Born a preacher's son near Clarksdale, Mississippi in 1917, John Lee sets out early on a course very different from the one his father, who allowed only church music in the house, would have preferred. When his parents separate, John Lee elects to live with his mother and her second husband, Will Moore, a part-time bluesman. Moore gives John his first guitar and encourages his playing; indeed, Hooker has always maintained Will Moore "gave him his sound" -- that the primal boogie of "Boogie Chillun" and all that John Lee would make of it over the next 50 years was "his tune, his beat."
Hooker leaves home at 15, first for Memphis, then Cincinnati, before finally settling in Detroit. He marries, works hardscrabble day jobs, and gigs furiously at clubs and house parties, coming easily to rule the Detroit blues roost.
In 1948, he makes his first recordings for a cagey, cynical, and brilliant producer named Bernard Besman, who discovers the perfect way of recording Hooker: placing a wooden pallet under his stomping foot and miking it big, while setting Hooker's implacable, brooding vocals amid layers of spooky echo. From their first session together comes "Boogie Chillun," an enormous R&B hit and instantly Hooker's signature tune for life.
Hooker is off and running, though the next few decades bring extreme highs and lows in both his career and his personal life. Hooker finally experiences perhaps the happiest ending of any major blues musician's life story, though, when a new manager gets his recording career back on track. The Healer, a 1989 album of duets with younger disciples, racks up impressive sales and spawns a series of well-received sequels -- all without compromising the basic boogie essence he learned from Will Moore back in the Delta.
As Murray portrays him, John Lee Hooker is today a thoughtful, contented man who basks in the admiration of virtually everyone, it seems, who has worked with him, played the blues after him, or simply responded as a listener to the life-affirming power of his music. Though Murray has given us a worthy account of his life, Hooker himself may have given us his own best, if Zenlike, epitaph: "When I die, they'll bury the blues with me. But the blues will never die."