'I'm Going Home': John Lee Hooker Laid To Rest

Nearly 1,800 friends, family, admirers pack celebratory service.

OAKLAND, California — He may have been one of the last of the great bluesmen, but John Lee Hooker didn't want anyone singing the blues at his funeral.

"When I'm gone, I don't want any weeping, crying, falling around, gnashing of teeth," he told his daughter Zakiya Hooker-Bell shortly before he died in his sleep on June 21 at the age of 83 (see "Legendary Bluesman John Lee Hooker Dead At 83"). "I want people to be joyous, because I'm going home. I'm tired. I've made a journey."

That journey was celebrated in raucous song, prayer and story as nearly 1,800 friends, family and admirers paid tribute to the king of one-chord boogie during a 90-minute funeral service in the Oakland hills on Thursday. From Bonnie Raitt to harp player Charlie Musselwhite and old friend guitarist Eddie Kirkland, Hooker was celebrated as a blues guitar legend as well as a kind, funny and, above all, fiercely compassionate man (see "Thorogood, B.B. King, Remember Hooker As Great Friend and Musician").

Hooker — born in Clarksdale, Mississippi, on August 22, 1917 — was laid to rest in a highly polished mahogany casket, which sat flanked at the front of the Oakland Interstake Center Auditorium by a chair made of gardenias and an oversized guitar fashioned from deep red and black carnations.

As guests made their way into the auditorium, a murmuring tape of some of Hooker's best-loved songs greeted them. The droning chords of "One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer" set the mood for a service that featured son Robert Hooker bringing the crowd to its feet with the rousing gospel song "I Still Have Joy" and a call-and-response chant of his father's signature phrase, "Hey, hey."

Blues singer/guitarist Raitt — who shared a Grammy with Hooker in 1990 for their duet on "I'm in the Mood" — was close to tears as she eulogized her friend of 30 years. She recounted how Hooker used to pull her boyfriends aside and taunt them, "I'm really happy for you two, but you got to understand I'm always going to be the backdoor man."

Raitt remembered being 14 years old in 1963 and having her mind blown by Hooker's contributions to the seminal Blues at Newport compilation. "I had never heard anything coming out of any man that was as scary and evocative and as intoxicating [and as frightening]. And I feel the same way about him today."

Among the other peers on hand to celebrate Hooker were Chicago blues great Buddy Guy, Ry Cooder, Jimmy Vaughan, Roy Rogers and more than 20 former members of Hooker's band.

Hooker's oldest daughter, Francis C. McBee, read a moving letter to her father in which she summed up the enduring mystery of great blues players. "You did things your way until the end," she read. "Instead of dying during the day, you died during the night so that you could have a clean getaway. Instead of leaving by the front door, you stepped out the back door and went quietly into history."

McBee said she hoped that on his way to his resting place, her father would have all the things he loved: plenty of pretty women, baseball, a good heater and "a little light beer."

The many gospel tributes to Hooker from his friends and family summed up the bittersweet mood of the afternoon. Granddaughter LaQuita Witherspoon raised the roof with an organ-assisted rendition of the standard "I'll Fly Away," which inspired the mourners to shouts of "amen" and stomping of feet. Organ player and onetime Hooker sideman Deacon Jones brought the service to a close with a haunting rendition of "We'll Meet Again."

Several family members wailed and collapsed into tears as they filed out to the refrain "I know before my life ends/ We'll meet again."