relaxed. And that’s also gettin’ things to work out the way you want it to.”


Scott Barretta is a writer and researcher for the Mississippi Blues Trail and an adjunct instructor in sociology and anthropology at the University of Mississippi