Today marks the Centennial of the birth of John Lee Hooker, the Crawlin' Kingsnake, the Boogie Woogie Matador, The Hook, and one of the most imitated bluesman ever, born August 22, 1917 in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Hooker's style, a deceptively sophisticated and dynamic roux of boogie, swing, and Piedmont style guitar, was a thoroughly modern knot of rural grit and urban toughness, much like the man himself. His records are still powerful--easy to love and admire--but slippery to imitate. Many have tried. Few have come close.
Hooker became renowned in the 40s and 50s when his contemporaries--fellow Delta-born artists like Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, and Sonny Boy Williamson--were making powerful records that featured electric guitars and full bands to be better heard in raucous post-war clubs. Hooker chose a different path, performing solo on electric guitar accompanied only by the tap of his foot. Even when leading a large combo, Hooker's groove remained the nerve that ran through through every tune.
Although many of Hooker's records were published by Chicago-based labels like Vee Jay and Chess, he made his home in Detroit which gave his sound and his public persona a unique aura that matched his ineffable combination of aloofness, toughness, and decency. On stage, Hooker came across as both someone who would welcome a hand extended in friendship as well a man you would not want to cross. I saw Hooker perform at a bar near the campus of Purdue University and silence a group of pesky college boys at the front of the stage who were hassling him in between songs. "I got here a pistol in my pocket,"
he said, softly patting his pumpkin colored leather coat, "and I'm not afraid to use it."
In the early 1940s while still in his 20s, John Lee moved to the Motor City where he found work as a janitor in area auto factories while recording and playing wherever he could. In his off time, he performed at house parties and local bars where he was discovered by local record store owner, Elmer Barbee. Barbee introduced John Lee to record producer Bernard Besman who took John Lee into the studio, leasing the recordings to Modern Records. By 1948, one of John Lee's "Boogie Chillen" was a local a jukebox hit and went on to become a million seller. Bigger hit followed with "I'm In The Mood" followed by "Crawling Snake", "Hobo Blues," "Boom, Boom," and more than 100 other releases during the 1950s and 1960s.
Hooker's records influenced generations of rock and rollers not to mention country artists. He was also a friend to every musician who crossed his path including Muddy Waters, Michael Bloomfield, Carlos Santana, Bob Dylan, Peter Wolf, Jack Casady, Ry Cooder, Carl Perkins, George Thorogood, and Bonnie Raitt among many others. He was a gentleman through and through and loved Epiphone instruments throughout his professional career, most famously calling the Epiphone Sheraton
-one of his favorite on-stage instruments in his later career--an "outdid 335."
Stay tuned for more good news from Epiphone and the John Lee Hooker Foundation and put some boogie woogie in your life today.