…Every year I used to throw big time family reunions
you probably say, so what’s the big deal?
It’s cause I haven’t seen my family since the reading of the will
I’m contemplating suicide because they hurt my pride
but I believe I’m gonna wait around until my change come…
Wait Until My Change Come,” John Lee Hooker, Jr., Frank Thibeaux, William Griffin, 2010
The above lyrics are much more potent when sang and heard rather than read and envisioned. I got a listen right around the time I first met John Lee Hooker, Jr. in 2010, at the Blue Wing Blues Festival in Upper Lake, California. He was riding high with a new CD at the time, Live In Istanbul Turkey. It was a state of the art release that included an animated bonus DVD.
When I witnessed the song in person, the slow burning blues gradually crescendoed into a masterpiece of self testimony, moving the audience to screaming levels of audio participation. When we chatted recently, much indeed had changed in his life.
“Well, here I am. My change has come. For those who don’t know, I’ve been shot twice. In different states. I’ve been stabbed and have a knife wound in my face. I was homeless, sleeping in storefronts with the smell of urine. Thank God, I don’t smell the rotten smell of a paddy wagon anymore. I smell the sweet aroma of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Not knowing exactly when Hooker Jr. devoted himself to the ministry, I ventured a guess. Around 2013.
“That’s exactly right,” he responded. We did a news segment on a Sacramento television station. It was an interview and they were promoting the Sacramento Music Festival and other stuff I had going on that weekend. The interview successfully drew a lot of people to the festival. The day after my appearance at the festival, I played a smaller venue, The Torch Club, where the line stretched down the block. There were so many people there that after I finished singing violence broke out. God spoke to me and said, ‘This is not what I called you to do.’ I called my buddy and said, ‘You know what? God just called me back into the ministry.'”
John Jr.’s “Damascus path,” was fraught with dangerous turns, near death experiences and years of jail confinement. There have been dreamlike highs and nightmarish lows. It seems the progeny and namesake of the King of the Boogie is seeking his own royal reward.
“Amen. That’s my life brother. I was born in Detroit. Been an inmate at Soledad twice and Jamestown twice. When I went to California Medical Facility at Vacaville as a free man, the MC said, ‘Let’s make him feel welcome, this is his first time here. Chaplain John Lee Hooker, Jr.’ I got up and said, ‘Please forgive for correcting you. Actually this is my second time here. Forty-Two years ago, I sat right there in that second seat as a prisoner.’ You should’ve heard the inmates shout, ‘OH MY GOD.’
I’ve been incarcerated in , Solano, Tracy and even in Canada at the Oakalla Lower Mainland Regional Correction Centre (closed in 1991). I got hooked on dope in there. A big time Canadian woman dope dealer came and visited me inside. When they deported me back to the States, I violated and went and stayed with her for a month. She had all the dope a junkie would ever want to have. I messed around and hurt her feelings and ended up getting popped and having to beg my family for help. They got me out after advising me that ‘they should’ve left my ass over there even though I was facing a life sentence. But don’t come over here when you get out,’ they admonished. Amen.”
How then, did Hooker Jr., originally go from Blues to ministry? From a comfortable life to one of hopeless addiction. Being the son of a major Blues icon it seems, proved to be a blessing and a curse. He started dabbling in hard drugs and became hooked by age 16. Stretches in juvie morphed into time in adult jails and prisons with flashes of brilliant stardom in between.
“Before I was 20 years of age, I recorded with my dad on his live record at Soledad Prison in 1972. Home of Sirhan Sirhan and other infamous inmates. By 1985, I was in the County Jail, on my way to Soledad, for the first time as an inmate. A Chaplain at County led me to the Lord and I took Him to Soledad with me. I became a preacher on the yard while there.
When I was released, I was led to a church that ordained me as a minister. I stayed there 5 or 6 years, all the while being pulled back to the music. I was incarcerated in San Quentin for the first time in the ’90s after backsliding yet again. I was on a roller coaster. It was an embarrassing thing, trust me.
I was seduced by hearing people say, ‘The world is waiting on you to take your dad’s baton and roll with it.’ I kept going back and forth; Tracy, Soledad, Jamestown.
I came out of the joint in 1998. I wasn’t what you’d call a chaplain then. I was a volunteer. When the Lord called me to chaplaincy, I got a certificate, but I wanted more. That was just a little piece of cardboard.
Someone told me about CPE, which is Clinical Pastoral Education. Sutter Hospital though, told me that they would never allow me to be trained as a professional chaplain because of my history. That I could not work in a hospital setting because of my past drug addiction. And I told God about it. 3 or 4 months later they called me and said, ‘We changed our policy. Would you like to start in August?’ I told them I was about to go on tour then and would have to wait until I got back. I was still playing the Blues then and my music career was picking up.
