The Blues Man

For John Lee Hooker, life at 81 is pretty good. He was just recognized with a special award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation, and his shows are selling out. CBS News Sunday Morning Correspondent Alison Stewart gives us a close-up of this extraordinary Mississippi Delta blues man.

With his black glasses, sharp suit and trademark fedora, he's an icon. From the first chord to the last foot stomp, that boogie is unmistakably John Lee Hooker. At 81 years old, Hooker still plays the down home delta blues.

Alison Stewart: "What goes into writing a good blues song?"
Hooker: "All I can tell you is that blues feeling is about people. You can't sing about cattle. You can't sing about animals. You sing about humans beings really hurt, broken hearted. The blues are heartache. The blues are the thing that can pick you up and it can let you down. Blues is the healer--I'm sure you've heard that song. Blues is a healer."

The Healer, one of the best selling blues albums of all time, marked Hooker's return to popularity in the '90s. It features a slinky remake of I'm In The Mood, a duet with his friend and ardent fan Bonnie Raitt.

Raitt remembers the first time she heard a John Lee Hooker record when she was 16.

Raitt says, "He just sounded like he's singing neck deep in mud, you know. It touches some of the deeper stuff ...and it was like real erotic, real scary, really midnight, kind of lonely and forlorn."

Raitt was on hand recently to help celebrate Hooker's 50th year of recording, when he was honored with the Rhythm & Blues Foundation's lifetime achievement award.
Hooker with Raitt


It was there that she said, "The blues doesn't get anymore tap root than John Lee. And the reason we're giving him this award is that his whole life has been a study on how not to lose the edge of what made him a Mississippi Delta blues man to the core. This is the reason our parents did not want us to listen to the blues."

It's been a life worthy of a blues song. He was born in 1917 and raised on the Mississippi Delta, in the small town of Clarksdale. As a child, Hooker learned guitar from his stepfather, a musician and farmer. But by adolescence, Hooker hit the road in search of the big city.

Alison Stewart: "Why did you leave home at 14?"
John Lee Hooker: "I didn't want to farm. I didn't want to be like, cotton and stuff like that...I heard about all these thing up north Â…record companies and night clubs and music. And I made a break for it."

The only thing John Lee Hooker planned to pick was a guitar. He first ran off to Memphis, then Cincinnati, and finally settled in Detroit, where he recorded his first hit n 1948--called Boogie Chillin'. It sold a million copies, which was quite an achievement for what was then called a "race" record in the U.S.

In England, he was revered by young guitarists like Eric Clapton, who learned about the blues from Hooker.

At the award show, Clapton said, "It's like John says, blues is not about being miserable. It's a happy music. It's about expression, it's about sharing and that's what's kept me alive through most of my life. I think he deserves this lifetime achievement award because he never changed key. It's good enough..."

Hooker's career was not a string of award shows and accolades. Like many rhythm & blues pioneers, he earned little money from his early work and experienced financial troubles. By the mid '70s he was frustrated and burned out by the music business. He stopped recording for years.

Hooker: "I wasn't getting paid. I got tired of record companies, you know, cheating and not paying me. It don't happen now, though."

It doesn't happen anymore because Hooker now has a bunch of lawyers and a trusted manager and agent, Mike Kappus.

Says Kappus, "It's a shame that in the '50s and the '60s there weren't more lawyers involved on behalf of artists, because in that era, the '40s, '50s and '60s, and probably all the way back to the beginning of recording time, especially for black artists, they were taken advantage of horribly."

It was Kappus who convinced Hooker to record again in the '80s, this time with younger guitar greats like Carlos Santana and Robert Cray, who repeatedly asked to work with their idol. The best of these pairings can be found on Hooker's golden anniversary release, The Best of Friends.

Kappus says, "He's completely unique now in that he's a link to the original of Delta Blues. And he's also contemporary right now. I think John is really unique among blues artists, especially today."

These collaborations earned him his first Grammy award at the age of 72.

John Lee Hooker has actually won four Grammy awards, but he lost two in a fire in his home last July. It was a sad note in an otherwise celebratory year. But being the good blues man he is, John Lee Hooker didn't let it get him down.

The house is being rebuilt, guitars that were lost are being replaced. And when he plays, he still sells out shows.

Alison Stewart: "What do you want the next generation of music lovers to know about the blues?"
Hooker: "I want them to know that the blues will be available and I want to keep the blues around and I think they will."

John Lee Hooker helps the learning curve with visits to local schools.

For Raitt, "There wouldn't be any music from this century if it wasn't for the blues. I mean the roots of jazz Â… the roots of all popular music, and swing and rock and roll and soul music and everything I love about being alive in this period, it can be traced back to John Lee Hooker."

Tday, John Lee Hooker lives a comfortable life in northern California. But he remembers the hard times. That's why the night he was honored, he gave back $20,000 of his award to the Rhythm and Blues Foundation to help other musicians who might not have the kind of lawyers he has now.

Stewart: "Do you ever think about retiring?
Hooker: "Yeah. Are you kidding?
Stewart: "You going to retire soon?
Hooker: "Oh, yeah!
Stewart: "Really?
Hooker: "Uh humm.
Stewart: "Why do I think I've heard that before?
Hooker: "Well I - maybe. I'll never completely retire. You never retire from the blues.

And since John Lee Hooker is the blues, he may never retire.

For More Information:
John Lee Hooker is on the Pointblank label. His agent is Michael Kappus, 415-386-3456.

The Rhythm and Blues Foundation is in Washington, DC at 202-588-5566.

More information on John Lee Hooker is available on the Web at:
The Rosebud Agency, John Lee Hooker

and,

The Rhythm and Blues Foundation


©1999 CBS Worldwide Corp. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed
  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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