John Lee Hooker: ever since the world was born

Real Groove

John Lee Hooker does not belong to the age of the phoner.

While most recording artists have accepted the long-distance promotional interview as a fact of their profession and, with little prompting, will fall into a conversational patter about their latest album, forthcoming tour and so on, John Lee Hooker gives the impression that he cannot imagine why anyone would want to ask him anything. And indeed, what is there left to ask a man whose music – documented over almost fifty years of recordings – seems to say all there is about the things that most concern humankind: love, anger, tragedy, joy? Hooker’s speaking voice seldom rises above a soft, baritone rumble. His sentences tend to be no more than as few scattered phrases. He is patient and polite, sounds weary yet at the same time utterly at peace, as though he is already living somewhere beyond this world.

On your recent album Chill Out you have re-recorded an old song of yours, ‘Tupelo’. That song goes back a long way doesn’t it?

Yes, it does.

What made you write that song?

It was a true song. There was a flood there in Mississippi, in Tupelo. I wasn’t there, I wasn’t in it, but it was. It’s a true song. People like it.

Are most of your songs true stories – things that have happened to you?

Well this didn’t happen to me but it happen’ to other people, all over the world, you know. If it didn’t happen to me it happen’ to somebody else, the things I’m talking about, so a lot of people can relate to it in their life.

When you pick up your guitar to write a song what are you thinking about? What do you focus on?

Well, people. I’m thinkin’ about the people all over the world and life and something I can sing that they can relate to.

There’s an old song of yours, ‘I’m Bad Like Jesse James’. You sound like a mean character in that song.

I’m not telling you what you have to do. You have to sing it like you’re a mean character, but I’m not. I’m a real softie.

When you were starting out what sort of places did you work?

Well I played I smaller nightclubs, stuff like that, anywhere I could, until I came up with a big hit, ‘Boogie Chillun’, and went on to bigger things. Bigger crowds, theatres, dancehalls…

What did a blues musician need to be able to do to get work?

Well, that’s a hard question. You gotta be good an’ you gotta be something different, and you gotta have a manager or an agent who likes ya.

You moved from Mississippi to Memphis, then Detroit. Now you live in San Francisco. What made you head West?

I wanted to come up to California to kinda better myself. And it was a place I hadn’t been.

What do you like to listen to if you’re at home?

Good blues, good boogie, and good down-to-earth funky rock.

Have you heard any of the African musicians who are recording these days?

Not many. Heard one.

Did you like the sound?

Yeah, that’s where it all comes from really.

Did it remind you of the blues?

Yeah.

Many people think your best recordings are the ones you made on your own. Do you prefer playing on your own or with a band?

I used to like playing on my own but now I like playing with people.

Has it been hard finding bands that understand your style and re easy to play with?

No, not really. So many musicians. Good musicians. They know my stuff before they know me.

Are there any singers you especially like to sing with?

Van Morrison.

How long have you known each other?

27 years.

He lived in San Francisco for a while didn’t he?

Yes he did.

Is that where you met?

No, we met back East.

I heard you have decided to give up performing live. Is that true?

Yeah. Retired. Called it a day.

When you were starting out did you think they would still be listening to the blues in the 1990s?

Oh yeah. It never dies. It’ll last longer than any other music.

How long was it around before you played it?

Forever. Been around ever since the world was born.

Tags: bluesworld musicmississippivan morrisonjohn lee hooker

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