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John Lee Hooker Always Does Just What He Wants

Karyn Hunt Associated Press

Nobody tells John Lee Hooker what to do. Three wives tried to make him quit the music business because it took him away from home.

That’s why he’s single again.

Early record producers wanted to tie him to exclusive deals for their own financial benefit. He just went to rival producers and recorded under different names.

And at the age of 80, when the average musician would kill for center stage, Hooker turns down one gig after another.

“I got to do it my way - the way I feel it,” Hooker says, speaking in the gravelly mumble that has become as much a signature of his music as his stomping right foot. “I just do what I want.”

After six decades of playing the foot-stompin’ boogie that made him famous, Hooker has become a legend in his own time.

He inspired some of rock ‘n’ roll’s biggest names. He has two Grammys, is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Blues Foundation. He is pictured on a stamp in Tanzania, and his music and distinctive face appear in advertisements across the world.

Still, he continues on strong. Hooker sat in with Tom Petty at San Francisco’s historic Fillmore Auditorium earlier this year and kept the audience dancing for three numbers. A few weeks later, the elder statesman of the blues headlined at the same place.

And last month, he came out with a new album. “Don’t Look Back,” on Pointblank/Virgin records, includes a remake of Hooker’s classic, “Dimples,” and guest appearances by longtime friends Los Lobos and Charles Brown, as well as musicians from the Robert Cray band and the Dirty Dozen. Another admirer, Van Morrison, produced most of the tracks.

While putting together a CD is a major effort for any musician, much less one of his age, Hooker seems relatively unimpressed by the accomplishment.

Small wonder. He’s recorded more than 100 albums since he ran away from home at the age of 14 to play the music his Baptist minister father discouraged. “Don’t Look Back” is his fifth since “The Healer” won him his first Grammy, for a duet with Bonnie Raitt, in 1992.

One reason Hooker is so prolific is that he rarely spends more than two days in the studio for any given album. He likes using his first take because he prefers the raw sound, strength and spontaneity that comes out.

After it’s done, he listens and hears things he wishes he’d done differently. But he usually leaves it alone. He doesn’t sweat the details.

“You wear out your voice,” he says. “You get weaker. You’re stronger the first time.”

Maintaining his strength is a concern these days. While still spry for his age, Hooker is showing his years.

He spends most of his days in the living room of his suburban tract home on a quiet cul-de-sac in the south San Francisco Bay area town of Redwood City. He watches television, takes naps and meets with a Bible study group. A steady stream of women drop by to visit or cook for him.

The house is plain, dark and cluttered with a lifetime of memorabilia. An enlarged photograph of Hooker with President Clinton and posters from past appearances cover the walls. His Grammys sit over the dining room table in a place of honor.

Hooker doesn’t do nightclubs anymore, and he doesn’t drink any hard liquor - only a beer now and then, he says. But he remains a snappy dresser, putting on a black suit, silk shirt and felt fedora for interviews.

In at least one way, Hooker has not slowed down. Rumors of his womanizing are not over-exaggerated.

“I am a flirt,” he says with a naughty smile. “I love flirting. It’s fun.”

Others who have watched him over the years are amazed that both he and his music have endured so long.

Phil Elwood, a San Francisco Examiner music critic who has known Hooker for 30 years, attributes that to his strong ties to the Bay area music community. More famous musicians, such as Raitt, have brought Hooker’s music to a wider audience.

He also credits Hooker’s strong constitution.

“He didn’t drink as much as the others,” Elwood said. “That’s one reason he survived so long. A lot of those guys were burned out or juiced out by their 50s. Whereas all his contemporaries are dead or not playing or toothless or drunk, he found a niche here in the Bay Area community.”

In his sunset years, Hooker can’t help but take stock of his life. The high point, he says, was the lifetime achievement award from the Blues Foundation in 1996.

“I figure after all these years that I’ve earned it. You don’t get one every day,” he says.

And there isn’t much he’d do differently.

“I don’t think I could go any higher,” he added. “I’m proud of my music. I’m proud that so many people love me.”

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