Son of the blues
John Lee Hooker Jr. on his famous father, creative inspirations and the art of telling whoppers for a living
Perhaps it’s no surprise that John Lee Hooker Jr. undertook music for a living. His dad, after all, was a famous musician, noted for his trailblazing style of country blues. The 60-year-old Hooker’s path to music, however, was fraught with the kind of troubles his father, who died in 2001, only sang about. Drugs. Prison. He’s lived it all. Hooker, who’s been clean since the mid-’90s, just released a new album, All Hooked Up. He talked to SN&R about his famous dad, songwriting inspiration and how, exactly, he ended up living in Roseville.
How much was music a part of your life as a child?
I was influenced by music as a child—not just by my dad but by Stevie Wonder, too, who I met when we were both 12 years old. I grew up around Jackie Wilson and Lou Rawls and my dad—that’s what I came up with.
I was 7 or 8 when I started to sing. My dad used to do interviews on WJBK radio [in Detroit], and he’d take me down to the station and sit me down on his lap and let me sing along—it made me so happy. It all began right there.
When did you first perform onstage?
I was about 17. It was in front of a lot of people—I was scared to death. It was in San Francisco. That was my debut, my on-the-job training.
Did your dad encourage you to go into music?
He never pushed me to do it—I actually had aspirations to become an attorney or a preacher.
Drugs. Everything was drug related. You get around a group of people and this is the thing that they do, and all of a sudden, you’re in the mess, and you can’t get out.
How old were you when that started?
About 16—I [eventually] went from juvenile hall to jail to prison.
What helped you turn around?
When you have people who love you, people [for who] you bring tears to their eyes as a direct result of your actions—it makes you want to get out. But you don’t know how to do it, so you have to act with someone who has more power than you do, and for me, that was my creator, the lord God above. I asked the lord to help me, and he did. In 1985, he saved my life. And then I got away from it, [but then started doing drugs again], but my dad asked me to clean up, and I did. I’ve been clean ever since.
What’s your creative process like?
I’m always thinking and creating. I have a lot of drama in my past, and I can reach for and grab that, [but I also] might be watching the news or reading the paper or I might think of something you did. It’s about people, places and things. I carry around a microphone, and [when I come up with a melody] I’ll sing it into the microphone and take it to my bassist and to my drummer and … then we take it to the studio.
How did you end up in Roseville?
I used to travel [to California] just to get away. I visited a friend here and saw the trees and how close it was to everything. I liked the trees and the nice neighborhoods.
In what ways do you take after your father?
We both like to tell stories. That’s where I got my storytelling skills from. He could share some whoppers. When I was a kid, I’d tell stories to get out of punishment. Today, I tell stories for a living.
In what ways are you different?
My dad was a dancer and an entertainer, but he wasn’t no drug addict. He never went to prison and jail. He used to tell me, “Boy, I don’t know who you take after.” He never saw the inside of a jail cell.