John Lee Hooker Jr.: All Odds Against Me
“ I have never been in the shadows of my dad. I carry on a legacy that's broad and wide, and as deep as his shoes were, I don't try to step into them. For if I did, I can acknowledge, that I'd break my neck because they're too big. He was a giant. ”
For many, growing up in someone else's shadow is daunting, particularly when that someone is a looming, legendary figure known worldwide. Eclipsed by that someone, a musician may constantly hear comparisons drawn as they try to establish themselves and their career.
This is not the case for John Lee Hooker Jr. Born the son of blues great John Lee Hooker, he acknowledges the significant contribution his father made to music, and knows he was never overshadowed by his father. Rather, he was born to and carries on a legacy that's both broad and wide.
Born in the Motor City, John Lee Hooker Jr. has Delta blues blood running through his Detriot veins. He grew up knowing he was part of this heritage. He demonstrated it as early as eight years of age, when Junior performed on Detroit's WJBK radio station, and by the time he was 16 had played at such prestigious venues as Detroit's Fox Theater, alongside other legendary blues greats such as Jimmy Reed. By the time he was 18, he would join his father to play on Hooker's Sr.'s album Live at Soledad Prison (ABC Records).
Unfortunately, while living the life of a bluesman, he succumbed to the demons that can sometimes surround it, derailing his musical career for many years. Drugs, alcohol, divorce and incarceration nearly brought his once-promising career to a screeching halt. But it was living the blues and his faith in God resurrected Hooker Jr.
In 2004, he released what he refers to as his "celebratory redemption." Aptly named, Blues with a Vengeance (Kent Records). It came out with a vengeance. It earned him 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 California Music Awards (formerly the BAMMYS) named Blues with a Vengeance 2004's Outstanding Blues Album of the Year, and the Bay Area Blues Society presented him with the 2004 Comeback Artist of the Year award.
His second release Cold As Ice (Telarc Records), released June of 2006, showed his progression as a contemporary blues artist.
On his recently released All Odds Against Me, he continues to carry blues into the 21st century. The 12-song album, released domestically on Hooker Jr.'s own Steppin' Stone Records and in Europe on Jazzhaus Records, is his first effort to include only new and original tracks, a contrast his previous solo projects.
With the release, Hooker Jr. has become the blues first animated super-hero. Collaborating with Frenchman Laurent Mercier at the Callicore Animation Studios in Paris, they have created a fictional crime-fighting musician, singing in clubs by night and cleaning up the streets by day. Mercier, son of a French jazzman contemporary of Hooker Sr., dreamt up the idea as a way for the two to pay tribute to their fathers' legacies. This animated feature, the first of three to be released, is found on this enhanced CD and is based upon the track "Blues Ain't Nothin' But a Pimp," from Blues With A Vengeance.
All About Jazz: How close were you and your father, John Lee Hooker, Sr.? What kind of a father was he?
John Lee Hooker Jr.: My dad and I were very close. we were friends and yes, even "road dawgs." He was a down-to-earth dad. He knew how to take care of business, got us up for school, fixed our meals when mom was at work or even incapacitated, always referenced the future when speaking and teaching, "Remember, if you start saving now, you will have something when you can't work no more. Don't get a police record, be sure to keep your driving record clean, get an education, it will help you in the future." He was funny, humorous, a joker, an impressionist. There wasn't a mean streak in his whole being.
AAJ: From the 1970s until his last recordings, he was backed up by, or accompanied by different bands or individual musicians. How were these sessions arranged? What was his general impression of working with these white musicians? Was there any one musician with whom he was most fond of working?
JLHJ: One phone call, as well as through a manager. Of course he couldn't do sessions with all that asked, so some were turned down. He worked the same as he would work with African-Americans. The differences in race made no matter to him, as long as they were pros, as long as they were enthusiastic. He loved working with Van Morrison, because Van didn't have the big head. He was a pro. He could read my dad's style, and my dad liked that.
AAJ: Toward the close of his life, your father moved out to California, where he owned several houses. Did you live with him then? Were the transitions of his life an easy journey for your father, i.e., having left the Delta to working on the Motor's City auto assembly lines, to living on the Gold Coast?
JLHJ: My dad spoke of the transition possibly being made one day, when he finished with the crooked record labels that deceived him out of a lot of money. He mentioned when the lawyers' cases are finished, we will have what we've worked for all of his life that he'd been cheated out of.
He'd say, "When I start with this new label and management, when I get the 'break,' we're moving, and I will send for you." So yes, I lived with him. I worked with him. I loved taking care of him. He welcomed the transition with a round of applause. It was a part of success, moving his family up to the next level "California good living," and we could tell, something new and better had happened.
AAJ: Of the awards that your father received, was there any one of which he was most proud? Do you recall his reaction to hearing he was to receive the award?
JLHJ: He was proud of them all, but I would imagine his first Grammy, after being cheated, held back. He was in his late 70s, into his 80s, before he received these prestigious awards. He was happy, but he was so humble. You would never hear him shout with excitement. Just: Well, you work hard that's what will happen.
AAJ: Of course the Live at Soledad Prison album was the first on which you accompanied your father. Do you recall this session? Can you relate what your reaction was going into a prison to entertain and record this album?
