Published February 15, 2018 in Warp & Woof
Boogie Til You Drop
John Lee Hooker and Roots Music
Nobody knows for sure when or where he was born. We know it was somewhere near Clarksdale, Mississippi, probably in 1917, but it could have been 1912, or even 1920. Poor, illiterate, black sharecropper births often didn’t get recorded with birth certificates. But, we do know when and where John Lee Hooker died: peacefully in his sleep, in his 80s, on June 21, 2001 in Los Altos, California. By then, he had spent nearly sixty years performing and recording countless original blues songs based on a primitive, minimalist boogie beat, varying only in tempo and minor rearrangement of chords and lyrics. He also impressed audiences with traditional 12-bar blues renditions, featuring simple, skillful guitar riffs and a deep, rugged Mississippi hill country voice.
He apparently learned guitar from his stepfather, Will Moore, a Mississippi blues performer in the twenties. And, perhaps more significantly, he learned from his sister’s boyfriend, also a blues musician, who gave him his first guitar. All this occurred in childhood – he left his rural Mississippi home at 14.
He journeyed first to Memphis, working as an usher at the Daisy Theater on Beale Street. It’s likely that here he got the idea performing blues might just be a living. He hadn’t launched his career yet, however, when he migrated to Cincinnati, then Detroit, in the 1930s. In Detroit, he began working at Ford, doing janitorial service during WWII.
By now in his mid-twenties, he had not recorded a single song. But he did perform in local Detroit clubs as an amateur. He was “discovered” in Detroit by a record store owner who introduced him to music producer Bernard Besman, who recorded him, then leased the recordings to an LA-based record label, Modern Records. His first song, “Boogie Chillen,” was released on the Modern label in 1948. It was not a complicated song, and featured the same primitive, repetitive beat that would become Hooker’s trademark. It was perhaps the first commercial success for something calling itself “boogie” played on a guitar – previous “boogie woogie” music was always associated with piano.
The audience for his kind of music was still limited in the late ‘40s. Very little radio promotion was available. Few stations (primarily in cities with large African American populations) ever played it. Hooker used a device in this first song, and many that followed, known as “talking blues.” The form had been in existence since the 1920s in folk, or “roots,” music from the South. It may not have been black, originally, but was certainly country. The vocals would be spoken, not sung, with attention given to the beat and the sound of the lyrics, not the notes. A mixture of spoken word and singing characterized much of “the Hook’s” work. Always, he relied on the force of the repetitive beat, his choice of words, and inflection as he spoke, sang, or chanted them. Overall, they create a feeling of dynamic, primitive energy.
Two hits in the 1950s began to establish Hooker’s reputation nationally, at least in the Rhythm and Blues community. They were “I’m in the Mood” (1951) and “Dimples” (1956). There was still a wall between R&B music (primarily a black audience) and emerging Rock-and-Roll. Hooker was clearly on the R&B side of the wall. Yet, these two songs have contributed single lines to many rock, especially “roots rock” lyrics – from I’m in the Mood, we’ve gotten “the night time is the right time” and from Dimples has come “I’ve got my eyes on you” — e.g., Robert Plant’s 1990 “Hurting Kind (I’ve Got My Eyes on You).”
In the early sixties, Hooker travelled to Great Britain, where he seems to have influenced some rising British blues artists, soon to emerge as worldwide sensations – like Keith Richards. This seemed to build confidence in the now middle-aged Hooker, as he saw his appeal spread to a much wider audience. More hits were forthcoming, “Boom Boom” in 1962 and “One Bourbon, One Scotch, and One Beer” in 1966. With the star power of the British invasion on his side (not just the Rolling Stones, but the Animals and Yardbirds), many “roots rock” bands were suddenly eager to claim inspiration from Hooker. George Thorogood made considerable alterations to One Bourbon, One Scotch, and One Beer in the ‘70s, mashing it up with another Hooker song, “House Rent Blues” – while still giving John Lee Hooker full credit, because that sold records for Thorogood and his band, The Destroyers.
When the big budget Hollywood film The Blues Brothers was released in 1980, Hooker played himself, performing “Boom Boom.” Indeed, he was just reaching the peak of his career – which lasted throughout his seventies! And, he was now immersed in California, and Hollywood culture.
Bonnie Raitt recorded a duet with him in 1989’s version of “I’m in the Mood” on his The Healer album, winning a Grammy for them both. He “changed the way I thought” about men in their 70s and 80s, she said. By the mid-1990s, Hooker announced he was scaling back his live performances, yet on the last Saturday night before he died, he performed at a sold-out concert in the Luther Burbank Center, Santa Rosa, CA.
While that simple, minimalist boogie style of blues is “The Hook’s” trademark, and is easily identifiable in all his hits, he did write many softer, sadder blues tunes during his career. Two of my favorites are 1960’s “I Hate the Day I Was Born” and “Feel So Bad” from 1969. These two songs are traditional delta blues, and leave an impression of a man not only down on his luck, but clearly morose. They both feature an almost funereal cadence. “I Hate the Day I Was Born” seems to have a biblical source (Jeremiah 20:14), and alludes to a classic blues symbol of being “born under a bad sign” (see: song of same name recorded for Albert King in 1967, then redone by Cream in 1968). “Feel So Bad” explores childhood trauma, possibly autobiographical — John Lee, the youngest of 11 children, was reputed never to have seen his mother after leaving home at age 14. These songs express real emotional depth, it seems to me.
Another favorite of mine is “Shake It Baby” (1962). Though it falls into the standard John Lee Hooker boogie genre, it still displays an unusually energetic libido! It reminds me of my own youth, and songs like the Rolling Stones’ “Going Home” (1966) — or, as recently as 2010, Jack White and Dead Weather doing “Blue Blood Blues.”
Jack White has recently become interested in roots music, and participated in the American Epic documentary series on PBS. He and filmmakers, determined to recapture delta blues and hillbilly music, fabricated their own wax-grinding lathe to record without electricity, the same methods used in the rural South in the 1920s and 1930s. John Lee Hooker, on the other hand, became an icon of roots music a generation ago at the cost of leaving his own roots and adopting “Hollywood” as home. Fortunately, he kept his music genuine by forcing his producers to work on his terms, and inspiring an audience, both via recordings and live performance, who were hungry for those lost roots.
It seems to have been a strategy that paid off. Even contemporary pop rock bands like Queens of the Stone Age have recently released clearly identifiable boogie beats in their hit songs – check out the bass line in QOTSA’s “The Way You Used to Do” (2017).