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The blues isn't the type of music a performer can just jump into, but if you've ever been kicked around and left for dead, it could be your thing. Spend a little time with John Lee Hooker Jr. and you quickly realize that this singer and composer, despite the famous late father, has the blues prerequisites completed.
Hooker, 55, says he's led a far harder life than what you'd expect for the son of a blues legend, including drug and alcohol addictions, divorce, and prison time, but the benefits are palpable in the conviction in his singing voice.
This is actually Hooker's second go-round on the fame-and-success carousel. He started professionally in the early 1970s singing backup for his father. Hooker Jr., then in his 20s, toured behind his boogie-master sire for much of the decade. It's his voice you hear seconding his pops on Live at Soledad Prison and several other vintage John Lee Hooker albums.
"It used to be me, my dad, and my brother," Junior says during a series of recent phone interviews. "My dad was the headliner, my brother Robert played keyboard, and I opened the show singing. Sometimes, Charlie Musselwhite sat in with us — uh-huh, those were good days."
They were days that seemed to augur well for Junior becoming a star in his own right, but did he really know enough then to sing the blues?
"No, no, no," he says. "I didn't think I had enough material at all... You gotta go through some thangs in life to sing the blues."
John Lee Hooker Sr. made his way north from Clarksdale, Mississippi, to Detroit in the late 1940s for a job at Ford and a lot of foot-thumping gigs on the side. Junior was born and reared in the Motor City, where his attention was torn between making music and running the streets. His dad would become a recording artist and in time come to be known as one of the 20th Century's great original artists, but he was just a struggling working man when Junior was a kid. "Just like somebody's dad got his lunch pail, my dad carried a guitar case to work every day," he says. "I used to walk him to the bus stop.
"I didn't have no silver spoon growing up. I had a rusty spoon with scratches on the back. We had a struggling family. Dad was a musician, Mom was a cook, and things weren't easy."
It didn't help that Junior was headed for a life of crime. He was sent to prison for the first time in 1968. He eventually straightened out, he says, but it took most of two decades, and even then, it was only with the help of family, friends, and a higher power.
"When you're looking up from the gutter and you don't have the strength to pick yourself up, you have to ask God to do it," he says. "If you acknowledge that there is a weakness and you're serious, God will help you with it."
He also found salvation through his music. He released his debut album, Blues With a Vengeance, in 2004, a collection that practically screamed with pent-up talent. He rapped and sang, staking out turf as contemporary and idiosyncratic as his dad had been. Accolades followed, including a Grammy nomination and a W.C. Handy Award. Those honors signaled that he was finally emerging from his father's long shadow.
"It was an endorsement from the music world that I'm not nobody but me," he says. "W.C. Handy don't give out awards to look-alikes and sound-alikes — uh-huh."
That "uh-huh" punctuates a lot of John Lee Hooker Jr.'s utterances, and he often speaks in near-parables. Ask him why his brand of blues sounds so modern, for instance, and he asks if you still wear shoes from the 1970s.
Junior's own style seems to encompass Clarksdale and Detroit's streets and even Roseville, California, where he makes his home now. Yet he can also do a mean John Lee Hooker impression, and he has a store of hilarious tales involving Brit Invasion artists who lionized his father, such as members of the Animals, the Who, Van Morrison, and Keith Richards, who'd come by his dad's place in California seeking permission just to be in his presence.
On his most recent album, Cold as Ice, Junior keeps pushing into the future. He's dispensed with the hip-hop blues in favor of a sound undergirded by surging horns, far different from anything his old man essayed. His lyrics are equally modern.
"It's all about the change," he says. "People want to hear something new. They don't just want to hear about the woman that left you or the cow in the barn. This is 21st-century blues. It's not about dropping a dime in the telephone and calling my woman; it's about text-messaging and e-mails now."
Indeed, his "You Blew It Baby," from Cold as Ice, begins "I got a text message late last night/And when I read it, I couldn't go back to sleep." But then, on "Somebody's Out to Get Me," from the same album, he sings about being pursued by yesterday.
"I been to prison, been on drugs," he says on the phone. "I don't do nothing but dream about violence or drugs or captivity. I'm haunted by my past when I go to these borders trying to get across and they're bringing up something I did when I was a teenager."
Still, Junior is quick to agree that he's truly traveled far. "When I can look down at the level of my ground where I came from, excuse my language, but you're damn right I'm successful. I may not be at the level of a B.B. King or my father, but I came from a low, low place, brother. Even though I'm not up on that high level with all those icons, I would call this a successful stage of my career."
Is that enough for him?
He answers the question by referring to his namesake: "I seen him drop a quarter in the bus and say 'I'll see you tomorrow,' and I seen him pull up with limousines with bodyguards — so I know that it's about hard work. I'm not finished. You will be let down in life, but I was taught that a letdown is a motivating factor to get back up."