On his own path to the Holy Land

John Lee Hooker Jr. used to live the blues. Now he just sings them. And to do so in Israel, he says, "blows my mind."

November 7, 2010 22:19
Blues musician John Lee Hooker Jr.

311_ John Lee Hooker. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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Bearing the same name as your famous father can be a blessing and a curse – and for John Lee Hooker Jr., it’s been both.The elder Hooker, who died in 2001 at the age of 83, was one of the seminal American musicians of his generation, responsible for providing the links that connected, blues, boogie and rock ‘n’ roll into one primal howl.

Growing up in their Detroit home, Hooker Jr. was aware early on that his dad was no ordinary nine-to-five father.

“When I was little, I was accustomed to waking up to the sound of my dad rehearsing in the basement of our house,” the 56-year-old singer recalled during a phone conversation last week from his home in California.

“I was about seven when I realized he was a big deal. I started to get more involved then and used to sit in when he’d rehearse. Then I started going out on tour with him, and I’d be in the dressing room looking through the curtain, watching him perform.”

Hooker Jr. didn’t stay behind the curtain for long.

After singing with his father on a Detroit radio show when he was eight, he realized that he wanted to follow the same musical path that his father had forged.

By the time he was 16, he was already a veteran of national tours, performing with musicians like Jimmy Reed. And when he was 18, he made his recording debut, singing alongside his father on Hooker Sr.’s Live at Soledad Prison album in 1972.

“I got some good on-the-job training,” Hooker Jr.

laughed, recalling his teen years. But, on the other side of the mirror, he received exposure to a lifestyle that would send him into a downward spiral that nearly killed him.

“Growing up in the ghettos of Detroit, drug usage was as prevalent as a common cold,” said Hooker Jr.

“It was the cool thing to do, but nobody ever told us it could lead to addiction. Addiction leads to crime, crime leads to prison and self-destruction.”

Drugs, alcohol, divorce and prison curtailed his promising career for decades, and the old cliché of “living the blues” became an all-too-real existence for Hooker Jr.

“Either you die or you look up to the God in heaven to wake you up and help you start on a better path,” he said.

He chose the latter option and, with the support of family and friends, dug himself out of his spiritual and physical hole.

“I cannot give glory to music for helping me stop taking drugs – it was prayers, it was the God in heaven that helped me get on the right path. My dad and my mom also played a big role – that’s what people who love you do. They stick their hand in the fire even if they’re going to be burned,” said Hooker Jr.

THAT’S HOW the unlikely scenario came to pass that Hooker Jr., at age 50 – three years after the death of his father – released his debut album, Blues with a Vengeance. The blues world took to the album with its own vengeance, as it received a Grammy nomination in the Traditional Blues Album category and a nomination for a distinguished W.C. Handy Award as Best New Artist Debut.

The album was followed by 2006’s Cold As Ice, Jr.; 2008’s All Odds against Me, which was also nominated for a Grammy; and this year’s Live in Istanbul, featuring his crack touring band.

Unlike the boogie and blues of his father, Hooker Jr. draws from a broader palette that incorporates urban r&b, soul, funk, jazz and, of course, blues into the mix.

“After all, I did grow up in Detroit, the home of Motown, so my music is naturally going to be funky,” laughed Hooker Jr., adding that he draws from sources as diverse as Jackie Wilson, Stevie Wonder and Lou Rawls.

Despite his former downtrodden life’s providing ample material for the blues, Hooker Jr. doesn’t dwell on the past.

“I do sing about the life I used to live, but I take those lessons and, through humor and education, put them into a happy style, and people dance to it. That’s what I do – I’m an artist, and I integrate what I used to do into my music. But it’s not a downer,” he said.

Helping Hooker Jr. make his uplifting music is a band he calls “funky and tight,” featuring Angelo Santi on guitar, Jack Starnes on bass, Elpher Legaspi on keyboards and a female drum virtuoso, Tovia Bradley. They’ll be backing him on his first visit to Israel when he performs at Reading 3 in Tel Aviv on November 22.

For man who has become as deeply religious as Hooker Jr., his first trip to the Holy Land is wrought with anticipation and emotion.

“Sometimes, just the thought of coming to Israel blows my mind. This is where Abraham walked, this is where Christianity was born,” he said. “If I can have the chance to go walk in Jerusalem and see where Jesus stood, I’ll probably start crying.”

Having lived his life of extremes, Hooker Jr. is confident that he’s finally walking in the steps he was meant to – near, but not on, the path where his father left massive imprints so many years ago. Still, he carries the lessons he says he learned from his father with him wherever he goes.

“I learned from my father to love all people, no matter what race, creed or color, and I learned about the importance of truth, honesty and hard work. That’s what I love – to work hard.”

That will become evident on November 22 at Reading 3.

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