About John Lee Hooker

by Claus Röhnisch


John Lee Hooker was born in Tutwiler, Tallahatchie County, Mississippi (16 miles southeast of Clarksdale, Coahoma County) on August 22, 1917 (or possibly 1912 – most late findings point towards 1912). Johnnie also made Vance (Quitman and Tallahatchie counties, where his father was a share-cropper and spare-time preacher), and Lambert (Quitman, where his stepfather, amateur blues singer William Moore, lived), and probably also his mother's birthplace Glendora in Tallahatchie County his home during the 1920s. All of these communities were located within a “stone’s throw” distance in the heart of the Mississippi delta. John left the Clarksdale area for the first time already as a teenager and went to Memphis, to Knoxville, and to Cincinnati in the 1930s. In 1942 Lambert was his registered home. In 1943 he settled in Detroit, Michigan and started his career as a recording blues artist in the summer of 1948 (resulting in a ”lease” contract for Modern Records in Hollywood up to 1955). Still a resident of Detroit, he made his classic Vee-Jay recordings in Chicago up to 1965 and later was contracted to the New York City label ABC. In 1969 he made Oakland, California his new home. Hooker recorded a total of more than a 1000 songs up to his death on June 21, 2001 in his home in Los Altos, near San Francisco. His legacy includes almost 100 original albums and as many (certainly even more) CD compilations (and countless, strange and sometimes even super-interesting, reissue packages). Many regard him as the “World’s Greatest Blues Singer” – well, I surely do (a great fan ever since his Travelin’ LP). This discography covers all of John Lee’s original albums plus all other essential records.



Neil Slaven in 2000 on Hooker´s Detroit debut:
"John Lee Hooker ... became an overnight sensation in 1949 ... (note: edited), his talent already fully formed. Despite his (recent) biography, it´s likely we´ll never know how his highly individual skill developed because it´s not something he either can or wants to talk about. And why should he, since the creative process defies definition. The huge volume of music that poured through him during the first years was like a dam wall bursting, releasing the pent-up energies of a musician whose time had finally come.... He reached Detroit in 1943 and found work at the Receiving Hospital before taking a series of jobs with Dodge and Comco Steel. He (was) married for the first time to Alma Hopes (1941, one daughter, ed.note) but they parted after a few months; his relationship with Sarah Jones managed to last a year. Far more long-lasting and inspirational was his marriage to Maude Mathis (for around 25 years) and the birth of two sons and four daughters.... There were a host of house parties and small drinking clubs around the Black Bottom and Paradise Valley sections of Detroit. Through his persistence and the conviction that he was meant to be a famous musician, John Lee graduated to clubs such as the Apex, Henry´s Swing Club, the Caribbean Club and the Sensation. He also acquired an influential fan, none other than T-Bone Walker, who gave him his first electric guitar. ´It was just a matter of findin´ the break,´ he told Shaar Murray. ´I got discovered out of a little bar by my manager Elmer Barbee. He the one discovered me, playing around nightclubs, little honkytonk bars, house parties. I had a little trio (with pianist James Watkins, and drummer Curtis Foster). I was playin´ a little bar called the Apex on Monroe Street, and I was the talk of the town.´ Barbee owned a record store at 609 Lafayette, with a small recording studio in the back. For something like six months, John Lee made regular visits and cut a series of acetates, of which "Rocks" (a variant on "Roll Me Over"), cut on June 12, 1948, was one. "Leavin´ Chicago" and the first of many versions of "Wednesday Evening Blues" also survive from this period (cut was also "When My First Wife Left Me"; ed.note). Eventually Barbee took him and his demos downtown to meet Bernard Besman, part owner of Pan American Record Distributors on Woodward Avenue, the home of Sensation Records…. Besman selected to record John Lee at the city´s United Sound (Systems) studio (on 5840 2nd Boulevard).”

During the early part of Hooker’s Detroit period John made almost as many pirate pseudonym recordings as the legal regulars, under aliases like Texas Slim, Delta John, Birmingham Sam, The Boogie Man, Little Pork Chops, John Lee Booker, and Johnny Williams (and called himself Po’ Slim, Poor Joe, Poor John, Poor Tony, and Sam in the studios). He continued his pirate recording activities during all of his Modern years (1948-1954).



Still a resident of Detroit Hooker was contracted to Vee-Jay Records of Chicago in late 1955. He was with the label up to its bankcruptcy in the mid 1960s. Most of his recordings were done in Bill Putnam’s newly built studio, Universal Recording Corporation, on 46 E. Walton Street, with his ”#2-man”, Bernie Clapper, engineering. Hooker made regular trips to Chicago (often with at least one Detroit musician pal accompanying him). Hooker’s Vee-Jay contacts were Jimmy Bracken, Ewart Abner and especially Calvin Carter, who also was the foremost producer. Later Al Smith also produced him. When Putnam in 1957 started his United Recording at Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, Clapper took the lead in Chicago.

Hooker's very first album was released by Vee-Jay in August of 1959, ""I'm John Lee Hooker" (Vee-Jay LP 1007), comprising 1955 - 1959 recordings, including four great recuts of famous early Modern hits. The next three LPs were "House Of The Blues" (Chess LP 1438), "The Country Blues of" (Riverside RLP 12-838), and "The Blues" (Crown LP 5157, the Bihari brothers' first budget label).



This period in Hooker’s exciting and long career turned John into a ”coast-to-coast” and international travelling blues giant (he toured Europe almost every year from 1962 onwards) and leaned on a long-lasting recording contract with ABC Records (who operated the ABC, Impulse and BluesWay labels). Several famous producers, foremost Bob Thiele and Ed Michel, led many recording sessions from the East to the West.

Hooker recorded material enough for twenty interesting LPs during this decade and collaborated with artists ranging from Muddy Waters, and other well-established blues musicians, to famous jazz artists, celebrated young rock musicians (incl. Canned Heat), and his cousin Earl Hooker. He also formed his own Coast-to-Coast Blues Band (which comprised several long-lasting members).



Hooker had moved from Detroit to San Francisco in 1969, and recorded for ABC during a long stint 1965-1974, followed by more than ten years in the ”live wilderness”. In 1987 or early 1988 Hooker became part of the Blue Rose organization with Hooker’s manager and executive producer Mike Kappus (who had been John’s agent since 1976), Roy Rogers (musician and producer), and with Hooker himself the third party. Samuel Lehmer became John’s foremost engineer (mostly at Jack Leahy’s Russian Hill Recording studio on 600 Townsend St in San Francisco). With the Rosebud Agency (Hooker, Kappus and Rogers) John Lee Hooker embarked a whole new successful career, which lasted up to his death.