Born in the Mississippi Delta, the son of a sharecropping pastor, John Lee Hooker absorbed the blues of that region before heading north and picking up an electric guitar. That was a seminal moment in music history, as his driving rhythmic style earned him the nickname “King of the Boogie” and influenced generations of rock guitarists. Cree McCree chronicles a memorable encounter she had in 1989 with John Lee Hooker for PKM. 

“I don’t play a lot of fancy guitar,” John Lee Hooker once said. “The kind of guitar I want to play is mean, mean, mean licks.”

It doesn’t get much meaner than the stripped-down, hypnotic stomps that defined Hooker’s several-decade career, which cast a long and mighty shadow over the crossroads where blues and rock collide.

Born the son of a sharecropping pastor in the Mississippi Delta, Hooker ran away at age 14 to the north Mississippi hills, where he learned that region’s distinctive drone guitar style from his stepfather, Will Moore. Then he headed north and went electric when he hit Detroit. One of his earliest recordings, “Boogie Chillen” (1948) was a million-selling jukebox hit out of the gate, earning him the mantle of King of the Boogie and setting his course for decades to come.

The number of rock & rollers influenced by the one-and-only “Boom Boom” man along with way is legion, from the Rolling Stones to Eric Clapton to Bonnie Raitt, with whom he recorded the Grammy-awarding duo “In the Mood” on his best-selling album The Healer (1989). The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer also earned a Lifetime Achievement Grammy, among many other major awards, and continued to mesmerize audiences until just a week before he passed at age 83 in 2001.

 


But, you know, they call it the devil’s music….


 

Despite all his well-deserved accolades, Hooker remained as down to earth as the rich Mississippi soil he was rooted in. “I don’t feel like no legend,” Hooker said in the 1989 interview that follows. “I’m just a human being. I drink with you, I dance with you, I go out with you, I party with you. I love people, I enjoy bein’ with ‘em. I’m human, just like you.”

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In the summer of 1989, the blues was in the midst of one of its periodic revivals among young, mostly white music fans. The first wave coincided with the folk revival of the 1950s, when earnest, scholarly fans sat in reverential silence while giants like Texas bluesman Lightnin’ Hopkins set his acoustic guitar ablaze with propulsive riffs born in raucous backwoods juke joints where the drinking gets harder and the dancing gets dirtier as the night goes on.

The second wave was more like a tsunami: the British Invasion of the 1960s, spearheaded by blues-drunk rockers like the Rolling Stones, who got the music’s down-and-dirtiness from the get-go. That’s when the blues first hit this then-small-town Ohio girl in the heart and the groin, sparking a lifelong passion that eventually led me down the Mississippi to the fertile crescent of the Delta and North Mississippi Hill Country blues.

The third-wave blues revival was in full swing in ‘89, when I had my brief but memorable encounter with the great King of the Boogie, John Lee Hooker. Hotshot blues guitarist Robert Cray was making waves, proving rap wasn’t the only platform for young black artists, while elder statesman B.B. King was in heavy rotation in McDonald’s TV spots. And at age 72, Hooker himself was a hot commodity: he was about to release The Healer, which snagged a Grammy for “I’m in the Mood”; had just sung the title role on Pete Townshend’s rock opera album, The Iron Man; and was on deck to help the Stones cap their wildly successful Steel Wheels tour with a monumental performance of his own “Boogie Chillen.”

John Lee Hooker-“Boogie Chillen”, live, Dec. 1979, with the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton:

The buzz about the blues was so big, in fact, that I had managed to pitch — successfully, I thought — an article called “Mainstreaming the Blues” to US magazine. Which isn’t as implausible as it sounds. Back in the ‘80s, US had not yet devolved into the dishy celeb tabloid it is today and was still giving People a run for its money as a snotty kid sister that had its finger on the pop culture pulse.

Armed with press credentials (I thought), I took the train from New York to Philadelphia for the 2nd Annual RiverBlues Festival at Penn’s Landing in late July, where Hooker was slated to perform and topped my list of interview “gets” for the US story. For a few weeks that summer, I’d been dating the RiverBlues Festival’s promoter, New Orleans Jazz Fest honcho Quint Davis, who I met at Crossroads on Houston Street, where Texas bluesman John Campbell was tearing the roof off the joint. So I clearly had an inside track for backstage access. Or so I thought.

Boy, was I wrong! Long sad story short: Quint distanced himself from me in Philly. When I walked up the backstage stairs to greet him in the red suede boots he bought me, Quint told security to block me. It went from bad to worse when, far from facilitating my press access, he essentially closed the door.

But the intrepid reporter in me was determined to get my coveted interview with Hooker, especially after I watched his blistering set. The King of the Boogie slithered through Big Joe Williams’ “King Snake Crawling,” hit hard with his own badass “Boom Boom,” evoked “Stormy Monday” with razor sharp guitar licks, among many highlights, and closed with (what else?) “Boogie Chillen,” his signature boogie-till-you-drop stomp. Yowser! And, somehow, I managed to pull it off.

