“Hooker is part of a rapidly thinning group—the first line of the postwar bluesmen, who put the R in R&B, and he stands as a link between the field hollers of old and the smack-soul of today.”
“Nothin’ but the best, and later for the rest of the mess,” John Lee Hooker has been fond of announcing between songs in performances over the past several years, and for the same length of time he has consistently offered just that.
The legion of rock stars or groups who have drawn not only on his material but his style seems infinite, and includes the Stones, the Animals, Cream, Johnny Winter, and Canned Heat.
Hook is one of the greatest exponents of urban blues and R&B, but as he says, “Man, it’s all blues to me.” At an earlier stage in his music, he was a direct descendant in the line of Delta bluesmen which stretched from Charlie Patton and Son House to Robert Johnson and Bukka White.
One of eleven brothers and sisters, Hooker was born near Clarksdale, Mississippi in 1917. Early instruction on guitar came from his stepfather, William Moore, and from Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Blake, and Charlie Patton, who used to visit the Moore household frequently.
By the time he was 14, he was already an accomplished musician playing at dances, picnics, houseparties, and fish-fries. And at that age he left home, heading first for Memphis where, during the Depression, he worked as an usher at the New Daisy picture show. He also sang in a gospel choir in one of the city’s Baptist churches. Two years later he moved to Cincinnati, and finally settled in Detroit in 1943 taking up work in one of the motor plants.
In the evenings he began to work frequently in the Motor City’s night clubs where his dark, evocative vocals and the rhythmic surge of his guitar accompaniment caught the ear of a talent scout for the West Coast-based Modern Records label. His first record for the label in 1948 coupled “Sallie May” with “Boogie Chillun.” It was a massive hit, and his instant success led to a number of recording sessions on other labels—under a variety of pseudonyms because he was under contract to Modern. He was an original, one-of-a-kind, the pioneer of R&B.
Hooker signed on with Vee Jay, a Chicago label, in 1955 and stayed with them for nine years. Strangely, his first album (as opposed to R&B singles) was recorded in 1959 for Riverside (“by arrangement with Vee Jay”), and in that year he also became a darling of the folk club circuit.
The first record released by the Spencer Davis Group in Britain was Hooker’s “Dimples” in March 1964. At the same time Hooker made a surprise tour of the country and his own version of the song was issued. The nation took to Hooker and the Davis record stiffed.
Pretty much since then, Hooker has been accepted simply as an artist by people listening to all kinds of music. No strings or categories attached.
The music presented in Boogie Chillun was recorded for Fantasy’s associate Galaxy label. The first two sides were recorded at the now-defunct Sugar Hill club in San Francisco’s North Beach area. Sides three and four were recorded in November 1962 during that same Sugar Hill engagement, and have never been previously issued.
Hooker’s recording has been so prolific that no single release could be claimed to be his absolute best. That is not the intent with the package at hand. In compiling this music, the effort has been to achieve a balance between versions of Hooker’s hits as a reference point, and songs which he has recorded far less frequently, which are as a result, not so well known.
John Lee Hooker died on June 21, 2001
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