King Snake

Boogie monarch John Lee Hooker is still in the mood for the blues

John Lee Hooker, the King of the Boogie, rarely plays outside of the Bay Area these days. The 80-year-old blues legend can be excused for a somewhat leisurely schedule. After all, he's spent the last half-century crisscrossing the country and cutting more than 100 albums, many of them filled with tracks that have become blues standards.

These days, Hooker seems a model of efficiency, working less than in his youthful days, but earning bigger album sales and industry accolades than ever before.

Only three weeks ago, he walked away with two Grammys: one for Best Traditional Blues Album, Don't Look Back, and another for Best Pop Collaboration on the album's title song, the latest in a string of duets with Van Morrison. Interestingly, all four of his Grammys have come in the last decade, at an age when most musicians have long since set their axes aside.

During a New Times phone interview, the blues legend responds with typical understatement to the question of what took the recording industry so long to recognize his achievements. In a deep, steady voice, Hooker says, "Don't know. But they did."

If Hooker's road excursions are few at this stage of his life, his pace is practically frenetic compared to the lean period that began for him in the late '70s. For roughly a decade, he stopped recording and his touring came to a halt.

"I give up on it," Hooker says. "Record companies wasn't doing right . . . they weren't doing nothing right. I just called it a day. I just quit."

About 10 years ago, Hooker decided to return to the studio. "I thought I would try it one more time," he says.

The result was The Healer. Hooker teamed up with other rock and blues musicians, and the album, which sold more than a million copies, was nominated for two Grammys.

Hooker won the first of his career. "Me and Bonnie Raitt," says Hooker, received the gold Victrola for a sexy duet update of "I'm in the Mood," a song that had helped establish Hooker decades earlier.

Hooker's claim to blues immortality is his haunting, hypnotic, two-finger picking style of guitar playing--called "Deltalick" by some. Like other artists from the Mississippi Delta, Hooker patented a simple, rhythmically based blues boogie that was not constrained by traditional 12-bar song structures. Hooker's style is straightforward--he rarely strays beyond a couple of chords. His guitar speaks in thick, snaky lines, and his voice is deep-bottom baritone. Both are straight from the Delta.

Hooker will be playing one of his rare shows outside of his home turf in Northern California when he comes to the Celebrity Theatre on Saturday, March 21. He promises a "good, good show with a lot of dance music." When asked what a Valley audience can expect, Hooker says, "I'll just keep singing and hope I satisfy them with anything I do."

Hooker's career has spanned six decades. He's traveled the world, had a postage stamp issued with his likeness in Tanzania, and achieved rare commercial success for a blues artist. Hooker has been courted by the gods of the blues and rock world, and honored by presidents and politicians. Despite all of the praise and accolades, Hooker, like his music, remains down to earth and bound to his rural, Delta roots.

He was born in 1917 in Clarksdale, Mississippi, the heart of the Delta. "My dad . . . he ran his own land and raised all his food and stuff," says Hooker. Although his father was able to provide for the family, Hooker faced the bitter realities of the Deep South.

"It was pretty tough down there," he says. "More tougher on a lot of people . . . on the black people, the Mexican people, the Spanish people, they was tough on them, too. Also, the Chinese people--they didn't care about them too much. I remember all of this. You had to just keep to yourself.

"But the surroundings down there--some places you couldn't go in, you couldn't do this, you couldn't do that outside your area," says Hooker. "I'm just telling it like it is."

Hooker says after his parents split up, his mother married "a great musician called Will Moore." In a halting but steady voice, Hooker says Moore "taught me how to play the guitar. What I'm playing now is just what he taught me to play."

Tony Hollins, another great guitar player in Hooker's eyes, was also a mentor. "He dated my sister. He's long gone now. He taught me," Hooker says.

Hooker first played guitar when he was 11 or 12. But his first gig was in Detroit, seven years later. When Hooker was 14 or 15 years old, he left Mississippi. "I ran away and come to Memphis, Cincinnati and Detroit," says Hooker.

He ended up in Detroit "because all the work and music was there," he says. He got a job in a steel mill as a janitor during World War II. "The money was flowing then," Hooker says. It was then that he hit the clubs and started recording.

Among Hooker's first recordings was "Boogie Chillun," which became a No. 1 jukebox hit in 1948 and his first million-seller. "'Boogie Chillun' played on the radio all the time," Hooker recalls.

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