John Lee Hooker-“Boom Boom”, live TV performance, 1966:

During a series of frantic phone calls on Sunday morning, made on the hotel’s pay phone in this pre-cellphone era, I managed to track down my US editor — at home! — and put her on the line with Hooker’s manager, who was a real pit bull of a guard dog. While my editor couldn’t confirm that my “Mainstreaming the Blues” piece was definitely a go (and they ended up killing it), she did confirm that I was a writer for the magazine, which gave me enough legitimacy to get me in the door. I was granted a brief half-hour with Hooker, whose bags were already packed for a trip to the airport.

Sharply dressed and already sporting his trademark fedora, Hooker greeted me warmly and invited me to sit on the bed across from the one he was seated on, looking every inch the gentleman he always was, no matter the circumstance or time of day. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of a lively conversation he seemed to enjoy as much as I did. In fact I know he did, because less than a month later, when I saw him blow out the candles on his birthday cake in a New York club, his face lit up with recognition and he gave me a big old hug when I told him that it was my birthday, too.

All these years later, I’m thankful to The Healer for helping me bind the wounds of one of the worst weekends of my life with his music, his laughter and his words.

PKM: I’ve been down to Mississippi lately, because I’m doing a story on Delta blues. What is it about the Mississippi Delta that’s made it such a fertile crescent for the blues?

John Lee Hooker: Well, practically all the blues singers you know of come from Mississippi at a really early, young age. They was just born with it. It wasn’t hard times, it wasn’t depressed. Mississippi just drew a lot of talent. Out of every state, Alabama, Georgia, any of ‘em, Mississippi’s got the most blues singers.

PKM: Why do you think that is?

John Lee Hooker: I don’t know. It wasn’t that they grew up and got the blues from hard times. I was born with it, I was born with the talent. I was 10 years old, singin in the church, spirituals, and my father was a minister. I come from a good background. And I Ieft when I was 14. A lotta other young people who was good singers and drifted up here, they all come from Mississippi.

PKM: What made you leave Mississippi?

John Lee Hooker: Well, cause I never would have been a star stayin in Mississippi, cause there wasn’t nothin there. My mom and dad had a big farm, he was a sharecropper, horses, cows, mules, donkeys, you name it, he had it. Plenty of food, we never had a hard time for food and stuff like that. But I knowed it wasn’t the place for me if I wanted to become famous. I had very, very little smarts up here [points to head], but I knew I couldn’t do it there! [laughs] And so I said the heck with school and everythin, and I ran away when I was 14. I was stayin with my stepfather, cause he didn’t mind guitar playin in his house. He was a musician, and a guitar player, his name was Will Moore. And I left my real dad.

PKM: What did your real dad think of the blues?

John Lee Hooker: You mean when he was livin?

PKM: Yeah.

John Lee Hooker: Well, he was glad that I finally reached my peak and got so famous. He accepted it then. But, you know, they call it the devil’s music….

PKM: Yeah, what so you think about that? There’s some traditional players down in Mississippi who say you either play the blues or you do gospel. You gotta make a choice.

John Lee Hooker: Well, you don’t have to make a choice, but that’s just how it is down there. I don’t know whether it’s still like that, things have changed so much. The South has completely turned around, it’s kind of like here now. Back when I was a kid comin up, they was completely separated from each other. So I don’t know what they think about that now. I think they still think it’s the devil’s music. Some of ‘em think that way up here, they call it devil music.

PKM: What do you think it is?

John Lee Hooker: It’s not devil music. It’s music that’s good for the soul, that’s good for the people, it makes people happy all over the world. Just like spirituals. Matter of fact, it’s more stronger than spirituals to people. More people into what I’m doin than is into church songs. And in the church, they just can’t make a living singin in the church. [Blues] makes you a good livin, makes you more money, makes you more friends, makes you more popular. I don’t see anything wrong with it, but still, some of ‘em call it devil music.

I don’t think there’s nothin wrong with it. I know I do love it, I love making people happy, I enjoy people, I love people, and I go out of my way to meet my fans. I love ‘em. A lot of stars run and hide when they get through with entertaining, they run in their dressing rooms and hide from the public. Sometimes I have to, because they try to rip your clothes off and sometimes you got to get away, but when people just stand still out there, I’m willin to just talk to them.

PKM: So you love your audiences?

John Lee Hooker: Oh I love ‘em, I love people, I enjoy being with ‘em. When I’m home, I go to small bars, people think I wouldn’t go in, they surprised to see me in there. But I’m human, just like you.

 


It’s not devil music. It’s music that’s good for the soul, that’s good for the people, it makes people happy all over the world. Just like spirituals. Matter of fact, it’s more stronger than spirituals to people.


 

PKM: You’ve been a legend for so long. What’s it feel like being a legend? Do you think of yourself as a legend?

John Lee Hooker: No [laughs], I think of myself as being just like you, just like a normal human being. I don’t feel like no legend. Sometimes I say to myself, what is a legend? I’m just a human being, I’m just like you, I drink with you, I dance with you, I go out with you, I party with you. I ain’t never heard I’m a legend until maybe a few years back! [laughs]

PKM: You know, Moses Rascoe told me the funniest thing. He’s 72, the same age as you, born the same year, but he doesn’t keep up with the current scene that much. And when he heard he was on the bill with John Lee Hooker, he said, “you must mean John Lee Hooker, Jr. You mean that old man’s still alive?” I said, “Moses, he’s the same age you are!”