JLHJ: Yes, I recall it. It was an all-of-a-sudden type session, "As soon as they clear you and the guys, we're going into prison and record." I said, "cool!" We knew the prisoners would be so happy to see us and hear us. They were hungry. It was so loud, they yelled, "Here we go, get down John Lee, go Junior Hooker." They respected us enormously. I loved it. I also used to do prison and jail ministry. They love you, they are so enthusiastic.
AAJ: On how many of his recordings did you accompany him? Was there any session more memorable than others? Were you duly credited for the work you did on each album? Do you have any stories regarding these sessions you would like to share?
JLHJ: Of course, I was paid by my dad. However, we only recorded once together. What can I say. I wanted to, after that, move to my own career. I wanted to establish my own way and style of the blues. What better way after in-the-field training, to go out and see if it'll pay off.
AAJ: Was it easy growing up in the shadow of a musical legend? Had you ever said, "I wish people would judge me on my own merit?" Do you object to comparisons?
JLHJ: I grew up just like any other kid on the block. Some dads went to work with a lunch pail. My dad went with an amp and a guitar, but they all caught the same bus to go to work. I have never said, "I wish people would quit trying to compare me to him." People are curious. That is the nature of humans. They compare. This is a competitive world. Also, I have never been in the shadows of my dad. I carry on a legacy that's broad and wide, and as deep as his shoes were. I don't try to step into them. For if I did, I can acknowledge that I'd break my neck because they're too big. He was a giant. I am humble and grateful to say that I am just getting started. We have two different styles, and once folks hear my music, they know.
AAJ: Do you have any brothers or sisters who are also musicians? What are they doing now?
JLHJ: My brother Robert is an accomplished keyboard/organ player. He worked with my dad almost more than I. We both played in my dad's band. My sister, Zakiya, sings, has several CDs out. My cousin, Archie, is a singers as well. They are both still loving what they do. In fact, the three of us did the Tribute Festival to John Lee Hooker.
AAJ: You had a tough go with your involvement with substance abuse. Was there any event that may have triggered the abuse? Or did you start getting high because of the ease of accessibility, and because everyone else was doing it?
JLHJ: Good question. This was the trend. This was the thing, just like skate boards, just like piercing one's nose, nipples, as it was with LSD. It just was what the fellas in the crowd or school were doing. It was cool. I wished I never had done it. I wasted all that time, but thank God, He woke me up.
AAJ: Did you continue with your music through this period of time?
JLHJ: No, I didn't continue with music. The two don't go together. Ask Sly Stone, ask any drug-using musician. Just like oil and water, you can't function,. You're a zombie. You will become anti-social. Everyone will peak at your hole card.
AAJ: Did the name of your first album, Blues with A Vengeance, have a significance? How was this first solo release for you received in the United States and abroad?
JLHJ: Very significant. I was held back for so long, all of the emotions and desires to let my gifts go, free them if you will. It was like a wild bull in captivity, and as soon as you let him go, he comes out with a vengeance. After being freed from prison and the long addiction of drugs, I was mad, mad because I have been held down so long by the darkness that blinded me. It made its mark with a Grammy nomination, W.C. Handy award, Comeback Artist of the Year," and California Music Award. It did very well. I was free inside of everything.
AAJ: You are presently doing a lengthy tour of Europe promoting your latest release All Odds Against Me. How is your music received there?
JLHJ: In Europe, they love us. My dad made it big over there before getting big over here. That's not the formula I am following, but they are just crazy about the blues. They appreciate us very much.
AAJ: On this latest release, you revisit the song "Blues Ain't Nothin' But a Pimp." This number, with its strong horn line, first appeared on Blues with a Vengeance. On this track, there was an animated video created. How did the video come about?
JLHJ: In my liner notes and acknowledgments, it mentions a gentleman by the name of Laurent Mercier, an animator. His dad was a jazz musician, who loves John Lee Hooker as well, as did his dad. He thought one day after hearing about me, seeing a DVD, how cool it would be to do a animated cartoon of someone's son whom his dad loved. He contacted management. I was contacted with the idea, and it didn't take me long to decide. I came up on cartoons. I dreamt of using my voice behind a character, so I jumped at the idea, but with caution saying to myself, "I can't believe this will happen." But it did. He asked for a song, asked which song did I felt had drama. I said, "Blues Ain't Nothin' But A Pimp."
AAJ: Of the tracks on this new CD, which are your favorites? Is there anything we should keep in mind regarding these tracks?
JLHJ: "Stressed Out "and" There's A Struggle." But I am really impressed by them all. Well one more, "The People Want a Change." The thing to keep in mind is: This music is a bowl, and all these songs are either about something I've witnessed or about my dark past. I am trying to educate the listener, and yet make them laugh, make them think, try to encourage them, telling them: You can do this, don't give up!
AAJ: When can your U.S. fans expect you to return to the states for a tour?
JLHJ: I will return to the states for a break in January 2009.
AAJ: Was there any one thing that your father told you that still rings true today?
JLHJ: Yes, that "People are funny son; just stay focused, and be true. Don't react to foolishness. Just stay professional, and be sure to keep on praying, and work hard. Failure is quick, success takes awhile. Be patient Junior, you hear?"
Bottom: Robert Ailstock
John Lee Hooker Jr., All Odds Against Me, (Steppin' Stone Records, 2008)
John Lee Hooker Jr., Cold As Ice (Telarc, 2006)
John Lee Hooker Jr., Blues With a Vengeance (Kent Records, 2004)
John Lee Hooker, Live at Soledad Prison (ABC, 1972)