John Lee Hooker Listens to Blues 78s and Talks About Life

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    On assignment for Blues Revue Quarterly, I journeyed to John Lee Hooker’s home in Redwood City, California, on December 29, 1992. I’d sold the magazine on a cover story that was to be entitled “Spinning the Blues with John Lee Hooker.” I brought along some records that included the earliest 78s made by T-Bone Walker and B.B. King, two of Hooker’s initial releases, and one of the filthiest – and funniest – blues songs ever recorded, Lucille Bogan’s “Shave ’Em Dry.” Hooker liked the idea of a “listening party,” and easily settled into his favorite chair. In some cases, he made comments while the discs were spinning. Other times, he spoke at length following a song’s completion. Blues Revue Quarterly’s edited interview appeared in their Summer 1993 issue, and this was reprinted in my book Rollin’ and Tumblin’ : The Postwar Blues Guitarists. The version posted below, a new and complete transcription of our original tape, is substantially different.

    In previous interviews, John Lee had mentioned that T-Bone Walker was one of his musical heroes, so I began by playing Walker’s hard-to-find debut recording.

    T-Bone Walker, “Trinity River Blues”

    Old one there. Oh, yeah.

    T-Bone Walker in 1929.

    [T-Bone begins singing.] Is that T-Bone?

    Yeah. Long before the electric guitar came out.

    He’s one of my favorites. Real favorite. He was the first man to give me my electric guitar.

    Was it an Epiphone?

    Yeah. First man give me my electric guitar.

    Was he an easy fellow to get along with?

    Yeah, he was. He was very friendly, very loving, very romantic with the ladies – yeah, like most men, you know, including myself. I can’t say enough good things about him. Hearing that, I didn’t know him that far back. Sure it’s 1929?

    Yes. He only recorded two songs back then and didn’t record again until the 1940s.

    What label is that?

    Columbia.

    It sure sound different – his voice. Yeah. It sound like old Blind Lemon, almost. He [T-Bone] was such a gentleman.

    Did you ever hear him play an acoustic guitar?

    I never did. When I knew him, he was playin’ electric only. He was the first man that made the electric guitar popular around back East, in Detroit. Everybody tryin’ to sound like T-Bone Walker. The guitar players, you’d hear that fancy style, electric style. It’s very up-to-date, modern time. It would up to date right now. That sound he was doin’ then, it would be up-to-date right now in these late years. But I never knowed – this doesn’t even sound like him to me.

    It’s a beautiful arrangement.

    Yes, it is.

    Now here’s the first recording of another fellow. This is from 1949.

    .

    B.B. King, “Miss Martha King”

    B.B. sings the opening line.] Is that B.B.? Yeah. [Smiles.] Yeah! One of the nicest men in the world now. Yeah, you can tell that’s him. Different style, but that’s him. I admire that man so much. I always have admired him. I knowed him when he was a little skinny guy, weighed about 120 or 130 pounds.

    He’s bigger than that now.

    Yeah, he is. That’s what the age and good livin’ will do for you, you know. [Laughs.] He is a sweetheart man. He love people like me. He don’t have special people he love and some he don’t – he love ’em all. He got something for everybody. He always friendly, he always ready to talk to people. He’s just a hunk of love.

    I admit I like his older stuff better, because it was more bluesy. I like everything he do now, but go back and get that old stuff he used to do, which he can do now if he really want to. Get them hard blues. I guess we all tryin’ to update for a while – you got to keep up with the time and what the people want. Like in the race – you got to keep up with this race. So that’s what I try to do, and that what he’s doin’.

    Why did some of the bluesmen in the 1940s want to have an orchestra – like Gatemouth Brown, T-Bone Walker, B.B. King?

    Well, why you wanted to have them was some things in little nightclubs was noisy. People drinking. If they sittin’ there by theyself with just acoustic guitar, they couldn’t be heard unless they playin’ a coffeehouse where people don’t drink while you performin’. Coffeehouses – that’s what I did. Just playin’ guitar, and nobody talkin’ while I’m performin’. And you could be heard. So they played in nightclubs.

    I never knowed B.B. to play coffeehouses, or T-Bone Walker. They played in nightclubs where people were noisy, dancing. They had to have the big band. I don’t know if that was their choice or not, but they didn’t do what I did. I played by myself at coffeehouses where people wasn’t servin’ liquor, food and sandwiches. When I’m playin’, they just quit servin’ until after my show was over. They could hear me. It’s quiet, and they can be just sittin’. You could hear me. Bars wasn’t like that, you know. Some of ’em come there to drink and lookin’ for women, and loud. They like the music, but they ain’t payin’ it much attention. They just lookin’ for what they want, and with the drinkin’ they get wild. So they got to have a band to cover that. You follow me?

