Boom Boom No More
John Lee Hooker, 1917-2001
The world is a quieter, calmer place since John Lee Hooker passed away Thursday night. He was 83, and just laid down and never woke up. But up until that point, in his trademark hat and shiny suit, Hooker wrote one of the major chapters of the book of the blues. With songs such as “Boogie Chillun,” “Boom Boom,” and “Dimples,” he growled his way into the elite, influencing all bluesmen that would follow, and quite a few rockers, as well. Led Zeppelin owes a large part of their early sound to him, and they damn sure made more money recycling it than he did inventing it.
In the early 1980s, I had the good fortune to work for an Atlanta blues band called The Heartfixers. Led by Tinsley Ellis and featuring former Muddy Waters harp player Chicago Bob Nelson on vocals, The ‘Fixers were an incredible band, the real deal. One of the greatest thrills we enjoyed was two nights we spent as the opening act for John Lee Hooker. The first show at the long-defunct Rumors in Atlanta was an eye-opening experience. Backstage before the show, Hooker sat in an easy chair while streams of fans brought albums and posters for him to sign. His guitarist/road manager stood beside him, and when John Lee would take a record from a fan, he would hold it up to his guitarist, who would say “yes” or “no.” For the ones that garnered a “yes,” Hooker would scrawl a sloppy signature. These were the albums that he actually got paid for by one of the dozens of record labels that released his music. But if the item fell into the “no” category, he would only mark an “X.” These albums were ones that had stolen his songs and never paid him, and he didn’t really admit to their existence.
After The Heartfixers finished their opening set, we sat around in anticipation of Hooker’s show, just like the rest of the sold out crowd. His band came on and played a few perfunctory blues numbers, and after a bit, a chair was set in the middle of the stage, a microphone set to one side, and John Lee ambled onstage, sat down, took a sip of something (something strong, if his backstage beverages held any clue), and proceeded to play, nonstop, for about a hour or so. He never stopped between songs, never really addressed the crowd. He just churned out classic song after classic song, and held the show in his massive hands. Watching him perform, with his easy finger strum guitar style and slow-paced vocals, he made it look too damn easy. The next night, at a dive near Warner Robins, the same thing repeated itself. He was the eternal blues machine, never lapsing into hackdom, never selling out. His only remark to the crowd was a barked “Shut up!” to a table of Marines who were getting rowdy. You damn sure know they hushed up and fast.
Yeah, the world is quieter today, with John Lee gone. His music lives on record, and on dirty stages in dirtier bars the world around, anyplace a blues band plays. It lives in the notes he gave to rock and roll, notes they took and never really thanked him for. Wherever John Lee Hooker is resting now, two things are certain. The house band just got a damn sight better, and he is still the man.