From the San Francisco Examiner archives:
John Lee Hooker on Cadillacs, jamming with the King and Mike Piazza…
CRAIG MARINE, OF THE EXAMINER STAFF
Published 4:00 a.m., Sunday, September 10, 1995
John Lee Hooker has the blues. No, I mean, he really has the blues. Seems that someone has ripped off John Lee’s Caddy, the ’91 Fleetwood with the gold wire wheels and the DOC HOOK customized license plates. Black, of course. “A real fine ride,” John Lee says, low, his voice like the rumble you can sometimes hear before the china starts falling off the shelf.
John Lee bought a house down in Long Beach a few years back, divides his time between there and his little suburban ranch style home in Redwood City. The Cadillac was down south and a friend was on the telephone. Told John Lee he’d taken the ride down to the store, went in to grab something, came out and no DOC HOOK. It wasn’t like he left the keys in or anything, it just got snagged, that quick. Mr. John Lee Hooker, probably the world’s greatest living bluesman, one of the last links to a traditional music form that is as American as slavery and the Civil War, is pissed.
It’s not like the guy is going to be walking anywhere. Cars are about his one real passion. Well, cars and baseball. Well, maybe women in there somewhere, maybe in between cars and baseball. You pick the order. And blues, of course, but that has its own special place. No, John Lee has ample transportation. His garage door is open when we arrive at his modest home, on a quiet cul-de-sac that screams suburbia.
Inside the garage are two Lincolns, a Town Car and a Mark VIII. Very nice. Out in front of the house, car covers are pulled over two more vehicles. The Mercedes logo peeks out from the hub caps of the smaller of the two. The larger one is longer than a Steve Young dump-off pass, damn near first-down yardage, in fact. It’s John Lee’s very own limousine. Can’t always rely on those limo companies to be on time, and why worry about it if you don’t have to?
But the Caddy is special. Talking cars, John Lee starts to get a bit sentimental. The thing hasn’t been gone more than half an hour, and John Lee’s starting to talk past tense. “That was the best car I ever had,” he says, only it sounds more like “Dahwuz duh bezkah ah evvah head.”
And you haven’t lived until you’ve heard John Lee Hooker say the words, “cellular phone.” It’s kind of like
“sellala foon,” only churning the words so that coming from John Lee’s mouth it sounds like something you do in a honky tonk on the night of the full moon in between watching razor fights.
John Lee Hooker is the real deal, larger than life. Seventy-five years of living packed into a body blacker than a midnight in Clarksdale, Miss., where he grew up. His stepfather, Will Moore, was a blues guitarist who taught John Lee what he knew. “I still play his style, just like back then,” says John Lee. “Only now I’m the only one who plays his style. So I guess it’s my style now.” Irrefutable logic.
He started by putting a wire on a piece of board. He nailed some old tire rubber to a wall, trying hard to thump out the sound he heard drifting off the radio – the Devil’s music, his preacher daddy called it. By the time his stepdad bought him his first guitar, John Lee thought he had died and gone to his reward. “I couldn’t believe it,” he says, still sounding like a kid on Christmas morning, bragging on his presents. “I slept with that thing right in my bed I loved it so much.”
The guitar has loved John Lee right back. It’s part of him. Robert Cray explains that he thought he understood the blues until he played behind John Lee.
“He flat out lost us, man,” Cray said from Wisconsin, where his band had just played a gig. “He just started up, didn’t tell us which key or anything and he’d just go wherever the story went. That’s when I learned that the blues is first a story, and for John Lee, the guitar was just an extension of the story-telling process. The man is the blues.”
It’s about 500 degrees in John Lee’s house. His arthritis is acting up a touch and the heat is on the boiler room setting. Everyone in the living room is sweating buckets except for John Lee. Maybe he is a “Crawlin’ Kingsnake” after all. John Lee sits in a black leather wing chair, a gift from Bonnie Raitt, with whom Hooker has a long-standing mutual admiration society. A giant picture of Raitt and Hooker embracing dwarfs the couch below it. Nobody mentions that it is hotter than Hades in here. It’s John Lee’s house, so if he wants it hot enough to risk spontaneous combustion, so be it.
Somebody reminded John Lee – OK it was me – that O.J. Simpson got popped when the police traced the cell phone in Al Cowlings legendary white Bronco. This gets John Lee revved. Then he’s reminded that someone has already arranged to have the phone service in his Cadillac shut off. Now he wants it back on again.
He’s talking to the Cellular One people, mumbling and blurring the words, so low that he sounds like a piece of machinery churning up the road. “Turn it back on,” he’s saying. “That’s how they caught O.J. Put a trace on that and find my Cadillac. If you could find O.J., you could find my car.”
The phone people are not exactly cooperating. Not surprisingly, they’d rather not have the car thieves run up exorbitant phone bills for which the company quite likely will not be compensated. But John Lee is adamant.
“I’ll takes my chances,” he says of the possible charges. Then in an aside, “These guys steal cars; I doubt they have many friends overseas they’ll be calling.”
Still the company says they only traced O.J. because he was a suspected murderer. They say they can’t do it for John Lee. “It’s a Cadillac,” Hooker points out. Caddy or no, no go. Still, Hooker tells them to leave the phone on, maybe they can catch the thieves after they find the car by figuring out who they called. He may be 75 years old, but you’re not going to slide one past the Hook. You can’t help but get the feeling that these cats have just grabbed the wrong car – and maybe their last one for a while.
