Asked to name my favorite among all the musicians I’ve interviewed, the first person who comes to mind is John Lee Hooker. John could not read or write, and could barely scrawl his own name, but he was very intelligent, profoundly insightful, and musically true to himself in a way paralleled by Muddy Waters, Lighnin’ Hopkins, and precious few others.
I first saw John Lee Hooker in Detroit in 1966, playing a solo set at the Jesuit high school I’d just begun attending. That night he did most of the set from a fabulous album he’d just made with Muddy Waters’ band, Live at Café Au-Go-Go, playing an electric guitar and keeping time with his feet. What a way to inaugurate my lifelong love for the blues!
Moving from Detroit to California in 1978, I was blessed to interview John several times during the next two decades. We did two solo cover stories for Guitar Player magazine, as well as joint GP covers featuring John in conversation with B.B. King and Buddy Guy. We listened to old blues records together for a Blues Revue cover story, and did our most in-depth interviews for his 1997 Living Blues cover story. But perhaps my most memorable interview with John was our final one together, in October 1998, for Mojo magazine. It took place in John’s home in Redwood City, California. That day, John pulled out stories that even his longtime manager and friend, Mike Kappus, hadn’t heard before. I’d like to share them as my first blog. (Out of respect for John, I am keeping his language exactly as spoken.)
* * * *
You’ve advised many musicians – especially guitarists – to slow down and play half as many notes. But what’s the best playing advice someone’s given to you?
Well, the best advice given to me was from my stepfather, Will Moore, and T-Bone Walker. Both of ‘em told me, “Once you start, don’t stop. If you really want to do it, don’t let people dis-encourage you. Don’t let people tell you that you ain’t gonna make it. If you’re determined to do it, just keep on pluckin’.” I found that really paid off for me. Sometimes things don’t go like you want to, and you get kind of disgusted and say, “Oh, I’m gonna quit. I’m gonna hang it up.” But don’t do it. Keep on pluckin’. If you really want it, you’ll have it. I found that was the best advice. A lot of time when you’re tryin’ to start off, people dis-encourage you. “Oh, you ain’t gonna do it. Waste of time.” That’s what happened to me – people tell me I wasn’t going to make it. But I’d look at ‘em and laugh, because I know what my stepfather and T-Bone told me: Keep on pluckin’, you know. And that’s what I did.
You’ve raised several children. What’s the most important thing for a father to teach his kids?
That’s a good question! Teach your children to be obedient, to love and be with other people. And keep your mind occupied on something that’s not trouble. Keep busy and do the right thing. Learn how to get along with people. That’s what I teach ‘em, and so far it paid off. I tell them not to get out in the street and get with the gang and run around. There are plenty of good places they can go. They can study their music or stay in school or go out with people that are quality and want to live a good life. Stay home. That’s what I tell them. And stay away from drugs! Drugs are runnin’ this world now. They run kids and grown-ups too. I teach them to keep their minds occupied on the good things in life. My mind is occupied on music and women, my mind is.
For many years now, you’ve been renowned for being a ladies man. What’s your secret?
I’m nice to ‘em. Respect them. And good women, they respects that – they watch that, they notice that. I’m not the kind that runs around with anything with a skirt on. Yes, I am kind of a ladies’ man, and there’s really nothing wrong with it. I don’t think so. I would be a one-woman man if I had one that was really true, but right now I’m not a married man. When I was a married man, I was a one-woman man.
You always keep a guitar here at home. What do you play when you’re all alone by yourself?
Just messin’ around with the blues, just whatever come to me. Try to find different ideas and stuff like that. Nothin’ special. Sometimes at home I sit down and play my old songs – the old ones are really the best songs.
Do you believe in God?
Yeah! See, God’s looking down watching you. You can’t see God Jehovah, but he sees you. He knows every move you make and what you do – I believe that! He the one that created you, created woman. I believe that, and can’t nobody tell me different. I’m not an angel, but I live a good life. But I’m not perfect – there’s only one man perfect, and that’s God. He’s perfect.
What’s the difference between singing the blues and saying your prayers?
Well, not much. When you sing the blues, you’re sincere from your heart. It’s a gift that the higher power gave you. The higher power is God, if you believe in God. Some folks don’t believe in the higher power of God, but I do. I think it is a gift from God Jehovah that enables you to do that. He created you and gave you the talent. Everybody can’t sing – they can sing, but they don’t have my talent.
That’s a good, good question you asked. When you’re sayin’ your prayers, you’re praying to God to forgive you and to help other people. You pray for other people, to be obedient, to be loyal to people and forgive them. There’s bad people, and you pray that they will be a better person. You pray that yourself will be a better person. And when you sing, you hope people catch on to your singin’ and it will soothe their mind if they got a worried mind or something is really botherin’ them. The singin’ will pick them up. There’s a song called “The Healer.” That was meant to heal people’s soul and mind. You don’t find many people like John Lee Hooker – I don’t think you do – and I sing for the people, to bless the people, to heal their mind. There are people I wouldn’t associate with, but I don’t hate ‘em. I really don’t. I pray for them to get over that thing.
You’ve loved and lost a lot of people in your life – your mother and father, fellow musicians, friends. Who do you miss the most?
