Blues Giant John Lee Hooker Dies

Posted in News on June 21, 2001

There are some musicians so unmistakable that a single note, a single chord, or a single word can bring them immediately to mind. John Lee Hooker was one of those musicians. The veteran bluesman died in his sleep on June 21 at his home in Los Altos, California. He was 83.

John Lee Hooker joined BMI in 1958. His catalog includes nearly 800 songs, including his three BMI R&B Award winners "Boogie Chillun,""Crawlin' Black Snake Blues"and "I'm In The Mood."


With his gravelly deep voice and the sharp chopping chords that issued from his guitar, John Lee Hooker sang of the pangs of love and the perils of mortality over a career of more than sixty years. For an artist whose records often topped the charts, his songs were frequently bleak and despairing, riddled with a sense of life's brevity and the inevitability of heartbreak. And yet, there was something undeniably comforting about his music. Maybe it was the way the chords repeated themselves, giving one the sense that no matter how complex life might be, one could make some beauty out of pain using the simplest of materials.

John Lee Hooker (center) shows off his Bammy Award to BMI Los Angeles VP of Writer/Publisher Relations Barbara Cane and former BMI executive Lonnie Sill (circa 1990).
  He was born in Clarksdale, Mississippi in the heart of the Delta in 1917. He learned his craft from some of the masters of the genre, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Charley Patton among them. Like many others, he fled the poverty of the countryside for the opportunities of the city. Initially, he went to Memphis, then Detroit. It was there, performing before those who toiled in the steel and automobile plants, that he established his reputation.

His first recordings in 1948, most notably "Boogie Chillun,"are remarkable in many ways. First, they achieved immediate and substantial success. Second, they embody the essence of Hooker's style to which he remained devoted for the rest of his career. One could say that his music changed very little over the course of the next half-century, or one could say that he knew what he wanted to do and continued to refine that style of expression for a lifetime.

The number of records John Lee Hooker released over more than a half-century is extraordinary. There were times he worked for so many labels that he was forced to use pseudonyms, such as Delta John and Birmingham Sam. Those many records each feature his indelible voice and guitar. Some of the records are acoustic; some employ large bands; some feature guest artists; and some are just the pure, unadulterated Hooker alone. He had chart hits like "Dimples"and "Boom Boom." He appeared in films like "The Blues Brothers,"and received many awards, including several Grammys and induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Blues Hall of Fame.

John Lee Hooker's music was deceptively simple: it was easy to pick up on the hard driving beat and the unstoppable syncopation, but that was just the surface of the matter. Hooker himself stated, "I don't play a lot of fancy guitar. The kind of guitar I want to play is mean, mean, mean licks."Those licks can be taught, but the experience behind them has to be earned. When asked what lay at the heart of his music, Hooker said, �No matter what anyone says, it all comes down to the same thing. A man and a woman, a broken heart and a broken home."He learned to sing about all those matters over the course of 83 years.

While we mourn his loss, John Lee Hooker's longevity helped to assure that his accomplishments would be honored and his efforts rewarded. He may have sang "It serves you right to suffer,"but audiences around the world thank John Lee Hooker for giving expression to that suffering with majesty and grace.