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John Lee Hooker

Specialty Profiles: John Lee Hooker

(Specialty; US: 26 Oct 2006; UK: Available as import)

Hooker’s fourteen tracks here from the Specialty label’s catalogue represent the end of his classic period. His Texan contemporary Sam ‘Lightnin’ Hopkins well observed that Hooker never learned to play guitar. Hooker learned only to play blues, on guitar, and at that mostly accompaniment. ‘Primitive’ is a fair word for his playing, augmented often with foot-tapping, as on “Do My Baby Think of Me”. A decade before, in the country he might have used a steel-bodied National guitar, for resonance beyond what’s possible on an acoustic wooden Spanish guitar. Not loudly, he got from the electric guitar a range of near-vocalisations, discordant harmonic clusters, sometimes unison with his singing voice, deep, dark, brooding.


On “I Need Love So Bad”, the distortions are a sort of chamber Jimi Hendrix, unshowy because Hooker never had technique for display. On “Huckle Up Baby” he almost tap-dances. The harmonies, self-invented Mississippi blues chords, are seriously fresh, often surprising, with great twangs, thumps, even booms.


His timing presented almost impossible challenges to others, and when he was a sort of olde tyme urban bluesman in later 1950s R&B catalogues, he could sound tame. The present set does have a band number without guitar, while a tenor saxophonist and pianist from Detroit play variants on Avery Parrish’s “After Hours”, and a drummer states the rhythm they hold to. Hooker’s vocal there is however mostly a spoken address to the woman on account of whom he declares “I’m Mad”. On the other band number, the tenorist plays a few complementary figures, with Hooker’s guitar to the forefront, There’s a cumulative effect of the pianist coming in later—maybe he hadn’t previously been able to find a point of entry. Finally, “Everybody’s Blues” from the same date uses only the drummer, rather a change from just Hooker’s foot. 


I’m not sure the guitarist Andrew Dunham doesn’t play on “Burning Hell”, a very few notes supplementing the drone, and the harmonica of Eddie Burns retiring to play simple and mostly rhythmic figures. Dunham is reported on another title from the same date. There seem to be two better-filled CDs of Hooker’s Specialty recordings, from which about everything here comes. The one with “Burning Hell” might be the more interesting, but there’s no shortage of Hooker recordings from 1948 onward. He’d be amazing if he had recorded only a dozen or two different items, and no longtime fans had had the chance to become absorbed in what others thought repetitive, monotonous—or to find much of his later output, produced to have more variety, comparatibely dull dull.

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Tagged as: john lee hooker
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