With a career spanning a good seven decades, John Lee Hooker is best known to fans as the master of boogie-woogie blues. His was a form of blues you could dance to, something you can’t say about many of his contemporaries. He preferred to keep things simple when playing the guitar, focusing on the rhythm and coming up with some of the catchiest blues songs ever recorded, including “Boogie Chillen’” and “Boom Boom”, the latter of which made most famous by the Animals and the Yardbirds in the ‘60s.
Nobody knows for sure when Hooker was born – some sources state it was as early as 1915, others maintain it was as recent as 1923. Hooker’s official website has his birth date listed as August 22, 1917, while the man himself claimed it was in 1920. He was raised by a poor, religious family of Mississippi sharecroppers, and it was Hooker’s guitarist stepfather William Moore who got the young boy started on the path to becoming a bluesman. Moore’s style was a basic one-chord blues not unlike many of the songs his stepson would crank out as an adult. At the age of 15, John Lee Hooker left home to become an itinerant bluesman, and hopping from city to city, hoping to catch that big break. That break would come in Detroit, where he teamed with business partner Bernie Besman. With Besman’s help, Hooker recorded his first single in 1948 – “Sally Mae” b/w “Boogie Chillen’.” This single was released under Los Angeles’ Modern Records, and “Boogie Chillen’” became Hooker’s first #1 hit on the R&B charts.
Another R&B chart-topper would follow three years after the success of “Boogie Chillen’.” “I’m in the Mood” was also released under Modern Records, and became a #1 hit in 1951. Due to the horribly low wages African-American musicians would get at the time, Hooker would record for a variety of labels in the ‘50s using a variety of stage names, mostly slight twists on his given name. He finally settled down on Vee-Jay Records in 1955, where he would release even more eventual blues classics, including “Dimples”, “Baby Lee” and “Boom Boom.” The Animals’ cover of “Boom Boom” was a Top 50 single on the Billboard charts in 1964, and validated Hooker as an influence for younger musicians, including those (like the Animals) plying their trade across the pond.
Thanks to his growing list of connections in the world of popular music, Hooker collaborated with artists such as Canned Heat in 1970, the Blues Brothers (comedians Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi) at the dawn of the ‘80s and Carlos Santana and Bonnie Raitt in 1989. The latter collaboration resulted in a Grammy for Santana and Hooker, a long-overdue achievement for a man who had, at that point, been in the business for nearly 50 years.
Hooker spent most of his last years semi-retired from the music scene, though he did release four albums on Pointblank Records in the ‘90s. By this time he had earned enough to live comfortably, owning a few homes in California. In 1991, Hooker was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He had even appeared in a few television commercials, including one for Pepsi. Hooker passed away at the age of 83 on June 21, 2001, dying from natural causes. With a legion of artists covering his work and a status as an influential figure in both the blues and rock and roll, it’s safe to say the Boogie Man had left the living world as a happy man.