March 28, 1995 in Features

John Lee Hooker Reigns Over The Blues

J. Freedom Du Lac Mcclatchy News Service
 

There he is, sitting on his throne: John Lee Hooker, the patriarch of the blues royalty.

One of the last of a literally dying breed of great post-war-era bluesmen, Hooker is pictured on the cover of his new album, “Chill Out,” sitting in an armchair, looking absolutely regal.

He is wearing a sleek suit and a gold watch and a stylish hat.

He is also sporting dark glasses; but even these do not hide the fact that Hooker is staring at something.

Perhaps he is looking at his legacy.

If so, he may have to stare for a while.

Consider:

Hooker began recording the blues in 1948, the same year he released the B-side single “Boogie Chillen,” which sold more than 1 million copies. In the 47 years since, Hooker has never stopped playing the blues, releasing over 100 albums, many under pseudonyms (Texas Slim, Delta John, Birmingham Sam, Johnny Williams, Johnny Lee, the Boogie Man, John Lee Booker).

A mind-boggling number of rock ‘n’ roll stars say that Hooker was one of their greatest influences, if not the greatest. Among them: Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones, Van Morrison, Jim Morrison, Santana, Pete Townshend, the Animals, the Yardbirds, ZZ Top, Canned Heat, Led Zeppelin, George Thorogood and, of course, Bonnie Raitt, who won a Grammy with Hooker in 1990 for their duet, “I’m in the Mood.”

Hooker’s awe-inspiring style - raw, angry, explosive, hypnotic - is so unique and strangely complex that no artist has ever been able to successfully duplicate it, despite repeated attempts.

He is already a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and was recently inducted into the Rock Walk in Hollywood.

No wonder nobody refers to Hooker these days without expanding his name: The amazing John Lee Hooker.

Blues great John Lee Hooker.

The legendary John Lee Hooker.

“You know, I never knew what a legend was,” Hooker says. “I guess it means you been around a long time. But it’s nice to be called one.”

He is speaking on the phone from his Redwood City, Calif., home. His voice is deep, his accent Southern and his words occasionally mumbled.

Even when you don’t understand him, though, Hooker manages to sound poetic. Add some of his guitar work, and Hooker’s end of the conversation could easily become a song: “Interview Blues.”

Hooker is 75 now, although his age is sometimes said to be 77 or 78. The confusion is Hooker’s fault.

Early in his career, he tried to make himself older on paper so he would be considered a contemporary of blues greats Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Elmore James, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Howlin’ Wolf, all of whom were at least five years older than him.

Now, though, Hooker need not worry about his place in history.

He is undeniably one of the blues greats. If you don’t believe that, then just ask Hooker himself.

“I think I am,” he says. “I have studied and studied, and there aren’t any (bluesmen) as big as I am these days. There are a lot of them out there playing, but there ain’t no other John Lee Hookers out there. There ain’t no more.”

Hooker pauses, then comes up with one more name: Riley B. King.

“B.B.,” Hooker says. “That’s all I can think of - just me and Brother B.”

Like his other recent releases (1989’s smash, “The Healer,” 1991’s “Mr. Lucky,” 1992’s “Boom Boom”), Hooker’s latest effort, “Chill Out,” doesn’t sound nearly as resentful, as frighteningly explosive as his early work, the stuff that Hooker calls “angry, deep down, HARD blues.”

“Yeah,” Hooker says somewhat resentfully, “I mellowed a lot.”

Hooker can still manage a raw, emotional, mildly angry sound on occasion, though, and on a few of “Chill Out’s” songs he absolutely does. Interestingly, Hooker’s best work on “Chill Out” comes on songs that he recorded alone, without any vocal or instrumental accompaniment (“Deep Blue Sea,” “Woman on My Mind” and, especially, a remake of his classic “Tupelo”).

Most of the album, though, features well-known guests, many of whom dominate the songs with their own vocal and instrumental stylings, pushing Hooker to the rear.

The title track, for instance, features Carlos Santana on guitar, and the addition of keyboards, congas and timbales gives the track a distinctly Santana sound. And on a medley of “Serves Me Right To Suffer” and “Syndicator,” Van Morrison shares vocal and guitar duties, shaving much of Hooker’s dark edge off of the two classics.

This, of course, is nothing new. Although his best work has traditionally been his pure solo output, Hooker has been collaborating with other artists for years, recording or performing with a dizzying array of rock and contemporary blues stars, including the Rolling Stones, Townshend, Canned Heat, Steve Miller, the Animals, Robert Cray, Los Lobos, Thorogood and Raitt.

Hooker has worked with the best, but there is still one artist he would like to record with.

“I’m a fan of Eric Clapton’s,” he says. “I’d like to work with him sometime in the future.”

Asked about the success of Clapton’s all-blues cover album, “From the Cradle,” which was the first blues album to hit No. 1 on the Billboard pop charts, Hooker becomes silent. You can almost hear him shrugging his shoulders.

“I talked to him, and he could hardly figure it out,” Hooker says.

Hooker has more creative energy than most artists one-third his age. He isn’t quite sure what the source of his creative drive is.

“I wish I knew,” he says. “I guess God give it to me. It seems like I just gotta go on and on. A lot of musicians make three or four or five (albums), then just fade out. You don’t hear no more from ‘em.

“It seems to me like I’m just an old car. I just keep clicking.”

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