John Lee Hooker

The electric guitar and pounding foot of John Lee Hooker helped to establish blues in the post-World War II American musical culture. Born in Mississippi in either 1912 or 1917, Hooker was homeschooled by his mother and sharecropper/preacher father. Before his parents divorced and his mother married a blues singer, the only music Hooker was exposed to was Baptist spiritual music. William Moore, Hooker’s stepfather, taught him guitar in the Delta style and frequently housed traveling blues musicians, including Blind Lemon Jefferson and Charlie Patton. By the age of fourteen, Hooker had been given a guitar by his sister’s boyfriend, Tony Hollins, and left home inspired to become a musician. He traveled to Memphis, played small shows and house parties, went to Cincinnati for seven years, and eventually settled in Detroit in 1943. In Detroit, bolstered by the number of migrants coming north to work in the war industry, Hooker was exposed to the city’s club scene, which had few guitarists, and ditched his acoustic instrument for a louder—electric—one.

In 1948, Hooker met Bernie Besman, who helped him codify his playing style and helped him record demos; these were released in the same year by Modern Records. “Boogie Chillen” became the best-selling “race” record of 1949 and established Hooker’s unique sound. Through the 1950s, like many other blues musicians, Hooker received little compensation for his frequently released recordings and evaded record contracts by recording under various pseudonyms. His work with Vee-Jay, which began in 1958, saw Hooker’s style adapted to fit a backing band. The resulting singles reached an apex in the 1962 release “Boom Boom,” which broke into the pop charts and became an instant R & B classic. The early 1960s blues revival led Hooker to tour Europe with the American Folk Blues Festival in 1962. His first album, released in 1967, charted in the UK but his collaboration with psychedelic/blues rock band Canned Heat, 1971’s Hooker ’n’ Heat, was his first to break into the Billboard Top 100. He continued to record collaborative albums, performed in the 1980 film The Blues Brothers, and signed a major label contract with Virgin that lasted, through four albums and three Grammy Awards, until his death in 2001.