I lost a lot of people – I lost my whole family. That’s a hard question. I’d have to say my mother and father. I knowed them well, and I knew they wasn’t gonna live forever. I know they long gone by now, but I still think about ‘em. I don’t worry about it now that people have come and gone. I miss ‘em, but life must go on and life must end. I don’t let it get me down. I don’t let it stop my life, because life must go on. No matter how much I love you, you are not going to live always.
What do you think happens when your time is up? Does your spirit go somewhere?
Yeah. Where, I don’t know. But that’s what the Bible says. I study the Bible. We have Bible study all the time. We go to church, Jehovah Witnesses. We have Bible study in our home, to pray and bless people and ourselves and talk to God Jehovah. We have the Bible. I’m not good on readin’, but people read the Bible to me and it soaks in. I’m not braggin’ on myself, but I know I’m a good person – a very good person. I care for people. Sometime people get greedy over money and different things, but I don’t.
Do you think you’ll see your mom again?
That’s what I’m hoping. I’m hoping to see her in some beautiful place – and my father. That’s a dream and a hope. Nobody never found that out yet, but where you go, I hope that’s true. We pray and study the Bible and hope that we come back again as a person. If you pray to God Jehovah, you will relive. This earth is made for paradise. See, God made this planet, and it will never be destroyed. But the filth and the trash and the sin will be destroyed. But not the earth, not the ground, but the bad people and the filth and the evil will be cleaned up. It will become a new world, and new generations will live on with no sadness, no grief. It will be a beautiful place for people.
You’re pushing eighty now, and people talk about the “golden years.” But are the golden years so golden?
I don’t feel any differently. I feel real active. I feel real blessed to be here, to enjoy the younger generation and the older generation, all of it. I’m here for a purpose, I know. For God hasn’t taken me away, so I believe that. And I get out here and go about my way. Oh, I have my aches and pains. I know I’m not gonna live forever. I don’t think so, being that Armageddon will come. That’s the end. You may be here when Armageddon come. You may live through it. Who knows? But that’s when the earth be cleaned up, and then only the righteous will survive, through the God Jehovah. They the only ones will survive. If you’re a Christian and believe in the God Jehovah, I believe you can live through that. But people against each other and fighting over wealth and doing evil – that’s a sin, and I think they’ll be destroyed away. That’s a sin. I believe in that. But where and when, we don’t know. But right now we’re living in a world of doubt; it’s full of good and it’s full of evil. People are evil over money, love, sex, everything.
This is the truth, from my heart: I really don’t believe in chasing money. I have enough to survive and live, but I don’t go crazy over money. I have just enough to survive like I am now. I’m set. And I don’t look to be a double-millionaire or billionaire. I am very generous with money. I’ll give you a lot with no regret. I ain’t looking for that back, because I give from my heart and soul. I’m not greedy over money. I don’t take what don’t belong to me. I just live an easy, peaceful life and love people. That’s what I want.
You’ve recently worked on a book about your life. As you were reliving your life, did you think of things you wished you’d done differently?
Yes! But you can’t. If I could change things, one thing I would change is for the good. The things I did in my young life – 18, 19, 20 – I wouldn’t do. If I could change that, I would. I’m not sayin’ I was an angel in my younger days, but I wasn’t bad. But I was just wild and would do things that was kind of dangerous then. I wouldn’t do that any more. I used to be a wild person – I’d drink and party, whole lot of women. I don’t do that anymore. If I had to live it over again, I would reach back and get one lovely woman in my life and stick with her. But back then I didn’t do that. I just got a bunch of ‘em, screwin’ around. I wouldn’t do that now. If I had a good wife, a good woman, I’d be like an angel to her – just that one, one woman. I really would, if I could relive that. But I can’t find her now.
This is the 50th anniversary of your recording “Boogie Chillen.” Did you ever imagine your music would carry you for so long and so far?
I really didn’t! I didn’t thought I would get this far. I rarely talk about it or brag about it, but I never know I’d be one of the biggest blues singers in the world. The music carried me so far, everything I touch would turn to gold. I never figured that. But back longer than 60 years ago, when I was in Mississippi, I run into this woman at a circus. I was about 10, 12 years old. I’m at this circus, and out of all the young people, the kids, she come straight to me. I never will forget. I was singin’ around a little bit then, but there was nothin’ to it – just hummin’ around in the church and whenever I could. She walk up to me and said, “Young man, one day you will be a great musician – you will be real famous and a very rich man.” I looked at her, and I kind of laughed. Then she said, “I read people. I’m a fortune teller.” That’s what she said. She also said, “You ain’t got no money,” and I didn’t! I didn’t have a dime, so I said, “No.” Then she said, “You gonna be very famous, young man,” and I said, “Yes, sure.” Then she walked away, and I never seen her since.
I didn’t pay much attention then, but then it dawned on me for years and years and years, and it done happened. I did become famous and a very loving person and very successful with money. This woman looked to me like a living angel – and she could have been an angel, because out of all those people, she came straight to me. I know this woman been long gone, because she was kind of an old lady then. But I still think about it a lot, because it’s true what she told me. That’s why I believe in certain things – people can read your life’s story.
Donations to help maintain this Archive are appreciated.
© 2010 Jas Obrecht. All rights reserved. This interview may not be reposted or reprinted without the author’s permission.