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King Snake

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.

This was soon followed by an even bigger hit with "I'm in the Mood" and other classic recordings, including "Crawling Kingsnake" and "Hobo Blues." During the '50s and '60s, Hooker released more than 100 songs on Vee Jay Records.

The '60s British blues boom saw seminal American artists like Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf elevated to a new mainstream prominence. Hooker seemed to be a particular favorite of the young British blues enthusiasts. Hooker achieved superstar status in England when the Animals, John Mayall, and the Yardbirds, to name a few, modeled their sound after his. In 1970, Hooker was introduced to young American audiences by Van Morrison--who still works closely with Hooker today--and Canned Heat. Hooker's popularity in England has proven to be so enduring that, with The Healer, he became the oldest artist ever to crack the Top Three on the British album charts.

The Healer seemed to tap into an ongoing public rediscovery of Hooker's mastery. On his 1988 arena tour, Bruce Springsteen had taken to covering Hooker's "Boom Boom." The following year, Pete Townshend employed Hooker's vocal services for The Iron Man album, literally begging the reluctant boogie king to participate with avowals that Hooker had been his lifelong idol.

This decade has seen the award floodgates open up for Hooker, as he's won the four Grammys, has been given a star on Hollywood Boulevard's Walk of Fame, was enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and received a Lifetime Achievement Award from The Blues Foundation.

Hooker says his favorite musicians are late guitar icons Albert King and Stevie Ray Vaughan. One of his favorite songs is "Red House" by Jimi Hendrix.

"I like the way he sings it," says Hooker. "I never did know the man, but I liked his style of guitar and his style of singing."

Hooker was featured on a 1990 recording of Variations on a Theme: Red House, and Jimi Hendrix is done proud on Don't Look Back. Hooker promised Hendrix's father and sister he would include it on this album.

With all of this fame and fortune, John Lee Hooker is still a regular guy. The blues legend pauses for the Boys of Summer. "Baseball season is my favorite time of the year," says Hooker. "I'm just a baseball person. I love baseball."

Though he admits some fondness for his neighboring San Francisco Giants, Hooker's strongest allegiance is to the Dodgers. But even though he's the reigning blues monarch, Hooker hasn't always been true Dodger blue.

"When I lived back East, I was a Cleveland [Indians] diehard," Hooker says. "Lou Boudreau, I liked him. Larry Doby, oh, yeah," Hooker says with his voice rising. "He was just elected to the Hall of Fame, I'm so proud of him."

In the '80s, Hooker bought his cars from Broderick Motors in San Carlos, California. Hooker, who says he still drives, remembers buying a late-model Buick. Sean Broderick, whose father ran the shop, says Hooker was known as "Johnnie."

"He would just shuffle in, alone, and hang out in the lounge," Broderick recalls. He remembers Hooker's deep, booming voice, and he confirms the impression that comes through whenever Hooker speaks: that this legend never let success swell his head.

"My dad and Johnnie talked about music and cars," says Broderick. "Even though he [Hooker] did a lot of great things, he was laid back, kind of a common person. Hooker did not expect to be treated differently from other customers."

John Lee Hooker and The Coast are scheduled to perform on Saturday, March 21, at Celebrity Theatre, with The James Harman Band, and Big Pete Pearson and the Blues Sevilles. Showtime is 8 p.m.

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Dale Baich