John Lee Hooker
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John Lee Hooker And Son Shred The Yard At Soledad Prison

One of the coolest performances ever staged on the Central Coast happened on a warm summer afternoon in a prison yard, inside what is now known as the Correction Training Facility at Soledad.

It was June 11, 1972, and John Lee Hooker had developed a deserving reputation as the consummate bluesman. He was the King of the Boogie, the son of Mississippi sharecroppers who rose to fame with his electric adaptation of Delta blues. Hooker had been singing the blues since the early 40s, but his career gained traction when he was “discovered” by English rock bands that emulated his style and played his music. He teamed up with Canned Heat for the seminal album “Hooker ‘n’ Heat” in 1970.

And in 1972, a promoter at Hooker’s label, ABC Records, convinced him to show up for a concert date at Soledad prison — and to record the proceedings for a live album. He had been known to pop in around Central Coast clubs over the years; promoter Steve Vagnini, the Monterey County Assessor, said he remembers Hooker showing up at his front door early one morning after a show in search of something that he had lost. And while he was a Mississippi native who cut his teeth in Detroit, Hooker ultimately settled in Northern California.

Hooker wasn’t the first to play a California prison. Johnny Cash famously did Folsom Prison in 1968. Three years earlier, Frank Sinatra and Count Basie entertained the inmates at San Quentin Prison. But until John Lee showed up, no one of note had performed at Soledad. (Ten years later, reggae superstars Black Uhuru did a show at Soledad that included songs like “Sensimilla.”)

Hooker’s son, John Lee Hooker Jr. was 20 at the time his dad was booked to play at Soledad. The kid had just been released from a prison in Michigan; John Lee Jr. remembers that his father brought him to California “to get that boy out of Detroit.” A musician in his own right, Junior was performing on local radio at the age of 8. But drugs — hard drugs — took hold and the legend’s son was in and out of prison for decades. It was a big deal that John Lee Hooker Jr. would join his father at the Soledad prison gig.

“It was just me leaving one yard and moving to another yard,” John Lee Jr. told Voices of Monterey Bay. “The only difference was I was free and I was able to walk out of the yard.”

Not only did John Lee Jr. join the band, but his father thrust him front and center. The first thing a listener hears on the resulting album, “Live at Soledad Prison,” is Junior introducing himself and the band. And John Lee Jr. stormed through the first two songs, “Superlover” and “I’m Your Crosscut Saw,” while his father stood offstage.

“This was Soledad Prison! The place was infamous,” John Lee Jr. said during a telephone interview. Sirhan Sirhan, Robert F. Kennedy’s assassin, was inside there somewhere. So were George Jackson and the other Soledad Brothers.

“I’ll never forget the hospitality,” John Lee Jr. said, “the hospitality of the prisoners. They were so appreciative.”

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