Throughout 2018, Epiphone and the John Lee Hooker Foundation will celebrate the Centennial of the birth of John Lee Hooker--the Crawling Kingsnake--one of the most influential and distinctive musicians of the 20th century. Hooker was born August 22, 1917 in Clarksdale, Mississippi and early in his life developed a deceptively sophisticated and dynamic style that mixed boogie, swing, and Piedmont blues guitar. Hooker was also a gifted songwriter and many of his singles--"Boom, Boom", "Dimples," "I'm In the Mood," "Serves You Right To Suffer," and his trademark "Boogie Chillen,'" have become American standards with covers by Ry Cooder, Bob Dylan, Tom Jones, and Nick Cave. Hooker's style was a thoroughly modern knot of rural grit and a seemingly uncompromised view of urban life, even though Hooker himself didn't subscribe to his tough image.
"You may not believe this," John Lee told Jas Obrecht at Living Blues, "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."
John Lee grew up in the rural country between Clarksdale and Vance Mississippi. "Clarksdale was a pretty good-sized city, and I used to go there all the time," he recalled. "They had everything around Clarksdale... I loved Charley Patton, Blind Lemon, Blind Blake, Leroy Carr. I didn't see these people, but I heard their music. My stepfather had all those records."
After learning guitar, he played locally at house parties before moving to Detroit in hopes of making records after brief stops in Memphis and Cincinnati. "I wanted to go to Detroit where there wasn't no competition between blues singers."
John Lee found work as a janitor in area auto factories while recording and playing wherever he could. In his off time, he performed at informal concerts and local bars where he was discovered by local record store owner, Elmer Barbee. Barbee introduced John Lee to record producer Bernard Besman, who recorded him at studios around Detroit including United Studio (also famous for early sessions for Parliament and Aretha Franklin). Besman then leased the recordings to Modern Records, a blues and R&B label based in Los Angeles and run by the Bihari Brothers, Saul, Jules, and Joe, whose artists included B.B. King, Etta James, and Ike & Tina Turner. By 1948, John Lee's "Boogie Chillen" was a local jukebox hit in Detroit and went on to become a million seller.
Bigger hits followed with "I'm In The Mood," "Crawling Snake", "Hobo Blues," "Boom, Boom," and more than 100 other releases during the 1950s and 1960s. During his time in Detroit, Hooker moved from acoustic guitar to solo electric guitar, tapping his foot for accompaniment. The stark sound of the recordings, which were enhanced with tape delay, were unlike any blues recordings released by Sun, Chess, or RPM in Los Angeles.
One of our favorite recordings during these years is The Unknown John Lee Hooker, recorded in 1949 at a private performance in the Detroit home of music fan and cartoonist Gene Deitch. Luckily, Deitch had an early reel to reel recorder and captured John Lee on acoustic guitar performing ballads like "Jack O'Diamonds," and "Trouble In Mind,"--songs that were formative to his writing and artistic vision. The recordings went unreleased for nearly 50 years.
"That's all I used to play," Hooker told Living Blues. "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."
In the 1950s, John Lee's contemporaries like fellow Delta-born artists Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, and Sonny Boy Williamson, were making powerful records that featured full bands, a necessity in Chicago's raucous post-war clubs. Eventually after moving to Vee Jay records in the late 50s, Hooker also recorded with a small combo in the studio and on the road but kept his guitar, and his foot, at the forefront. In 1961, Hooker's main electric guitar became an Epiphone Zephyr, which he used throughout the 60s before moving to an Epiphone Sheraton ,which he referred to as an "outdid 335."
John Lee relocated from Detroit to San Francisco in 1970 where he made friends with a younger generation of players like Bonnie Raitt, Jack Casady, Van Morrison, and Carlos Santana that had idolized his records.
The new collection King of the Boogie is the first comprehensive set that features John Lee's entire discography from hit singles for Modern Records through his work with Vee Jay in Chicago in the 50s and early 60s and his all-star collaborations with friends and admirers including Eric Clapton, George Thorogood, Santana, and B.B. King. The box set will also include a 56-page book by Jas Obrecht.
In addition, the Centennial of John Lee's birthday will be celebrated with a new exhibition of photographs, original guitars, and memorabilia at the GRAMMY Museum in Los Angeles where it will open after its debut in late 2017 at the GRAMMY Museum in Cleveland, Mississippi.
Epiphone and the John Lee Hooker Estate will continue to celebrate the life of "John Lee" throughout 2018. Also, be sure to check out the new box set King of the Boogie where you can hear his iconic and super rare 1961 Epiphone Zephyr--seen in the photo above--in action. Hooker's 1961 Epiphone was one of only 13 Natural Zephyrs made that year and only 45 Zephyrs were produced between 1959 and 1963, making it one of the rarest Epiphone electric guitars. It's now been 55 years since the last Epiphone Zephyr. Is it time for a comeback? Stay tuned to Epiphone.com for details.