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John Lee Hooker
Interview by Bruce Pollock
If, as the saying goes, "The blues had a baby and they called it rock and roll," then John Lee Hooker was lucky he was never slapped with a massive paternity suit. Bands like the Rolling Stones, Z.Z. Top and J. Geils all looked up to Hooker as a musical father figure at some point in their career. The Animals had a major hit with his tune "Boom Boom," while Canned Heat, George Thorogood and the Blues Brothers all borrowed generously from his sizzling guitar style. John Lee Hooker continued to burn his boogie across the stages of America and Europe until his death in 2001 at the age of 83. In the '90s he even fulfilled one of his fondest goals by recording some personal favorites, "I Cover the Waterfront" on 1991's Hobo Blues and the Brook Benton classic "Kiddio" on 1995's Chill Out.

In January 1984, several years before his major label comeback with The Healer, I had a chance to chat with John Lee Hooker, who was as optimistic as ever. A portion of this interview appeared in my 2002 book Working Musicians (Harper Collins).
~Bruce Pollock


John Lee HookerThe Blues

The blues come from way back. When the world was born, the blues was born. As the world progressed the blues got more fancy and more modern. They dressed it up much more. They got lyrics now that they didn't have then. But they're still saying the same thing. The greatest music of all comes from the blues - spirituals, rock, country & western. Everything comes from that root. When the blues first came out it was only among black people. We used to sing them in the cotton fields, on the farms. They didn't care about lyrics, they whistled the blues, hummed the blues, moaned the blues. They didn't have set words - they didn't rhyme. But you have to roll with the times.

I'm doing the same thing as I used to, but it's more modern. I'm playing the same basic beat, but I build different instruments around it. I can do lots of different styles if I want to. I can play ballads, country & western, but I don't do it. If I start to do that I would lose my blues audience. I would lose my fans. They know me from playing the blues and the boogie. When I sit at home I can play beautiful ballads like "I Cover the Waterfront." I can do Brook Benton's style really good. "I like 'A Rainy Night in Georgia.'" I love "I Left My Heart in San Francisco." When I heard that song I couldn't help it. I said, I gotta do it as a blues. So I wrote "Frisco." I love Tony Bennett. I just love his voice. I want to meet him so bad. There are certain types of songs that fit my music just like that. I turn it around and it becomes mine. You can write something for me and I may love it, but I've still got to change it to where it fits me. I listen to the radio all the time and I pick up on new things. A lot of blues artists inspire me. Some of the old blues songs are so good and so sweet and so mellow I'd like to do a whole album of them. My mind's made up to do it, but I haven't done it yet. I could sing "Hoochie Coochie Man." I wouldn't do it like Muddy did it. I do a lot of Howling Wolf's stuff. It's like that song by Otis Spann: "Don't Let the Blues Die."


Boom Boom

I used to play at this place called the Apex Bar in Detroit. There was a young lady there named Luilla. She was a bartender there. I would come in there at night and I'd never be on time. Every night the band would beat me there. Sometimes they'd be on the bandstand playing by the time I got there. I'd always be late and whenever I'd come in she'd point at me and say, "Boom boom, you're late again." And she kept saying that. It dawned on me that that was a good name for a song. Then one night she said, "Boom boom, I'm gonna shoot you down." She gave me a song but she didn't know it.

I took that thing and I hummed it all the way home from the bar. At night I went to bed and I was still thinking of it. I got up the next day and put one and one together, two and two together, trying to piece it out - taking things out, putting things in. I finally got it down right, got it together, got it down in my head. Then I went and sang it, and everybody went, Wow! Then I didn't do it no more, not in the bar. I figured somebody would grab it before I got it copyrighted. So I sent it to Washington, D.C., the Library of Congress, and I got it copyrighted. After I got it copyrighted I could do it in the bar. So then if anybody got the idea to do it I had them by the neck, because I had it copyrighted. About two months later I recorded it. I was on Vee-Jay then. And the record shot straight to the top. Then, after I did it, The Animals turned around and did it. That barmaid felt pretty good. She went around telling everybody I got John Lee to write that song. I gave her some bread for it, too, so she was pretty happy.


Repertoire

"Ninety Days": She left you and you love her, but you're gonna give her 90 days to get back home. If you ain't home in 90 days I'm gonna get somebody else. Not 91, I mean 90. It starts off, I'm gonna give you 30 days to get back home, but because I love you I'm gonna give you 60 more.

"My First Wife Left Me": That's one of my favorites. It came to me that so many men get married and their wives leave them. So I decided to write a song like that. It's so sad that every time I sing it I feel a teardrop in my eye. I see my audience, even the young folks; they're sitting there with their heads hanging down.

"I'm Jealous": This is a new song - I'm jealous and I can't control the feeling. When you're jealous you can't control that. Your mind runs away with you. If you're jealous of your old lady everywhere she goes you think she's out with somebody else, or trying to pick up somebody.

"Tupelo": That's a true song about a flood that happened in Tupelo when I was a kid of about seven or eight years old. It completely destroyed the town. People never forgot it. So when I grew up and got famous, I wrote about it and it brought back memories to a lot of people.


Writing The Blues

Some songs are much harder to write than others. It just depends on what type of a song it is. On some you get it down right away. Ballads are a little bit harder. You have to go over some of the lines to get them right. If I get an idea I'll think about it and get it together and then I'll pick up a guitar and phrase it. I'll play it once to get the sound, the feeling, the beat. Then I'll get the band I'm playing with and work on it in the studio. If I wake up in the middle of the night with a good idea I'll start talking into the tape recorder. I have one right by my bed. Sometimes I'll take it with me in my car. Before tape recorders I just had to keep it all in my head.

A lot of people think blues singers write when they're sad and lonely. They think you gotta be down and out to write the blues - hungry, broke. It's not true. I write when I've got a good feeling, when I'm happy. When things are going well for you, you write. You have to be in the groove to write. You can't be upset and worried and write the blues. You've got to have a clear mind. The songs are sad, and they think you're sad when you're writing them, but you're not. You're just in a good mood for writing blues. When you write like that you're not writing for yourself. There are millions of people out there. Maybe some of them are sad, and when they hear the words you said, the song will hit them. Goddamn, my old lady just left me. Anyone in the world who's been in that position will buy it. I'm not feeling that way, but I'm writing it for the people who are. Sometimes you feel something deep down and write it to get it out, get it off your chest. But I cannot write a song when I'm feeling blue. I can't think when my mind is on my troubles.

John Lee HookerSongfacts contributor Bruce Pollock ("The Next to Last of the Rock Journalists") is the Deems Taylor Award winning author of ten books on music, including Working Musicians: Defining Moments from the Road, the Studio, and the Stage; By the Time We Got to Woodstock: The Great Rock Revolution of 1969; and The Rock Song Index: The 7500 Most Important Songs of Rock and Roll History. Visit Bruce at brucepollockthewriter.com. October 16, 2012.

Comments: 1

Great interview. He was an awesome man.
-Wi

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