John Lee Hooker

What he meant to me

by Keith Woods


A warm spring evening in 1964, a queue forming from the entrance of the Cooks Ferry Inn stretching back from where the steps led down from the North Circular Road joining the footpath which ran alongside the River Lea.  During this brief mid sixties period there can be little doubt that the Cooks Ferry, Edmonton was the premier blues venue in north London. Howlin’ Wolf, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Memphis Slim and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins all performed at the venue during this period along with the man to whom we pay tribute – John Lee Hooker.

Thirty-seven years ago but I can remember the moment as clearly as if it was yesterday. Standing in the queue patiently waiting for the doors to be flung open, this 18 year old mod boy chatting to his mates heard a wag call out from behind, “It’s not every day you see John Lee Hooker walking along the River Lea!” Sure enough, there he was, sauntering along the pathway towards us, guitar case in hand in the company of, I guess, the tour promoter. As he approached, the queue disintegrated, gathering around him to shake his hand, have autographs signed and the like, a smile stretched across his face. Dressed in a black ‘near’ zoot suit he looked both cool and totally relaxed.


There have been numerous so-called blues booms over the years but the blues was never so hip, before or since, than it was during those few wonderful years. It put John Lee Hooker’s ‘Dimples’ in the pop charts and ‘Smokestack Lightnin’ reached the bottom part of the top thirty. Howlin’ Wolf in the British record charts seems inconceivable now - well it seemed pretty bizarre at the time, but it happened, thanks largely to the British R & B bands who were out there nightly plundering the great blues legends’ back catalogues. Think what you may about some (all?) of them, it was they who were bringing the names of the greats to the lips of the kids.

Thirty-seven years is a hell of a time ago. Chief reviewer of 'Tales From The Woods', Hardrock Bunter, was only about four years old. This esteemed magazine’s expert on skiffle and pre-Beatles British Rock'n'Roll Darren Vidler (whose column(s) will be appearing in future editions) was still a few years from being born so obviously I can’t recount the gig in great detail. In fact I am a little bit hazy about who were backing him up that night (anyone out there remember?) but I do remember him opening his set with ‘Crawlin’ King Snake’. Equally I recall ‘Dimples’, ‘Boom-Boom’, ‘The Road Is So Rough’, ‘Mama You Got A Daughter’, ‘Time Is Marching’ and naturally ‘Boogie Chillin’. I remember him keeping time by thumping the stage floor with his foot. I remember the deep rich growl of his voice that sent shivers up the spine of this young blues fan, just like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Jimmy Reed did when I was privileged enough to see them in the flesh.


I got to see John Lee Hooker several times over the years - Hammersmith Odeon, Crystal Palace Blues Festival to name a couple. The great thing about him was that he changed so little. No funked up rhythms, no large horn and string sections - he simply hung in there waiting to come into vogue again, like in the late eighties with the release of ‘The Healer’ album and its follow up ‘Mr Lucky’. Joined by a guest star list including Bonnie Raitt, Van Morrison, Carlos Santana and Ry Cooder, John Lee Hooker found himself in the UK Album Charts resulting in the twilight of his career being spent in comfort and security - a luxury denied so many bluesmen of his generation, or equally of any generation. The nineties was spent in semi retirement just working when he chose to. He was booked to appear last year at the Bishopstock Music Festival but had to cancel out because of ill health so, sadly, I never got to see him play one last time.


John Lee Hooker was born in Clarksdale, Mississippi on August 17th 1917, one of eleven children. Taught the rudiments of the guitar by his sharecropper step father, aged around 13 he left the Mississippi delta for Memphis, Tennessee. There, he worked as an usher in a Beale Street theatre, playing his guitar for small change in the streets before returning to Mississippi. Not for long though as he was soon off again, this time heading way up north to Cincinnati where he sang in a gospel group called The Big Six, also, it is claimed with, The Fairfield Four. Hoping to cash in on World War II assembly line work he moved to Detroit in 1943 playing the clubs at night. His recording career began in 1948 with ‘Boogie Chillin’ which, despite being a throwback to earlier times, by early 1949 became a number one R & B chart hit.


Throughout the early 1950s he recorded for numerous labels under equally numerous pseudonyms. He joined the Chess label in 1952, staying until 1954, working with Muddy Waters and alongside other big name blues acts associated with that legendary label. He continued to moonlight until joining the label with which he is most associated, VeeJay, in the late fifties, first coming to Europe in 1962 with the American folks blues festivals.


He toured the UK and Europe virtually every year throughout the remainder of the sixties. By 1970 he had left Detroit to settle in California, recording the album ‘Hooker & Heat’ with Canned Heat. Albums continued from John Lee spasmodically throughout the remainder of the seventies and much of the eighties, until the release of the aforementioned ‘Healer’ took everybody by surprise and consequently became one of the biggest selling albums by a blues artist in history. Inducted into the Rock'n'Roll Hall Of Fame in 1990, later that same year a special tribute concert was held at Madison Square Gardens. By now signed to the Point Blank label, another big selling album (‘Mr Lucky’) to his credit, and with riches in the bank he could only have dreamed of he continued to work as the mood took him right up to a few days before he died peacefully in his sleep. He died virtually playing the blues I can’t think of a better way to go.