July 28, 2021

Twenty years after the death of John Lee Hooker, the prolific emblem of the blues – Diario El Ciudadano y la Región

It was mid-June 2001 when the veteran American singer and guitarist John Lee Hooker agreed to what would be his last performance at a blues club in Santa Rosa, San Francisco.

His performances had already become more sporadic, but John Lee’s magic fingers and his voice outlined in that almost perfect bluesy tone, kept looking for small stages where he could be closer to the people, unlike other times where he performed at festivals or before a crowd. “As I am getting older, I want to see the faces of those who listen to me, and even the movements they make, because it means that my music continues to reach them,” he had said shortly before.

Like many musicians of his generation, Hooker was born in full segregation, in 1917, in Mississippi, as a new member of a family that had more children than food on the table. Early on, John Lee began plucking his guitar; They were incipient rudiments learned with his stepfather, who like other great fans played very well but didn’t even think of it as a possible livelihood.

Literally with a guitar on his shoulder, John Lee took a northbound train because there was something about those strings that seduced him like nothing else, perhaps because he didn’t have much to choose from during his precarious childhood.

First he ended up in Memphis where he played in some bars for blacks; Then he was in Cincinnati, but there the police were not at all kind to those of his color and although he could get some pesos, he could not bear to be alert all the time in case the “cops” fell.

Finally, in 1943, he arrived in Detroit, encouraged by other musicians that he crossed on his pilgrimage because there were a huge number of places to play and also “they paid well”, and his deep voice and his bluesy “pathos” aroused the curiosity of producers. that they were on the hunt for “southern blacks because they were the best at their thing,” as Hooker himself recounted in an interview in the 1970s.

At first it was not easy in Detroit and he ended up working as a janitor at the gigantic Chrysler, the automobile factory that supplied the world. But he played almost every night and he had more and more audiences and he was already seducing with his huge body, his dark glasses and his way of caressing the viola.

Everybody wanted to play John Lee’s songs

In 1948, a Los Angeles record company offered him to record an album, which would be none other than Boogie Chillen, a first record that would end up selling a million copies. “The sound was very basic, but people were enthusiastic about that sound and the records were sold one after another and I couldn’t believe it. Much later I would realize that this album was the gateway to rock & roll, ”Hooker confessed when asked about its beginnings.

At the same time, specialized critics considered it a turning point in the blues, at least in what was heard until then, and it rescued the southern and rural style of blues that in a short time would become electrified sound, opening the gap of one of the genres that revolutionized the world.

In the mid-fifties, Hooker recorded a couple of albums in Chicago – the capital of electric blues at the time – where he deployed his oiled style to tackle acoustic blues and electric boogie, something that soon after would characterize him as a godfather to music. folk singers of the sixties –post Woody Guthrie–; there is an iconic scene in a short documentary about Bob Dylan where you can see it from the author of Like a Rolling Stone as the opening act for John Lee at a 1960 concert in New York. At that time he coined a long-standing phrase among his fellow travelers: “The blues doesn’t depress you; When you are sad because things are not going well, it lifts you up. It is a stimulant, not a depressant ”.

Just a short time later, Hooker became another god for those who were emerging as kings of rithm & blues: the Rolling Stones, who had drank directly from the chords of the southern master of the twelve bars.

Some of John Lee’s songs are among the most covered – for Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones themselves, Van Morrison, Bonnie Raitt, Carlos Santana were an irreplaceable part of his live repertoires – including the irresistible “Dimples”, composed in 1955, and then “Boom Boom”, the latter a sort of blues anthem used even for a television commercial.

“I never knew what was going on with some of my songs but there were times when everyone told me they wanted to play them, and I’m talking about great musicians. I can say that the most important part of me was in those melodies, ”he once said.

Back to the ring

John Lee’s career had a marked decline in the seventies, perhaps in parallel with that of the blues, a bit under the shadow of rock and pop, which at that time were asking for a clue with very good luck. But already in the 80s, things had an unexpected rebound and the blues, at least in the United States, returned to populate stages and recording rooms with all its force.

John Lee Hooker was back in the spotlight and tours were arranged with musicians like Santana and Bonnie Raitt. Santana himself, at a recital in Los Angeles, where they would share the stage with John Lee, presented it this way: “There are many lives in John Lee’s voice. You can hear ancient China, the pyramids, the cotton plantations. He says that the blues began when God expelled Adam and Eve from Paradise. Well, that’s how far he goes ”.

In those same eighties he made a presentation with his band at the time in one of the films that would make history from its title: The Blue Brothers (1980), by John Landis, the shrewd comedy with the late John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd, who made up Jake and Elwood, two musicians who return to play with their old band to pay off a debt from the orphanage where they grew up. There John Lee played his acclaimed “Boom Boom” among a crowd of black people while the clueless protagonists looked at him from behind.

“We did everything possible with the producers for John Lee to act, he was a totem for us, but they did not accept, so we demanded that he appear in a scene because otherwise we would get off the project,” Belushi said in an issue of the magazine Rolling Stones shortly before dying.

Also in that decade, Hooker brought out the extraordinary The Healer, an album whose songs topped the blues and rythm and blues radio charts for a couple of years.

And just a short time later, a duet reissue with Bonnie Raitt of I’m in the Mood allowed him to get a Grammy. “I never believed much in the awards that the industry or the critics give you, the real awards are given by people,” Hooker had declared at the time of receiving it.

And about that album, Bonnie Raitt noted: “It’s one of the most erotic songs I’ve ever heard in my life. When we made it for the album we didn’t rehearse it. We just dim the light, look at each other, and bring it out first. It was as if a train had passed me ”.

Then there would be other collaborations. Van Morrison, Keith Richard or Albert Collins were some of those who called him a teacher.

During his last twenty years he made fortunes for his rights and made many tours already occupying a prominent place, but, as mentioned, his favorite spaces became the most limited, where by the light of lamps and before some fifty people, John Lee returned to stripping his immaculate blues and even gave free rein to the demand of the spectators when he heard: “Maestro play ‘Trouble blues’”, “Genius, do“ I’m Standing in Line ”. Usually they never asked for them, a sign that his songs had touched people’s hearts, since he had recorded around 500 songs.

These days, twenty years ago, the star of one of the greatest bluesman in history was fading.