To celebrate the August 22 birthday of John Lee Hooker and last summer's release of the new Ltd. Ed. John Lee Hooker 100th Anniversary Zephyr Outfit, check out the Epiphone playlist of some of our favorite recordings by the Crawling Kingsnake.
Creating a Hooker playlist isn't easy since over his 50 year career, the "King of the Boogie" produced exceptional records and performances as a solo artiset, with a small group, and with special collaborations with friends and admirers B.B. King, Van Morrison, The Rolling Stones, and Carlos Santana. Hooker remains an enigmatic artist who worked outside of blues centers like Chicago and Cincinnati.
Yet his body of work--nearly all of it his own compositions--still retains its original fervor and is a living audio diary of the struggle and ambivalence of African Americans in post-World War II America. Much of Hooker's world is gone but his message and wisdom are evergreen.
John Lee 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 remained virtually unchanged throughout his career and combined rural grit and a seemingly un-compromised 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."
Hooker 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, (Daniel Barker, the legendary Masterbilt guitarist and banjoist for Cab Calloway, was an early influence), Hooker 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."
Hooker found work as a janitor in an auto factory 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, made 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 2018 collection King of the Boogie is the first comprehensive set that features John Lee's entire discography including his rare first 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 also includes a 56-page book by Jas Obrecht.
Make plans today to visit the GRAMMY Museum®'s John Lee Hooker: King Of The Boogie exhibit
featuring a rare 1961 Epiphone Zephyr (the same as Hooker’s original) and the Ltd. Ed. John Lee Hooker 100th Anniversary Zephyr Outfit. The exhibit will continue the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma in Spring 2019.
And stay on Epiphone.com and discover the exclusive demonstration videos by legend Charlie Musselwhite and Hooker’s producer and band musical director, Roy Rogers. Visit your Authorized Epiphone Dealer today and discover the Ltd. Ed. John Lee Hooker 100th Anniversary Zephyr Outfit
which was modeled after Hooker's lost original. The Zephyr Outfit features the historic Zephyr archtop design powered by new Epiphone ProBucker™ Mini-Humbucker humbuckers, Wilkinson® Deluxe machine heads, a Premium Vintage Styled Hard Case, and a leather strap.
The Ltd. Ed. John Lee Hooker Zephyr Outfit was made with the full cooperation of John Lee Hooker's family and is a faithful replica of Hooker's rare 1961 Epiphone Zephyr that was his main instrument on tour and in the studio for over a decade. Hooker's original Zephyr was one of only 13 made in 1961 and only 45 Zephyrs were produced between 1959 and 1963. Visit the product page or see your Authorized Epiphone Dealer for details and turn up the King of the Boogie!