He was illiterate but a brilliant lyricist. He grew up in a household that forbade any music that wasn’t spiritual, but he went on to become a blues legend. The son of a Baptist preacher, he wrote songs like “Burning Hell,” a slow boogie that opens with him saying, "Ain’t no heaven. Ain’t no burning hell."
Hooker's father had refused to let him play guitar or be exposed to any music that wasn’t gospel, so John Lee didn’t become acquainted with the blues until his parents separated and his mother began seeing the blues musician Will Moore.
Hooker ran away from home at fifteen, making his way to Detroit where he started his career. He would never have any contact with his family again; his mother would die shortly after he ran away - her date of death is unknown. He remained in Detroit, playing dives and honing his sound.
In the 40s, blues musicians were paid practically nothing, so Hooker would regularly travel from studio to studio recording his songs in different styles under various pseudonyms. His dedication eventually paid off; “Boogie Chillen” reached number one on the R&B Billboard charts in 1949, securing his place as blues royalty.
Years later, with the British Invasion, a new generation found Hooker’s music through covers of his hits “Boogie Chillen” and “Boom Boom” by bands like Led Zeppelin and The Animals. He had cameo appearances in films like The Blues Brothers and recorded the hit album The Healer with Bonnie Raitt and Carlos Santana in 1989.
John Lee Hooker died in 2001, but he left behind a truly massive musical legacy, hundreds of songs, dozens of records, all showcasing his signature style. He was the king of the "talking blues," playing a driving rhythm with an unsteady tempo, growling into the mic, telling his stories of lust, love, politics, religion and revenge.
The blues legend may be gone, but the music - dirty and raw - lives on.
(Elford Alley has had plays produced and read across the United States and his sketch comedy featured in several shows in Chicago. He also writes for cracked.com. He currently resides in Dallas with his wife and daughter.)