    Sure.

    You got to have a band to follow that. To come right back to myself: The coffeehouses are gone now, and I have to play with a big band in these clubs, concerts, or I wouldn’t be heard some nights. I do it sometimes by myself with electric guitar – like me and Ry Cooder – but mostly for people listening in the concert hall, where you listen. In nightclubs, you can’t do that. They want the music loud, they want to dance, they want to boogie – you got to have a band. The coffeehouses are gone now. It used to be a little popular place like the Chessmate in Detroit – I don’t know if you ever heard of the Chessmate.

    Sure. I went there when I lived in Detroit.

    Well, you could play by yourself, and people sit and listen. But now you don’t have a choice. All that stuff is gone. Coffeehouses, they not around. You got to have a band.

    When I was young, you came to my high school in Detroit and played by yourself. This was 1967 and the beginning of my falling in love with blues music. None of us had ever heard anything like that.

    And you come to like it, huh?

    Oh, yeah.

    That’s the real music, Jas. Once you listen to it, you want to hear more and more and more of it. That’s the history of American music, because everything come from there. But here lately people get to hear it a lot. They used to sweep it under the carpet. They wouldn’t play it on the radio, but now they playin’ it. All the young kids, all the young folks love it now. They love it all over the world. But at one time, they didn’t know what it was. But when they hear it, they love it. So that the way it go.

    You’re at an age now when most men are looking forward to retiring, and it seems like your career is more happening now than ever before.

    It is! It hit me by a [snaps fingers] shock. It was strong and fast and quick. I’m able to handle it. It don’t bother me, success. I’m just a normal person. If you didn’t know me as a star, you never would know it just to see me out there in the streets, with the way I act with people. Because I’m just really down to earth. I’m more into poor people than I is to people that got a lot of money, rich people. Well, I love ’em all, but my father was just everyday people, just down-to-earth people. Small nightclubs – I go in and jam and talk to the people. That’s the way I am. It hit me by surprise, but it didn’t change me at all. I never thought I would come to be one of the greatest musicians alive, you know. I never thought that, but it happened. Hey, it happened and I can’t change it, the way people feel about me and love me, which is good. And I give love back to ’em. I really love people, and it shows.

    It’s just a shame that some musicians don’t feel the way I feel. They’re real famous, you know, but that’s where we come from. They made us what we are – the people. If it weren’t for the people, then we wouldn’t be what we are, ridin’ in these fine cars, and nice homes. The people bought this for us, and I love these people for that. And I get out there. My door is always open for the right people. But there are some people I don’t associate with. Don’t say I hate them, but I don’t like what they stand for. But as a body and flesh and blood, I love them. I love them. But I don’t love what comes out of that body, the action and what they stand for, if you follow me.

    Blind Blake, “Hastings St. (Hastings St. Boogy)”

    This next song was recorded by Blind Blake around 1929.

    I heard of him.

    He’s singing about Detroit. The piano player is named Charlie Spand. I don’t know anything about him.

    Me neither. [Hear it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CMWQhAvhhLU. Record begins.] Never saw him. That like Blind Lemon a little bit. Yeah. This sound like up-to-date music, don’t it? [Laughs at the line “Went out on Hastings Street / they were doing the boogie, very woogie.”] I guess he used to live there. Detroit was jumpin’ then. I never knew where he was from. Sound like he lived there.

    Good piano player.

    Yes, he is. [Blake sings, “I know you want to get back to 169 Brady.”] 169 Brady – yeah, Brady was right off of Gratiot. Brady Street is gone now; I don’t think it is no more. Hastings Street is gone, yeah. Jefferson’s still there, Gratiot is still there. Chene, St. Auburn, Grand River, and the big main street, Woodward Avenue. Yeah.

    Do you like Blake’s guitar playing?

    Yeah! That’s the old sound here. Yeah, I do. That’s the real, real blues. You know, it don’t take fancy chords. [Song ends.] See, all these fancy chords is not real blues. It’s just a lot of fast fingers, you know, just sort of 80-mile, 90-mile speed. Which I don’t do that. I play the real funky blues, real clear, in my own style.

    And you’ve got the big beat driving right down the middle of your music.