John Lee is willing to chat because he is being honored at this year’s San Francisco Blues Festival. In fact, the whole two-day event at the Great Meadow in Fort Mason, which also features Little Milton, Junior Wells, Joe Louis Walker and the Bosstalkers and Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, is a tribute to Hooker. He’s going to play a few numbers with his band and a few friends. Who knows who might show up? Robert Cray? Bonnie Raitt? Keith Richards? But seeing Hooker himself should be worth the price of admission – to close out Sunday’s program.
Ask if he’s excited about performing – he announced his retirement not too long ago – and he’s honest. He shrugs.
“Kind of,” he says. Then, realizing his duty to the promoters, the Show Business John Lee picks up the mantle.
“Oh yeah, I’m looking forward to it, this should be a great show. I’m only going to do a few numbers, but I plan to make them count.”
What a pro. All he has to do is show up and the show has the John Lee Hooker stamp of legitimacy. But he’ll play a few tunes, sit still to plug the show, stolen Caddy or no. Trying to get his mind off the car, while he waits to talk to the insurance company ( “Was that State Farm, or Farmer’s?” a lovely young woman asks when John Lee instructs her to call “State Farmers” ), we ask Hooker about a story we’d heard about Elvis Presley summoning John Lee for a private show. The legend laughs.
“What a nice man,” he begins. “We were in Montreal. He was staying at a hotel and I also happened to be staying there. When he found out I was there, I heard this knock on my door. I was in my bathrobe and they told me Elvis wanted me to come down to the club in the hotel’s lobby. It was all shut down, except for Elvis and all his pals and their ladies and such. I played for him and we had ourselves a party.”
A little chuckle escapes from his throat, the kind of chuckle that inspires novels. Elvis and John Lee having themselves a party you say? That’s a bit like saying Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier had themselves a little tussle.
John Lee doesn’t party quite that way anymore, hasn’t for sometime. But he’s got enough memories to keep the fire in his eyes. “Elvis was telling me, he says, ‘John Lee, I got me a lady down South that took care of me growing up. Now every other year I buy her a brand new Cadillac.’ I says, ‘Elvis, I shore do wish you would buy me a brand new Cadillac.’ Man, did he laugh. He woulda, too, I bet, if I’da let him. He was a real gentleman.”
Cadillac. There’s that word again. John Lee is back on the phone, giving his social security number, his phone numbers, his mailing address, his home address, running through the kind of bureaucratic nightmares that 75-year-old blues legends should be immune to. He’s starting to get worn down a bit. The whole time he’s been on the phone, he’s had Headline News blasting out of the television. A lovely young woman reaches for the remote control and turns down the sound. John Lee has got himself a brood working. I wouldn’t want to be the guy who went into the store and came out to find John Lee’s Caddy missing. No thanks.
His walls are adorned with incredible pictures. Keith Richards, Bo Diddley, Stevie Ray Vaughan, rock’s guitar gods all paying tribute to the master. In another framed picture John Lee’s contemporaries stare back at him, their visages captured on postage stamps. There’s Muddy Waters, a real pal. Imagine your friends from when you were a kid all gracing postage stamps. Rather disconcerting, unless you’re John Lee.
“They’re so much a part of me that it doesn’t seem strange, seeing them on them stamps,” he says. “Heck, maybe one day I’ll have my face on one of them stamps.” Fair bet.
On the TV set, silent pictures of baseball players dance across the screen. “You like baseball?” I ask, and John Lee Hooker is 13 years old again. He’s a Dodgers fan, which I don’t hold against him. He laughs and talks about moving up to Detroit as a young man, and falling under the spell of the Brooklyn Dodgers. What about the Detroit Tigers, they were right there? “National League,” John Lee says simply. No further explanation is necessary.
If there were one baseball player out there whose style of play most compared to the way John Lee approaches his music, who might that be? He thought about it. Usually, 75-year old Dodgers fans will tell you about The Duke, maybe Pee Wee or Jackie Robinson. But John Lee is as rooted in today as anyone you’re likely to meet.
“That’s a tough question,” he said, enjoying the game.
“But I’d guess I’d have to say (Mike) Piazza. He don’t mess around and there ain’t a whole lot of wasted motion there. And he’s good.”
Damn good. Probably the best catcher to come along since Hall of Famer Johnny Bench. Even Giants fans have to give Piazza his due. It’s a perfect fit. Now John Lee is reveling in his Dodgers: Karros, Mondesi, Wallach and
“that Japanese guy, Nomo. Have you seen him? Where did they find him?”
Hideo Nomo damn near tossed a no-hitter at the Giants this year, the only hit a ground ball into the hole at shortstop that Royce Clayton barely beat out. If Dusty Baker hadn’t sent the runner on first base, there would have been an easy force out at second base and Nomo would likely have had his no-hitter.
Nomo’s pitching motion is unique, his arms coming high over his head to the point where his shoulders seem to become disjointed behind his back. It’s herky-jerky taken to the furthest extreme. John Lee Hooker sits in his leather chair, turns sideways and starts imitating the Hideo Nomo pitching motion, damn near disjointing his shoulders behind his back. I can see it now: “Sorry about that festival gig, but I dislocated my shoulder showing some reporter Nomo’s motion.” But John Lee has it down, fluid, graceful, a picture perfect imitation – and he knows it.
Sitting back and laughing, John Lee Hooker forgets about the Caddy, the insurance company, the police he needs to get back to. In that moment, it’s clear why Hooker has lived as long as he has – besides having a rock-solid constitution. He has fun. Like every day. For a guy whose name is synonymous with the blues, who essentially is the blues, John Lee Hooker is one happy man.