Featured Interview – Zakiya Hooker, Heiress of the Hooker Legacy

zakiya hooker picThe branches and boughs of the extended Hooker famous family tree of Blues people extends chronologically from John Lee Hooker’s Mississippi birth in roughly 1917. John Lee of course, synthesized the Mississippi Delta Blues, transplanted it through Memphis to Detroit and then the West Coast to create his own brand of Boogie.

Underrated Earl Hooker, John Lee’s second cousin, also born in Mississippi but raised in Chicago from the age of one, was called the master of the wah-wah pedal by Jimi Hendrix. Earl Hooker was so adept at slide guitar that Buddy Guy coveted and slept with one of Hooker’s short steel slides under his pillow, thinking perhaps that the power contained thereby, might seep through in his sleep. B.B. King called Earl Hooker the greatest guitar player he ever met.

Archie Lee Hooker is the nephew of John Lee Hooker and and in addition to living with the Boogieman John Lee the last eleven years of his life, “inherited” John Lee’s band, the Coast To Coast Blues Band. Archie Lee also claims the distinction of having one of the last studio recordings of his uncle on Archie’s 2001 Cd release New Church of the Blues.

John Lee Hooker, Jr. is a two-time Grammy nominated Blues and, more recently, Gospel artist. Six album into his rising star mode, featuring his “2 parts R&B, 1 part jazz & down home blues,” Jr. found Jesus and now has a Soul Gospel album in the works.

Last, but certainly not least is the only female artist in the Hooker family tree of plenty – Zakiya Hooker. In a series of phone conversations from her new home base in the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia, Zakiya talked to us about her past, present and future.

“My dad put down roots in Detroit and met my mom after her family had migrated there from Arkansas. After he saw her, he asked her mother if it was alright for him to court her. My dad was quite a bit older than my mom.”

Zakiya was a late bloomer in the music business. Unlike her brother John Lee Hooker, Jr. who first performed for a radio audience at the age of eight, Zakiya first sang professionally in 1991 in an Oakland, California performance with her dad. Even then she was no stranger to to the craft.

“We sang in the choir at Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Detroit. Our grandmother and mother made sure we got there. In high school I also sang in the choir. I would also sing around the family whenever I could.” She knew she could really sing by age sixteen. “My voice was much higher then. I used to love to sing Diana Ross material. People told me I sounded nice and I figured people wouldn’t say that unless it was true. When I was coming of age, Motown had put its stamp on the city. Singing was part of the youth culture. If you couldn’t sing, people would let you know. You have to realize that Detroit was the Motor City. It was a great city. In those days people were prosperous, working and doing well. We had factories and auto assembly lines.”

“I loved growing up in Detroit. Sadly, people look at it now and say, ‘Oh my God, Detroit.’ But in those days, music was everywhere. Any type of music you wanted, you found it there. When I was fifteen we started going to the Graystone Ballroom every weekend. If there was somebody to be seen we saw them there. We saw Little Stevie Wonder when he was just starting out, wearing that tight little dinner jacket. He always dressed so nice. We saw the Supremes, Dionne Warwick, Marvin Gaye, all of them. Looking back, it’s funny because it cost little or nothing to get in. Like twenty-five cents and a Pepsi bottle cap or something like that. The Graystone is gone now, but it was a jumpin’ place. It was full every time it opened its doors.”

Zakiya, (born Vera Lee Hooker) married and had three sons as a young woman in Detroit. In the mid eighties, she moved to Oakland, California after her first marriage broke up. She found employment as a Superior Court Jury Department Manager and kept her day job well into her music career. After mulling over changing her first name she settled on Zakiya, which translates from Hebrew as “pure” and from Swahili as “intelligence.” She met her future husband, musician and singer Ollan Christopher Bell (also known as Chris James) in February, 1987.

“A friend and I were celebrating her birthday at a club in Oakland. Ollan was there with his sister Lynn, out for a night of dancing. We talked and danced and had dinner the following Sunday. We married later that year. Ollan actually knew my dad before he knew me. When he found out I could sing, he took me under his wing. He invited me to the studio to sing background vocals and the rest is history.”