My first big show was the Monterey Bay Blues Festival. That let to the San Francisco Blues Festival. Things were happening. Got nominated for my 1st Grammy. Had a 2nd hit record and got nominated for another in 2008. Toured the world, Russia, Australia, Paris, Istanbul…
So, on that tour before I started my CPE training, the Lord spoke and said, ‘YOU HAVE TO CHANGE THE LYRICS.’
So when that incident happened in Sacramento, that was it man. The Lord called me back into the ministry. I lost my wife as a direct result of the Gospel. She was my buddy, but she had to go. She couldn’t deal with the church. I told her that whatever she did, I was stickin’ with Jesus Christ.
Back off the road, I was accepted at CPE. My wife is gone, we’re divorced. I took 2 units at the Sutter Hospital Campus and then went on tour again, doing Gospel with my own funky sound.
I received my chaplain credentials which enable me to go into Pelican Bay Super Max anytime I choose. Then the doors opened to California Medical Facility in Vacaville where I had been a prisoner. Then the Lord opened the door to Folsom Women’s Prison.
I have a friend who flies me up to Alaska to minister at several prisons there. This is the third year in a row for that. We do the Women’s Maximum Security Wing at Highland Mountain Correctional Center in Eagle River as well as the County Jail in Anchorage and the Goose Creek Correctional Facility in Wasilla, Alaska. We’ve been to Junneau doing outreach in churches, parks and whatnot, preachin’ the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. We just left from Spring Creek Correctional Facility in Seward, Alaska, which has a huge gang population.
I’m just preachin’ the Gospel. I preached twice yesterday. Tomorrow we have the day off. Sunday, I’ll preach twice and I’m baptizing one gentleman before preachin’ at a women’s facility. And the women praise the Lord up in that place. Hoowee! When I sing my Gospel song, they hit the floor. I say, ‘You danced in the club, now dance for His glory.’ And they hit the floor.
I’ve been workin’ on my next cd for over 2 years. My producer is the world renown Grammy Music Director, Larry Batiste. His aim is not to change my style or sound. We’ll change the lyrics but not the style. Wait until you hear how we do “Amazing Grace.” It’s got a little testimony and a small choir. We have another song called “Listen To The Spirit.” It’s got that New Orleans 2nd line rhythm with a great horn section and big band sound. The name of the CD is My God Is Holy.”
Not only is a new CD on tap for Chaplain John. In addition to bringing his Gospel music ministry to the highbrow Blue Note Napa in July, Hooker Jr. is also doing likewise at San Francisco’s Biscuit’s and Blues for 6 sets this coming December.
“Steve Suen, the owner of Biscuits and Blues has allowed me to do that, ” says Hooker. I let him know that I’m singing about Jesus although I will throw in a couple of John Lee Hooker songs up in there. ‘ Steve said, ‘You know what John? They need to hear about Jesus up in this place.’ And that’s what I do. It’s billed as The Gospel According To John Lee Hooker, Jr.”
In 2017, unbeknownst to most statesiders, John Lee Hooker, opened for none other than the Rolling Stones in Speilberg, Austria on their European tour.
“I was the first Gospel artist to do so. I took pictures with Keith, Mick and the whole band. We had prayer in Keith Richards dressing room. The crowd was estimated to be over 90,000. Never put a preacher in front of that many people! They made me sign a contract stipulating that I wouldn’t share the pictures on social media, so I’m not messing with them like that!”
Chaplain John is also shouting hallelujah about a lifetime achievement award coming in August of 2018
Four months ago I got an email from the Jus’ Blues Music Foundation. They are presenting me with the Bobby Bland Lifetime Achievement Award on August 2 in Tunica, Mississippi.
I’ve had a very unusual life. Now, I’m a proud Chaplain for the Lord Jesus Christ. I’m a Palliative Care Chaplain, having trained in the discipline on 5 campuses. When doctors, nurses and social workers have that deathbed discussion with a patient or family member, I bring the spiritual component to that discussion.
It’s so surreal that as much dope as I have shot for thirty something years, situations that led me to be chained to a gurney and awakened to be read my rights and taken to the county jail. And now here I am going from room to room in a hospital, comforting those that are perplexed. Going into prisons where I spent almost half my life. That’s why I know, it ain’t nobody but God. I love what I do. My dad wrote a song called, “I’ll Never Get Out Of These Blues Alive.” I think I’ll write one called, “I’ll Never Get Out Of This Gospel Alive.”
So that’s the new deal on Chaplain John. There’s been a change and as the song goes, it’s oh so plain to see. Fret not. The music is still full of funk and soulfully charged with the Gospel undertones now elevated to overtones. Let the Blues church say amen.
Visit John Lee’s website at: www.johnleehookerjr.com
CyberSoulMan Tee Watts is music director at KPFZ 88.1 fm in Lakeport, California. His radio show, The CyberSoulMan Review airs Tuesday afternoons from 3-5 PST. He is road manager for Sugar Pie DeSanto, the last Queen standing from the glory years of Chess Records.