    Driving big beat. Don’t get me wrong: These guitar players, they really good in they own way, they own style. They really just a lot of fancy pickin’ – they do – and maybe I couldn’t do that. And I don’t want to do it. But I don’t call it the real blues, though. It’s just a lot of speed. What they doin’, it’s good, but not for me. It’s the real funk that I play. There’s a heck of a lot of fancy guitar players out there, but comin’ out of the real blues, it ain’t there. I got my own style that nobody’s got but John Lee Hooker. I wouldn’t change if I wanted to. You know, my style, what I got, I don’t go by a certain time – 8, 12, and 16 [bars], which I can do it perfect if I want to – but I’m known not to do it, and I don’t do it. I’m allowed to jump here and jump there, because that’s the way the blues is. Just lower your head and play the blues – it come from the heart and soul. And then you feel it. I feel it when somebody else is feelin’ it too. I could play perfect on everything if I wanted to, but then there wouldn’t be John Lee Hooker any more: “Oh, he gone to the fancy style” or “He gettin’ fancy perfect.” I do that on some of my songs – perfect intention – but then I do it unperfect when I don’t want to do it perfect. Some of ’em I do perfect, like “Boom Boom.” Some of ’em I don’t go about perfect changes – I just play my guitar.

    .

    Lonnie Johnson, “No More Troubles Now”

    Let’s hear another famous guitar player. This is Lonnie Johnson in 1930.

    Oh, boy! I love that one. [Record begins.] Ooh! Oh, I wish I had that. Send me some of that. I knowed him personally. Nice man. Like he just said [on the record], he like women, wine, and song. He lived in Toronto. That’s where he died. I knowed him real good.

    It was said that in the early days, he was the most sophisticated blues guitarist.

    He is! He is! He got that style, man. It’s blues and it’s pop. There’s some of everything, the way he plays it. Yeah. He loved people. He loved everybody. He was a hero to everybody. When he lived in Canada, everybody loved that man. I’d go see him play there, and everybody loved him. He was so friendly. Always smiling. Nice personality. Everybody loved him – black and white, wherever you are, they loved Lonnie Johnson.

    Did you know about him when you were young?

    Well, not when I was real young. Not when I was real young. I knew him when I was pretty young – I was around 30. I used to follow him. Oh, I can’t say enough about the man. He was genius. And he got his own style too – nobody sound like Lonnie Johnson.

    He played a lot of notes.

    Yeah, but he had his own style, though. He didn’t sound like everybody pick up a guitar. You could tell it’s Lonnie Johnson every time he picked it up. Oh, he could play a lot of notes, but you know who he was every time he started – he had his own style. [Listens intently as Johnson sings, “’Cause I got plenty money, good women, whiskey, wine and song.”] Oh, so sad when I hear that.

    Memphis Minnie, “Ma Rainey”

    [Memphis Minnie sings the opening line.]

    Sound familiar?

    Oh, yeah. Memphis Minnie. I knowed her too. I knowed her real good, Memphis Minnie.

    Why were almost all of  the blues guitar players back then men? Why weren’t there more women players like Memphis Minnie?

    That’s a question I can’t answer. Men is just ahead. Millions of men guitar players, just a few women. I guess it just wasn’t . . . I don’t know. That one I can’t answer.

    Would it have been harder for them to travel around to play?

    Yeah, I’m sure it would have been. Memphis Minnie played guitar.

    Johnny Shines told me that she might have been the first blues performer in Chicago to have an electric guitar.

    Could have been. I knowed her when she live in Detroit. She lived in Detroit when I knowned ’em  – her and Son Joe. Ever hear of a guy called Son Joe, what played with her?

    Sure. Was she an older woman at that time?

    No, she wasn’t.

    Lucille Bogan, “Shave ’Em Dry”

    Would it be alright if I played you an old blues song that’s really dirty?

    I don’t care. Get funky. I don’t care what it said – pussy, whore, or anything! It just men [here]. [Laughs at opening verse: “I’ve got nipples on my titties big as the end of my thumb / I got somethin’ between my legs gonna make a dead man come.”] “Make a dead man come.” Who is that?

    Lucille Bogan.

    I never heard of her. [Laughs uproariously at the line, “Say, I fucked all night and all the night before, baby, and I feel just like I want to fuck some more.”] I like that! [Listens intently to the rest of the song.]

    Had you heard people play this kind of music?

    Yeah.

    Did you hear of something called “The Dirty Dozens”?

    Yeah. That was a song they used to play in the Delta, “The Dirty Dozens.” When you playin’ “The Dozens,” I never know what . . . . “The Dozens” means bad – something’s bad, bad. But playin’ “The Dirty Dozens” – I never really did know what they meant by that, but I heard the word a hundred million times. “The Dirty Dozens”

    Was that music around when you were a child?

    Oh, no. My parents didn’t allow it, no, no. If I’d heard it, they would of kill me! [Laughs.]

    Robert Johnson, “Preaching Blues”

    [The opening verse begins to play.] Robert Johnson.

    Oh, yeah. Famous man! He’s famous. He’s got to be famous since he been gone. He more famous now than he was when he was alive.

