Stirring Farewell to Blues Legend

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The blues people gathered here Thursday to say goodbye to John Lee Hooker, the sharecropper's son they knew as friend, mentor and godfather of the soulful Mississippi Delta music he loved to play.

Fellow musicians, ex-managers, family and fans combined to throw a farewell party that was, as the man many called "Johnny" would have had it, part gospel, part rhythm and every bit the blues.

The 83-year-old Hooker died last week in his sleep at his home in nearby Los Altos. He recorded more than 100 albums over his long career--his baritone croon and boogie guitar licks influencing generations of rock musicians, from the Rolling Stones to Carlos Santana.

At his memorial service at a Mormon temple in the Oakland Hills, Hooker's closed cherry-oak casket sat next to a large arrangement of red and black carnations in the shape of a guitar. Nearby was an arrangement of gardenias fashioned to look like the straight-backed chair that had become a Hooker onstage trademark in his later years.

Friends and family recalled the revolutionary bluesman as an honest, straight-up character who never talked behind people's backs and who never forgot his poor Southern roots, always opening his doors to struggling musicians.

They playfully mimicked his occasional stutter and infectious bursts of laughter.They made light of his penchant for pretty women, soul food, Oakland A's baseball and a now-and-then sip of Lite beer.

Blues singer Bonnie Raitt told the 300 people gathered--some decked out in red-sequined shirts and two-tone shoes, others in shorts and sandals--that recording with Hooker was the highlight of her career.

She described how Hooker would leave middle-of-the-night phone messages after gigs, improvising songs, crooning into the receiver, "Oh Bonnie, Bonnie, Bonnie, Bonnie, where are you?"

"How hard an act he is to follow," Raitt said through tears. She also told of Hooker's impish response when she introduced him to various boyfriends over the years. "He'd always pull me aside later and say, 'Now, does he understand about me?' "

Harmonica player Charlie Musselwhite called Hooker "a self-made man who didn't need no map, because he made his own path."

Hooker influenced both rock and blues, "but you could get past the music and get to know John because he was open to it," Musselwhite said. "When he asked you how you were doing, he really wanted to know."

Raitt recalled how, as a teenager, she first heard Hooker's signature gravelly voice.

"It was scary and evocative and intoxicating," she said. "That man could sing with incredible sadness and a whole lot of man-woman stuff I couldn't understand at the time."

Peggy Leyva-Conley, an editor for the online Delta Snake Daily Blues Review, said Hooker's voice could at one moment be low and sinister and quickly switch to reflect the gospel singing of his youth.

"That voice was growling, howling and raw," said Leyva-Conley, who had known Hooker for 20 years. "It was deep-steering. It sounded like the dust and the wind in the trees. When you heard it, you felt like something big was gonna get you. He had that kind of depth to him."

Hooker's children spoke of the pride and neglect of having a famous musician for a father. Daughter Francis read aloud a letter she never got to deliver to her father, lamenting their long separation.

Son-in-law Ollan Christopher laughed about Hooker's light-hearted boasting. "He once told me, 'You're a good singer.' And I said 'But you're the best.' And he said, 'I know that.' "

Outside, fans talked of how Hooker loved to drive fancy cars--giving rides to his beloved tabby cat Bear--about his childhood fear of wild boars, and his favorite meal: greens, corn bread and ham hocks--finished off with a slice of sweet potato pie.

"He loved that pie," said Judy Ohr, who says she will soon publish a biography of Hooker called "The Boogie King." "The first time I made one for him, he smiled and said, 'Hmmm. This is better than my first wife's pie.' "

Sacramento blues musician Guitar Mac called Hooker the "longest-running bluesman ever. If there's a blues band in heaven, the rest better move on over, because they now got a new lead player."

The faithful talked about how Hooker had been inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame in 1991 and recalled favorite Hooker classics such as "Crawling King Snake," "Shake Holler and Run" and "Got to Bottle Up and Go."

"He improvised lyrics," said friend Ron Combs. "My favorite ones [to 'Got to Bottle Up and Go'] were, 'Mama bought a chicken/thought it was a duck/put it on the table/with its legs stickin' up.' Vintage John."

Zakiya Bell said her father did not want people crying at his funeral.

"He said, 'When I'm gone, I don't want any weeping and falling around and gnashing of teeth. I want it to be joyous because I'm going home and I'm tired and I'm happy,' " she recalled.

Earlier, surveying the crowd, Tom Wiggins, Hooker's manager in the 1970s, acted out that smiling Hooker spirit.

"John's probably not here yet," he said as mourners filed in. "He missed the bus. But that's the blues."

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