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John Lee Hooker - Delta School

PHOTO: John Lee HookerBorn August 22, 1917, outside Clarksdale, Mississippi, in rural Coahoma County, John Lee Hooker was one of eleven children who were raised by sharecroppers His stepfather was a guitarist/farmer from Shreveport, Louisiana, who strongly influenced Hooker's career choice. Hooker sang in the church choir as a child and, like B.B. King, performed with several gospel groups at church functions. But it was the blues that held the youth's attention. Hearing his stepfather, Will Moore, play with other local bluesmen like Tony Hollins and Charley Patton, when the latter came up from Dockery, solidified Hooker's future vocation. His stepfather taught him to play guitar, and together they played parties, fish fries, and dances around Clarksdale in the late 1920s.

At age fourteen, Hooker ran away from home to Memphis, where he got a job as an usher in a Beale Street movie theater. He attempted to break into an already crowded Memphis music scene by performing at house parties and clubs during his stay. One of Hooker's early musical highlights was an engagement at Memphis's New Daisy Theater with young Robert Nighthawk. In 1933, after two years in Memphis, he moved to Cincinnati to stay with relatives. Hooker lived there for ten years, singing with the gospel groups the Fairfield Four and the Big Six while holding a variety of day jobs ranging from draining cesspools to ushering. He moved to Detroit in 1943 and found work in an automobile factory.

PHOTO: John Lee HookerHooker honed his chops playing rent parties and the clubs on Hastings Street, Detroit's answer to Beale Street. In 1948, a black record store owner heard him playing in someone's living room and recommended him to Detroit record distributor Bernie Bessman. Bessman invited Hooker to make a demo tape. He recorded "Boogie Chillen," a hypnotic one-chord travelogue of Hastings Street punctuated by Hooker shouting "boogie chillen" after a staccato guitar break. Bessman leased the demo to Modern Records, which picked it up for national distribution. The song rose to number one on the Billboard R&B chart in 1949.

The elements of Hooker's style are revealed in "Boogie Chillen." Deep, menacing vocals are alternately sung and spoken over droning, one-chord guitar figures. Hooker later credited his stepfather for teaching him this style, which is more closely associated with Louisiana blues than Mississippi Delta blues. He often accompanied himself on record by stomping his feet to the beat. In 1949 he recorded a song he first heard from Tony Hollins, the dark, insinuative "Crawlin Kingsnake" which became another hit for Modern. Two years later the label released the sexually charged "I'm in the Mood" and it became his biggest hit. During the early 1950s Hooker jumped to the Chess label and toured the South with fellow Chess artist Muddy Waters. Bessman, however, leased Hooker's masters to a variety of labels under names such as John Lee Booker, Birmingham Sam, Delta John, and others, to avoid contractual conflict.

Hooker continued to enjoy success during the 1960s blues revival, his raw, primal blues striking a responsive chord with a burgeoning white audience. Although he is semiretired now, Hooker's current recordings reaffirm his place among the greatest blues singers.


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