Interview with John Lee Hooker:
The King of the Blues

by Michael Kinsman
From The San Diego Union Tribune

After watching the world bump and shove him for almost 78 years, blues giant John Lee Hooker feels it might be time for the world to revolve around him.

"I don't do nothing I don't want to do," says Hooker. "All my life I been doin' what people tell me to do. Now, I'm telling them."

His latest directive is that this is to be a 10-minute interview. "Ten minutes," he orders. "No more. I've got to go to a meeting."

There is something in Hooker's everyday speech that is remarkably similar to the haunting blues he has been producing for more than five decades, most recently on his album Chill Out. Even over the phone from his home in Redwood City near San Francisco, his voice is seductive and mesmerizing with its deep, thick, droning tones.

Forty-five minutes pass and Hooker apparently has forgotten his meeting or has chosen to ignore it.

"I am a happy man. I've had a good life," he says. "Now I want to enjoy it. I want to play music when I want, write a song if I want or watch a baseball game if I want. I've got enough money to live me two lifetimes so I don't have to do nothing I don't want to."

Hooker may call himself semiretired, but music still has a grasp on his soul. A sudden stirring causes him to sing, midinterview, slowly and soulfully:

People say we too young to fall in love
She's sixteen, I'm seventeen
They say we don't know what we doin'
She loves me and I love her
This don't matter with me.

Hooker sings on . . . one, two, three minutes. Almost instantaneously, he has created his own world and then loses himself in it. It doesn't matter that he's not a teen-ager anymore. His words seem as sincere as those of any teen who feels trapped by society's mores.

"You like that song?" he asks. "I like that song. Oh, yes I do."

The song, "Too Young," is on Chill Out, a collection of old and new blues that Hooker performs with guests such as guitarist Carlos Santana, Irish troubadour Van Morrison, organist Booker T. Jones and blues-jazz pianist Charles Brown.

This is a mix Hooker enjoys. Although he basks in the freedom of a flexible business schedule, he nevertheless readily agrees to play benefits when asked and likes to drop into nightclubs to join friends on stage. He doesn't foresee the day when he will quit making records.

But, he stresses, he does everything on his own time and with whom he wants. That's one reason his latest albums have been crammed with guest artists.

"There are some musicians that know what I'm doing when we do a song," he says. "You don't have to tell them what to do, they just know what to do. It's like that with Carlos (Santana) and Van (Morrison). These are true musicians and it gives me such pleasure to play with them. I'll play with them anytime."

Delta roots

Though he spent more than 50 years living in urban settings, such as Detroit and San Francisco, Hooker's music retains its Mississippi Delta roots, perhaps more than any modern bluesman.

He has a unique, stinging guitar style that is frequently imitated by other blues musicians, but never duplicated.

His habit of humming along with the bass notes of his guitar creates a haunting aura that follows his music. His distinctive singing has influenced John Fogerty, Eric Burdon and many more. So have such classic Hooker songs as "Boom Boom," "Boogie Chillun," "I'm in the Mood," "Dimples" and many more.

Raised near Clarksdale, Miss., in the heart of the Delta region, Hooker took his musical style from his stepfather, Will Moore, who would sing and play the guitar for hours on end.

"I learned it all from him," Hooker says. "When I was 11, 12, 13, I loved to listen to his music. He sounded like no one else. He took me one day and said, 'Look, son, this is the real, real blues. I want you to know that.'"

With that admonition, Hooker sat reverently at Moore's feet. His stepfather then threw his head back and began moaning along with his guitar, playing and singing the same phrase over and over again.

"I never heard anyone else sing like that," Hooker says. "It just comes out of his mouth and I never heard it like that from anyone."

Moore never made any recordings, but Hooker's recollections, as well as research by music historians, suggest his stepfather belonged to a small group of pioneering Delta bluesmen such as Charley Patton, Son House and Tommy Johnson, who originated the rural blues format.

"The way Will Moore taught me, and the way I play it, the blues is just something different," Hooker says. "It ain't like nobody else's."

Mutual admiration

Hooker's talent is admired by musicians who span the generations.

"You look at John and you realize there will never be another like him," B.B. King told The San Diego Union-Tribune shortly after recording with Hooker for his 1993 album Blues Summit. "When you get old, you appreciate those people who understand the experiences you had coming up. John is like that. We have a bond that goes back so many years."

Blues singer and guitarist Bonnie Raitt trumpets the way Hooker's stylings have been passed down by musicians through the years.

"I think of all the great bluesmen who immigrated from Mississippi up to the cities and have had such a great effect on rock, John is among the most significant," Raitt said recently. "And the fact he is still with us, and vital and enjoying his recent international fame, is especially gratifying because not many of the musicians I grew up idolizing are still alive."

While some Delta bluesmen, such as Muddy Waters, helped domesticate the music by moving it to urban areas, Hooker's style has retained the coarseness and mystical nature of the country for nearly five decades. An obvious influence on performers on both sides of the Atlantic -- from the Animals and Doors to U2 and ZZ Top -- his music has been a building block of rock 'n' roll, as evidenced by his induction several years ago into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Hooker, who toured and recorded with Canned Heat in the late '60s and early '70s, says he is not bothered by the numerous acts that have copied (and sometimes plagiarized) his music.

"My style is all to myself," he says. "If others want to take parts of it for their own, I'm happy about that. It's still mine, but it means more people will hear it."

Hooker has great admiration for young white guitarists who have taken on the blues. He says Eric Clapton and the late Stevie Ray Vaughan should be admired for their dedication to playing true blues.

"You know, I love Eric Clapton, but I've never had the chance to do a record with him," Hooker says. "That's one thing I would like to do. You listen to him play and you can tell that he loves the music. He ain't doin' it to make money; he's doin' it because he loves the music. I don't think he really knows how much I admire him."

Wider audience

Hooker is hard-pressed to explain the ferocity or inspiration behind his music. The best he can do is credit it to intuition.

"I don't know how they come to me," he says. "I just get an idea and then all of a sudden I've got a song. I remember back in Detroit, I used to go to the Apex Bar every night after I got off work. The bartender there used to call me Boom Boom. I don't know why, but he did. One night, I walked in and he said, 'Boom Boom, you're late.' I said to myself, 'That sounds like a song.' "

The resulting song, "Boom Boom", became a staple in Hooker's repertoire and was introduced to a wider audience in the early 1960's when a British invasion band -- The Animals -- adapted it to rock. Hooker subsequently re-recorded the song for his hit 1992 album of the same name.

As for the future, Hooker says he can't imagine giving up performing, even though he acknowledges time is against him.

"Oh, I still like to play and I still play when I want to," he says. "But I don't want to do no big tours or go out on the road. I like the small clubs. I like dropping into a small club and playing with some people, trying to help them get a start. I do benefits. I do them all the time. There's so many people out there that needs help that I can't say I won't help them.

"You know, I feel like I'm the father of a whole lot of people. I'm not their real dad, but I am their (musical) dad. They know that and so do I."

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