Hailing from the cradle of Delta blues, Mississippi, John Lee Hooker developed his own free form style and raw sound, playing the electric guitar like a percussive instrument, half-singing, half-speaking lyrics as he spontaneously "wrote" them and pounding his foot all the while to keep the rhythm rolling. The blues legend recorded more than 100 albums during a career that spans half a century.
Rise of a bluesman
Born the youngest of eleven children to a sharecropping family during the First World War, Hooker began singing spirituals as a teenager. Then he discovered the blues. The young musician moved to Memphis and later Cincinnati before heading north to Detroit, where he found work in an auto factory. At night, Hooker would play at house parties and local clubs, entertaining audiences with his unique free-form style of the blues. In 1948, he was introduced to Sensation Records owner Bernard Besman.
That year, Hooker recorded his solo debut Sally Mae and its flip side Boogie Chillen, which were quickly picked up by Modern Records. The latter, featuring his signature raspy vocals, twangy guitar and pounding foot, was an instant hit and has become a classic of its era. The "Boogie Man" followed up with several more successful singles on Modern, including Hobo Blues, Hoogie Boogie and Crawling King Snake Blues, all released in 1949.
Riding to the crest of the charts in the early 1950s, the bluesman entered an incredibly prolific period. Because of a rather non-lucrative contract with Modern, he wandered from studio to studio, recording with numerous labels under multiple aliases. In 1955, Hooker signed with Vee-Jay and began collaborating with guitarist Eddie Taylor. Although Hooker's notoriously eccentric time signatures were difficult for backing musicians to follow, Taylor was up to the task, as demonstrated on the 1956 classics Baby Lee and Dimples, and the 1958 hit single I Love You Honey.
In 1962, Hooker brought in Motown house musicians and a roaring horn section for Boom Boom, an infectious R&B track with pop crossover appeal. The single conquered the charts once again when it was covered by British blues band the Animals. That same year, Hooker visited Europe to perform at the first American Folk Blues Festival, leaving an overseas following in his wake. Back home, the ears of young bohemian audiences were also perking up, especially after Hooker invited a young Bob Dylan to open for him in New York in 1961.
The bluesman kept up his productive recording pace for the rest of the decade, entering the studios of four different labels between 1965 and 1966 alone. His 1970 collaboration with Canned Heat entitled Hooker ‘n Heat capped off a creative outpouring that had first sprung some 20 years prior.
From olden to golden
The next two decades were lean years for Hooker, who toured steadily but recorded little. In 1980, he made a cameo in the film The Blues Brothers. But it wasn't until 1989, with the release of The Healer, that the legendary musician truly made a comeback. Featuring Bonnie Raitt, Carlos Santana and Robert Cray, the album won Hooker a Grammy (his first) for Best Traditional Blues Recording.
Several high-profile collaborations followed, including appearances alongside Van Morrison and as the title character in Pete Townsend's The Iron Man: A Musical. In 1991, the guitarist released Mr. Lucky, this time joining forces with John Hammond and Keith Richards, among others.
The following year, the "Boogie Man" made his way to Montreal for the 13th edition of the Festival. Audiences were treated to Hooker playing six-string in his signature percussive style, backed by the venerable American pianist Charles Brown.
He continued to record into his 70s and early 80s, releasing Chill Out in 1995 and Don't Look Back in 1997. Together, the albums won three more Grammy. In 2000, Hooker was honoured with the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. That same year, he was set to appear at the Festival for a second time, performing with fellow blues legends Koko Jones, Booker T. and K.J. Phelps as part of the 20th anniversary of the Festival's Living Legends of Blues show. Unfortunately, Hooker had to cancel at the last minute due to health problems and was replaced by Buddy Guy.
Just shy of a year later, the legendary bluesman died of natural causes at the age of 83. Survived by eight children and numerous great-grand children, Hooker left behind a rich music legacy for future generations.