John Lee Hooker: I ain’t that old. [laughs] You know, I put my age up when I went in the army. I wasn’t born in 1917, I was born in 1920, really. I put my age up to get in the army.

PKM: Oh really? I didn’t know that.

John Lee Hooker: Yeah, and they kicked me out of the army.

PKM: Why’d they kick you out?

John Lee Hooker: Because I lied to get into the army. Because at that time, the army was a thing to get a lot of girls. In an army suit, you could go out and get ‘em. And when they found out — it took them two months, maybe three — and I was so good playin the guitar, they all liked me. And when they found out my identity wasn’t true, they let me went, but everybody loved me. That sergeant or whatever, captain, he kind of hated to see me go but he said I had sworn to tell the truth. He said, you could go to jail for this, but everybody loves you so much we’re just gonna discharge you. But I still have that brand [the age]. I didn’t change it myself, it still says 1917.

PKM: Why not? It’s a good year, 1917.

John Lee Hooker: It’s a good year and everybody knows me by that. Now I enjoy sayin that I’m that old, cause I know I don’t feel like that.

PKM: I know, I see you onstage and it’s amazing. When you stood up yesterday, it was like you were 15. I don’t know where you pull that out, man. But you sure do!

John Lee Hooker: I just got a lotta energy, a lotta energy.

PKM: You sure do! Well, what do you think about the whole current revival of the blues? It seems like we’re in the midst of a new revival.

John Lee Hooker: Well, it’s gettin bigger and it’s gonna get bigger. People are learnin what the true identity of the blues means, and what the true identity of what the real music is. True identity is there’s definitely other stuff come from it they call rock n roll and pop and rap — it all come from that. Forty years ago, you ain’t never heard of rock n roll. Wasn’t such a thing as rock n roll. Just called the boogie. Which I created and called the boogie. Used to be the boogie woogie, but I called it the boogie. And everybody jumped on the band wagon. It was a neat name.

And I’m a very intelligent writer. I can write songs just like [snaps fingers]

PKM: Where does that come from?

John Lee Hooker: Heart and soul. Just heart and soul. If you look at me, you think this guy don’t know nothin. But I can look right through a person and tell what they’re thinkin. I can tell if it’s a kind-hearted person. I never got much schoolin cause I didn’t care. But I’m fine, I’m blessed, and I love people. That’s what keeps me goin, I think.

PKM: Do you think with Robert Cray being out there, one of the younger people, and B.B. King’s doing McDonald’s commercials….

John Lee Hooker: Ridiculous! [laughs] I don’t like to see him doing McDonald’s. Old B.B.! It’s nice, though it’s nice. I love him! I’m sure he don’t eat ‘em! [laughs] I love him though.

PKM: You made a comment one time that you thought one reason young black people for a long time were not really getting into the blues is that they didn’t want to be reminded that that music came out of a past they would rather forget. Do you think that’s changing?

John Lee Hooker: Well, I don’t know whether I really said that, but I might have said that.

PKM: I read that as a quote in an article, but that doesn’t mean you said it.

 


I don’t like to see him doing McDonald’s. Old B.B.! It’s nice, though it’s nice. I love him! I’m sure he don’t eat ‘em!


 

John Lee Hooker: Well, somebody could have quoted me wrong. Young people love the blues, a lot of ‘em love it, but not as many of ‘em. But I think they’re learnin, I think they’re gonna finally come around to it, the true things. Some of ‘em do like the dance music, and stuff like that. And then there’s a lot of white kids don’t be into the blues either, there’s more of them than black.

PKM: A lot of white rock and rollers have said how much you’ve given them, over and over you’ve been cited. What do you think you got from some of these white rockers? Did you get anything back?

John Lee Hooker: Yeah, I got more well known, more money, cause they did my thing and I got paid.

PKM: I also wanted to ask you just quickly about the project you just finished, The Iron Man. That’s a kid’s story, right? And you sing and play a part in it?

John Lee Hooker: Just sing. I sing on some of the lyrics.

PKM: Was that fun for you to do?

John Lee Hooker: Oh yeah.

PKM: You did this with [Peter] Townshend, right? And Clapton?

John Lee Hooker: Just Townshend.

PKM: And is there a message in that story?

John Lee Hooker: No, just somethin that was out of my line of work. But it was fun.

[crosstalk about having to leave for airport]

John Lee Hooker: Once I get goin, I’m hard to stop. [laughs]

PKM: One last quick question. You sing a lot about women, what have you learned about women in your life?

John Lee Hooker: What else you gonna sing about? I’m not gonna sing about men, cause I’m not gay. I love women. Every man sings about women, every song you hear got a woman’s name in it — rock, ballads, spirituals, any music got something about a woman. There’s somethin about a woman — and a woman sings about a man. So it’s just that simple. I can’t sing, ooh, I love this man!

“I’m in the Mood” – John Lee Hooker’s Grammy-winning duet with Bonnie Raitt:

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