    He played around Clarksdale in the 1930s.

    I never see him.

    Had you heard his records back then?

    I heard his records when I come to Detroit. I got up to Detroit when I was about 14. I left Mississippi when I was 14.

    Were you playing already?

    I wasn’t famous, though I was foolin’ around with the guitar.

    Does this Robert Johnson record sound like Mississippi music to you?

    It could be any country or any state, and over the years, I guess it would be. It’s all music –  it is. Nowadays, he could be any state or any country. But then that was the kind of music in the South.

    John Lee Hooker, 1948’s “Shake Your Boogie”

    Just a couple more, alright?

    Okay. My throat’s gettin’ tired. I’ll listen. [The opening guitar figure and foot taps begin.] That’s me. [The first verse begins.] That ain’t me singin’, is it?

    I think so.

    Yeah?

    Sounds like you’re 14 years old.

    Yeah. It’s got my name on it, but I think it’s somebody else singin’.

    You sound like you’re bashing your guitar pretty hard.

    Oh, yeah, I do that. Yeah.

    Has it been a long time since you heard anything like this?

    Yeah. I think there’s somebody else there.

    You don’t think that’s you?

    It’s got my name on it. [The next song begins to play.]

    John Lee Hooker, “Good Business”

    Yeah, that’s me.

    You’ve stayed remarkably true to the way you play guitar.

    “You got good business, and I like to trade with you.” Yeah. I forgot all that stuff.

    Do you have a collection of your own old records?

    Not that old.

    .

    Albert King, “Personal Manager Blues”

     

    [The opening guitar riff plays.] Albert King – that’s him?

    Yeah.

    [Albert sings “I want to be your personal manager, baby.”] I play that myself. I don’t have that tuning.

    He passed away last week.

    Yeah. He was a great man, he was. He was a great man. Boy, he played the blues! He is my favorite guitar player.

    Why?

    He plays the funky blues. He don’t go fancy. He stay right where he at. He don’t get fancy.

    Stevie Ray Vaughan learned a lot from Albert.

    He sound real like him. Oh, I love Stevie Ray! He sound just like Albert when he want to. That was a big loss – to me, it was. I talked to Jimmie [Vaughan] last week.

    What killed Albert?

    He had a heart attack or something.

    He sure was a character.

    Yeah.

    He did things his way and no other way.

    His way and no other way! Well, that’s the way he was. He didn’t let no manager tell him what to do. [Laughs.] He’d tell the manager to go fuck off!

    I saw him fire a guy onstage during the middle of a show.

    Oh, yeah, he’d do that in a minute! He went through managers like rain. Like two or three a year.

    He’d have his band out there in tuxedos, and then he’d come out in overalls and a straw hat, smoking his pipe.

    Yeah. That’s the way he was. He was a trip! [Laughs.] He was just right up front. He didn’t hold back no punches.

    [At this point John Lee’s assistant told him he had to go somewhere.]

    Well, thanks for the interview.

    May God bless you, and keep on doin’ what you’re doin’.

    I’ve appreciated your support.

    I gotta be me – that’s the way I am. I gotta be me.

    .

    For more with John Lee Hooker, check out our complete Living Blues interviews (http://jasobrecht.com/john-lee-hooker-living-blues-interviews/) and our interview about spirituality and the afterlife (http://jasobrecht.com/john-lee-hooker%e2%80%99s-spiritual-side-a-qa/).

    For more on Blind Blake: http://jasobrecht.com/blind-blake-king-of-ragtime-blues/.

    Donations to help maintain this Archive are appreciated.

    © 2011 Jas Obrecht. All rights reserved. This interview may not be reposted or reprinted without the author’s permission.


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      6 comments on “John Lee Hooker Listens to Blues 78s and Talks About Life

      1. Les Forgue on said:

        Thanks for publishing this!!!!

      2. Johnny on said:

        Thank you for this. I appreciate it partner, keep it up.

      3. larry cohn on said:

        Great!!
        I had a 40-year friendship w/John Lee
        and this interview has broght back so
        many lovely memories.
        Larry Cohn

      4. Roger Ellis on said:

        Wow, I enjoyed that so much, thank you. You know, we need to capture as much as possible while our heros are still able to talk to us. I wish someone was doing your work when Blind Blake was playing. And so many others, too.

      5. Unbelievable! One of the best things I’ve read in a while. Need more interviews like this. Just play them records, and let them talk about them.

      6. Cornelious on said:

        I find the “Shake Your Boogie” issue intriguing. The phrasing on the record sounds to me exactly like JLH, it’s just the pitch of the voice is way to high.

        Could it be that the recording was artificialy sped-up during the mastering stage so what we’re hearing is JLH, but too fast?

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