Some artists have a problem with their famous parents. The “son of” or “daughter of” tag can weigh heavily on the next generation and, laden by expectation and comparison, some bow out of the business before too long. But that doesn’t apply to John Lee Hooker Jr., who will be in Israel latest this week, for gigs at the Zappa club outlets in Tel Aviv and Herzliya.
Hooker’s dad was the legendary bluesman John Lee Hooker and, rather than an impediment, the 61-year-old singer feels growing up in the same house with him was nothing but a boon. He says his father’s music was an ever-present and formative element of his childhood.
Born in Detroit, John Lee Hooker Jr. has Delta blues blood running through his veins, and that was plain for all to see, and hear, when he was still in grade school.
“I was eight years old when I started performing with my dad,” he recalls. “I couldn’t do a [blues] lick and I didn’t know how to sing, but I had the courage to try. I went with my dad to the [WJBK in Detroit] radio station one time and I sat on his lap in the studio, because I was too short for the microphone, and I just did the best I could.”
By the time Junior was 16 he had played at all sorts of prestigious blues joints, such as the Fox Theater in Detroit, alongside the likes of renowned singer-guitarist Jimmy Reed.
Hooker made his recording debut – and got his first glimpse of the inside of prison, albeit only as a visitor – a couple of years later when he contributed to two numbers on his dad’s Live at Soledad Prison LP, recorded at that penitentiary in California and eventually released in 1972.
Traditionally, blues artists sing about bad times, about their misfortunes, unrequited love and generally being on the rainy side of the street. While possibly not all of them have actually been down and out, the best blues performers do a good job of conveying the sense that they have. When it comes to Hooker, though, there’s no doubt: he’s been through the mill and back, several times.
He succumbed to all manner of substance abuse, went through a painful divorce and has seen the inside of quite a few slammers. But, he says all that is behind him now. In the last nine years he has put out five albums, garnering two Grammy nominations in the process.
Hooker is, without a doubt, back on track.
“I have been through a lot in my life,” the bluesman concurs.
“I have had my ups and downs.I have slept out on the street where they used to pour water out of a building nearby, early in the morning, to get us homeless guys out off the street. I have stepped into 10 or 11 prisons in my life. I have been shot twice, stabbed, and overdosed on drugs I don’t know how many times.”
It was the music and faith that helped him mend his ways and resurrect his career.
“I have nothing in my body that is life-threatening now. I am in perfect health,” declares Hooker. “The good God above has delivered me from drugs and alcohol. That I am able to live a life free [of that] is a direct result of what He did. It’s a miracle. I am a miracle. I have moved from the blues to the good news,” he adds poetically, “and you will see that when I come to your country, the country where Jesus walked.”
Hooker may have imbibed a heady diet of the blues at home growing up, but he was still from a different generation than his dad, and he also fed off the stuff he heard on the radio.
“When I was a kid Stevie Wonder was my idol,” he recalls. “I met Stevie when I was 12 years old. He’s from Detroit also and one day he turned up on our street and all us kids ran over to meet him.”
Besides being home to Hooker and Wonder, Detroit was also where the emerging Motown Records company was based, and the budding bluesman was into many of the artists on the label’s roster. That was back in the day when male performing artists wore suits on stage, and Hooker says that left its imprint on him.
“I liked The Temptations and lots of other Motown acts. I dressed like them and I still dress like that today. My dad is mostly responsible for that,” says the singer. “He was always sharp.
His pajamas were his suit. He’d be asleep with his three-piece suit on.”
As enamored with his dad’s output as he was, Hooker Jr. set out his own stall as soon as he could.
“I have my own style. I have been nominated twice for a Grammy, and the national academy of the Grammys does not take pretenders or copycats. They accept nothing but authenticity, original stuff, and that’s why I was nominated. Thank God for that.”
Today, Hooker Jr. is a lay preacher and he never forgets where he’s been, and what he has achieved, and whom he has to thank for that.
“I went straight from state prison yard to the red carpet of the Grammys, and I have shared the biggest stages in the world with people like [rocker] Lenny Kravitz, and [iconic bluesmen] BB King, Buddy Guy and Taj Mahal.”
But, that roster of stellar stagemates notwithstanding, for Hooker it all comes from home.
“The greatest musician I ever played with was my dad. It all came from the heart and he didn’t have a big ego. I won’t name names but I have been with all those big stars, and their egos were really big, but my dad was a humble man.
That’s how I am today. I have been down as low as the ground and I appreciate everything I have today. Hey! I’m coming to the Promised Land!” John Lee Hooker Jr. and his band will perform at the Zappa Club in Tel Aviv on Friday, doors open at 8:45 p.m., show starts 10:30 p.m., and at Zappa in Herzliya on Saturday, doors open at 8:15 p.m., show starts 10 p.m. For tickets and more information: *9080 and www.zappa-club.co.il