I have listened to a lot of blues over the course of my life especially in the last 25 to 30 years. When it comes to the blues there are basically 2 schools or styles and as you dive in you will hear people reference Delta Blues and Chicago Blues. Of course there are also a group of yahoos who talk about Texas Blues and point to artists like Stevie Ray Vaughan. Listen I would like SRV a lot more if people quit referencing him as a blues man because he isn’t. He plays rock and roll and like most rock and roll it’s infused with blues riffs and rhythms but that doesn’t make it the blues. Sorry it’s just not. Now personally I have never understood why there has to be a distinction between Chicago and the Delta. They are connected, without the Delta there really isn’t a Chicago style as that’s where the influence was. Blues men travelled up to Chicago for bigger crowds, more money, more opportunity and the Blues took hold. This is also why Memphis became such a hot spot for the blues. Hey there are songs about Highway 49 which went north.
Now in my opinion there are three greats, three bluesmen who stand so far apart from the rest who had so much more influence than the rest that they stand alone. There are many others who come close but fall somewhere in line behind these three. Each of the three is distinct from one another as they can be. All three were born in the Delta. All three played and contributed to that Chicago style. For the longest time, the ranking of these three was clear to me, there was a 1 a 2 and a 3, close but that’s how I viewed them. My number 1 was the greatest blues singer to ever walk the planet but the more I listened to the other 2 the more I realized that there was room for someone else. So I changed that ranking and another was my number 1 for a while and then the third guy had a turn. Finally I came to the conclusion that I could not rank them so now they are 1a, 1b, and 1c.
Today’s subject is maybe the one guy that universally is loved. He just had that way with people, a great story teller, a tremendous musician and of the 3 I think links blues and rock better than the others. He was electric.
He was born in 1917 although the year of his birth is in question, in Tallahatchie County Mississippi. He was the son of a sharecropper He was the youngest of 11 children. The only music allowed in the home was religious music until 1921 when his parents separated and his mother married a blues singer William Moore who introduced him to the blues. He would always credit Moore with the development of his playing style, the one chord style that was prevalent in the region. A sister’s boyfriend gave him his first guitar. This man, Tony Hollins was also credited with developing his style of play. He never forgot those two men and always gave them credit.
He left home at the ripe old age of 14 years old and claims to have never seen his parents again. He moved to Memphis where he began playing on the famed Beale Street. During World War II he moved to Detroit to work at the Ford Motor Company. After the war, he began playing in the Detroit clubs and realized that people were having a hard time hearing him. He bought his first electric guitar shortly after. In 1949 Modern Records released a demo he had recorded. At the time he was working as a janitor in Detroit. The song Boogie Chillin’ became a small hit and introduced the world to John Lee Hooker.
If you have never really heard John Lee Hooker’s music then it’s a good time to start. Over the years people have discovered my love of the blues. I have been asked to put together cd’s for people and to make suggestions on where to start, who to listen to. I used to give people the path I took, Holiday, Bessie Smith and then Robert Johnson. Holiday is a tremendous singer, I think the best of all time and she is great to listen to whether you are interested in jazz or the blues anyway but her music is not really symbolic or representative of classic Delta Blues. Smith is difficult to listen to, her music is old and it sounds tinny, most of its just her and a piano and she can turn people off in a hurry. Robert Johnson is amazing but he has few recorded songs, 28 to be exact and many of those are just different takes. He also can be difficult to listen to, to hear his words and good luck figuring out what he was doing on the guitar. He often added a 7th string. Nowadays when people ask me I tell them to listen to john Lee Hooker. You can hear the influences to rock and roll in his music. He had that wonderful unique style. To me it always sounds like he is starting in the middle of a song, that’s his style unique to him and blues boogie will get you moving. Mostly it’s that wonderful deep mellow voice. Yes I would start with John Lee then it doesn’t matter who you listen to as everyone will have to compare to him.
Hooker recorded a lot of music. He did not get paid royalties and so he hustled and worked for it. He often would record the same song early in his career under different names and provide a different version or take on the song every time.
In the 60’s blues music became very popular because of the rock and roll artists who loved it and claimed its influence. Many blues legends joined forces to make money playing with the white rock stars many of them English white rock stars. Yet Hooker had always played with anyone who wanted to play with him. In 1970 he recorded with Canned Heat. He just enjoyed playing. He also always seemed a lot less bitter than some of his contemporaries, his music not suffering as much from the highs and lows of blues popularity. One of his big songs was Boom Boom which he recorded a couple of times. Of all the blues artists out there I have always found Hooker the most likeable. He was great at telling stories and for him it was just part of the gig. He was a prolific song wirter and while many other blues artists were content to play many blues standards most of the songs Hooker sang were original songs that he wrote. He had that great delivery and sometimes he would actually talk through a song telling a story rather than sing words like the song House Rent Blues and in the background he is just playing away. He has slow songs like The Waterfront and up tempo songs like One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer all done in his unique style.
Hooker died in his sleep in Los Angeles in his home at peace with the workd.
So there you have it. In my opinion, Hooker is one of the three greatest bluesmen ever. Stick around because a second one is really close by.