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In the 1930s, John Lee Hooker's blues rambled north from the Mississippi Delta and a decade later came crackling out of an amplifier in Detroit. Over the next half of the century, it spread eastward, westward, across genres, even generations. And on a Saturday night this February, a torch singer named Zakiya, wearing a big yellow Afro wig, electric-blue eye shadow, hoop earrings, a silver sequined dress, and a pair of knee-high boots, purred into a microphone in the basement of a Union Square blues club.
"Hey, everybody," she sang, as the band shuffled along behind her. "I've got news for you ...." Zakiya is a slight woman, not quite 5 feet tall, with a wide smile that reveals a colorful ring of braces. She was in the middle of her second set at Biscuits & Blues, performing as alter ego "Foxy Brown" after a costume change.
"I've paid my dues ...." Her show, thus far, had been light and bouncy: a few blues-rock standards, some straight R&B tunes, two or three soul numbers, almost all of them sung while negotiating the room's tables. She'd cracked menopause jokes and kept up a breezy patter with the bass player, her husband. Couples had swayed to the ballads. Women had jiggled during the upbeat stuff. Then came this song -- "It's very appropriate for me," she said by way of introduction -- and the show, for a moment, turned personal.
"I've got a receipt," intoned a daughter of John Lee Hooker, "to sing the blues."
Zakiya Hooker-Bell is 55 years old, an Oakland resident, and a jury services manager at Alameda County Superior Court, moonlighting at the other end of the blues diaspora. And now, two years after Hooker's death, her career is getting caught up in the wake of her father's. Zakiya plans to quit her job next year and devote herself full time to her music. (She's cutting a third album now.) Meanwhile, she will continue to handle her father's estate and his posthumous career. (She and her husband, Ollan Christopher Bell, are working on a double album of Hooker's outtakes.)
The idea, for both her own music and her father's, is to avoid suffocating the blues behind museum glass, to let it shift and expand: a funk bass line on her cover of a Robert Johnson standard, maybe a hip hop vocal on a John Lee Hooker track. This sort of thing -- alloys and odd fusions -- is a blues tradition. It's also a risk, a potential turnoff to people who see the name Hooker and expect the trademarks: a homburg hat, a guitar drone, and a foot stomp. And, for Zakiya, it's certainly a challenge. She is both heir to and caretaker of her father's legacy, a woman well into midlife but relatively new to music, a torch singer with a thin voice, a Hooker just now learning to play the guitar.
Of Hooker's eight children, six of them daughters and most of them scattered around California, Zakiya looks the most like her father; she has the long eyes, the flare of the nose, the fuzzy hair. She still calls him "Daddy," except when she's talking about him as a musician, in which case he's often "John Lee Hooker." He asked her to handle the estate, Zakiya says, because he saw that she was "most like him," that she'd be "fair and evenhanded." On June 21, 2001, Hooker died in his sleep at his home in Los Altos. She wrote a letter to him in the program for his memorial service: "Thank you for being the Golden Thread that has held the family together." She also wrote all but one of the notes from her siblings. (She is one of seven children by Hooker's second wife.)
As a courthouse employee and sometime musician, Zakiya was a natural choice to handle Hooker's estate. But 20 years ago, she was far from her father's line of work, a single woman with three kids and a different name. She didn't even start singing the blues until the early '90s. By then she had just two kids, one of them in prison, and plenty of material.
Born Vera Lee Hooker in 1948 -- and named for a great-aunt she never met -- she married at 19, had three sons, and separated at 27. (Her husband, Glenn Thomas, later died of an apparent drug overdose.) She and her boys, Glenn, Maurice, and John, left Detroit for Oakland in the mid-'70s; they spent a month at her father's house, then found a small apartment and went on welfare. She first worked a desk in personnel at the Oakland Police Department and eventually got a job on the 27th floor of the Kaiser building, greeting the vice presidents' visitors. Zakiya refused to ask her father for help. When one of her sons wanted to sign up for a high school engineering program in Alabama, she just scaled back and saved the money. "I was really averse to asking my father for anything," Zakiya says. "I was very independent." Glenn occasionally spent the weekend at his grandfather's house in Redwood City; when Hooker would have to run off for a gig, he'd hand Glenn $300 and grumble, "Don't say nothin' to your mother."