“Ollan is like this well-kept secret that people don’t know much about. His former group, the Natural Four, worked with Curtis Mayfield. Shortly before the accident that led to Curtis’s premature death, we went and saw him at Slims in San Francisco. Curtis told Ollan to get ready to do some new things with him but all that was curtailed when Curtis was injured in Chicago a few gigs later.

“Though Ollan and I have written many songs together, we’ve never actually recorded a duet together, even though my low, sultry, not-quiet-a-tenor voice is so well matched with his first tenor. It is great to have your soul mate working side by side with you. The feeling of having that common ground between the two of you is really a blessing. It helps keep a marriage strong. We are a team and most of all we are friends. At some point we will do s duet album but currently, Ollan is working on his solo cd project. After that I’m doing a tribute to my dad. I’ll be doing his songs only in an acoustic setting in which I will be playing a little guitar myself along with another guitarist.

“My dad started showing me things on the guitar when I was a young girl but I didn’t get serious until last year. When I do songs, I like to know what it’s going to sound like. When you get with someone else they kind of shape it for them. I’m finding that by playing I can shape it for myself.”

With Zakiya’s relaxed vocal delivery and phrasing many Blues pundits have labeled her a “Jazzy Blues” singer. She welcomes the tag. An article in Blues Rag from a few seasons back states ‘Zakiya sounds more like the offspring of George Benson. She has the talent to carve out a niche on the Jazz chart with an excellent voice.’

“It was kind of a dream come true to be called a “Jazzy Blues” singer. I have always loved the ladies of jazz. They are the most elegant and beautiful women of the music world. I wanted to be like them but I also wanted to do the music I love the most, blues. So when Ollan and I do the music this is the focus of the music, the combining of the two genres.”

The awards, acknowledgements and kudos continue to pile up for Zakiya Hooker. Before she relocated from the Bay Area she was awarded the key to the city in Oakland, as well as the the annual KCSM’s “Jazzy” Award for Best Stage Performance”. In 2003 she gave to a spoken word performance at film director Martin Scorsese’s Radio City Music Hall Blues Concert in New York City, a concert that was filmed by critically acclaimed producer and director Antoine Fuqua.

She has scored the cover of Billboard Magazine and her voice has not only graced stages internationally, but also high profile advertisements for Aiwa and Lexus, as well as being on the soundtrack of the award winning film, Chalk.

Her life path has not always yielded gilded golden roses. Zakiya’s Blues sensibility, like that all true Blues folk, has its share of despair, heartbreak and disappointment. In addition to her failed first marriage, one of her children was incarcerated in 1988 and another is deceased from injuries received in a car wreck. Her ability to roll with the cards she has been dealt is also reflected in a story she tells of the heartbreaking angst she suffered when her dad bought her younger brother John Jr., a Hammond B-3 organ while presenting her with a sewing machine.

“I was so through with my dad for that. Through it all though, I learned to sew.” Cementing her connection to her dad’s legacy is his decision to make her executor of the John Lee Hooker estate. That in itself became a viable, valuable portal into the world of blues. A world that has grown to include “remote” outposts like Argentina in South America. Zakiya and Ollan discovered a veritable gold mine of talented musicians in Argentina.

“They revere the Blues down there. There are some great musicians down there. What I like about them is when you send them your music, they actually take serious study time and learn it. Sometimes you give music to American musicians and they carry it around with them until rehearsal and then try to figure out. They haven’t even listened to it. The Argentinians and South Americans in general love the Blues. European musicians too. It’s like a religion to them. They are very serious about it.

“My dad also left me with sage advice regarding the business aspect of recording and performing. He told me to always educate myself about the business of music so as not to get taken advantage of. He lost some of his publishing to crooked managers and booking agents as he was starting out. That was the first thing Ollan and I took care of, ‘The business of music’. Secondly, but not least, according to my father’s teaching, is to always remember our fans are the most important people in the world. Without them we would not be where we are. I never forget where I came from and I always stay humble and thankful for this God given gift.

I’m thankful just knowing that God is in my life and making me the kind of person that I am. In music I am so blessed to have a spouse that has the same love for music, that I have. I love being able to share my gift with others and just being inside the music. In love being able to transcend the physical and learn what real love is really about. The kind of love that stands the test of time.

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