by BOB DORAN
IT'S NO SURPRISE THAT JOHN LEE Hooker Jr. sings the blues; after all, it's in his blood, but he also incorporates soul, R&B and jazz into his sound. He does not deny for a minute that his famous father's name opens doors.
"It's a blessing and it can be a curse," he says, calling from his home in Redwood City. "I'm grateful that my name is John Lee Hooker Jr., but my name doesn't mean I don't have to work to prove myself. The stereotype of those who are the sons and daughters of legends is that they are copying their parents, trying to duplicate. When people hear me and my music, they know that I have my own signature. I stand by myself. I got a style of my own."
It probably goes without saying that he grew up listening to the blues. Raised in Detroit, Mich., where his father was making the transition from blue collar worker to musician, John Lee Jr. was driven to sing from an early age. "I sang at parties, and on the radio when I was 8. At the 20 Grand Ballroom in Detroit my dad used to lift me up to the microphone and let me sing. I got into it because it was part of me. When I turned 18, I went on the road with him as a featured attraction. I opened up the show. I'd written one song of my own and I did covers of various blues and soul numbers."
In the mid-'60s, around the time John Lee Jr. hit the road with his dad, the blues scene in America was in transition. A second British invasion brought young bluesmen like Eric Clapton to the states and a new audience was discovering the blues. "It was an eye-catcher," said Hooker. "I'd never seen these guys with long hair and accents come over to the ghetto. That's when I recognized something special was going on with my dad. People were coming over to learn from him."
John Lee Jr. worked with his father's band for a few years, even made a record with him, Live at Soledad Prison, but eventually he went on to other things. Until recently he did not try to make a career of music. "I held a lot of jobs, mostly my own businesses. I worked hard. I didn't grow up with a silver spoon, mine had rust on it," he says with an audible shrug.
"It was just last year that I started making a living with music. It was something I'd wanted to do all my life. It was my dad's dream too; he was working in a factory, working at a foundry before he started earning a living with his gift.
"My own gift is just starting to come to fruition and I excited about it. I'm in the studio working on my CD which will be released next month: John Lee Hooker Jr.- Blues with a Vengeance. I go back on tour in March; I go to Norway in April and I'm opening for B.B. King in June at his club in New York."
Hooker is writing some new songs for the new record. "And of course I'm going to do a couple of my dad's; I gotta cover my mentor, my teacher, so I did a couple of his -- the rest is John Lee Hooker Jr."
The subject matter? "Current events; no holds barred." Recent examples include a song about chasing Saddam Hussein. "It's called `Going Down to Baghdad.' it goes, `I'm looking for Saddam Hussein; I wanted to buy myself a weapon of mass destruction and use it on this man who took my wife,'" he sings, ending with a laugh. "I go to extremes of annihilating this guy that took my property, killed my dog and called the police on me," he continues.
"I sing about everything. I have one about having my friend watch my house while I go to McDonald's to get something to eat, because my next-door neighbors smoke crack. I'm singing about real things."
He also has his own variation on the old drinker's blues song, "One Bourbon, One Scotch and One Beer." "In the original the guy continues to drink. In mine, the guy lives happily ever after; gets recovery. He cleans up at a treatment facility then goes back to visit the bar. The bartender asks, `Can we get you the usual?' He says, `No, give me one Coke, one Sprite and root beer. I don't do the things I used to do."
Is he drawing on personal experience? "I don't sing fiction. I sing about real stuff. And yes, that's real. I don't drink or do drugs anymore, so I had to sing about it. People seem to like it."
His band? "I got the baddest cats: I got the former guitar player from my dad's band, I got the cousin of James Cotton, the great grandson of W.C. Handy. I got players. My touring guitar player's name is Jeff Horan, he's 17 years old -- and he's hot."
All in all life is good for John Lee Jr. When he says, "Things are going great," you can feel his smile. He continues, "Plans are in the works for tours in England next year, France, Italy -- yeah, things are looking up."
Will too much of the good life get in the way of the blues? "No, there's always blues to sing about. Even if I'm feeling good, somebody else has the blues. I read about it every day. It ain't just about me, the blues is about everybody."
John Lee Hooker Jr. and his band perform Saturday, Jan. 31, at the Riverwood Inn in Phillipsville with showtime at 9:30 p.m. They return to Humboldt Friday, Feb. 6 for a 10 p.m. show at Six Rivers Old Town. For more on his life and music go to www.onthehookblues.com.
© Copyright 2003, North Coast Journal, Inc.