John Lee Hooker

The Best of Friends

by Dave Hoffman

2 April 2007

 

One of the true giants of the genre, Mississippi bluesman John Lee Hooker had a recording career spanning more than 50 years.  Born in Clarksville, Mississippi in 1917, Hooker was steered towards the blues by his stepfather Will Moore, who introduced him to a host of early bluesmen as a teenager, including the legendary Blind Lemon Jefferson and Charley Patton.  After stops in Memphis and Cincinnati, Hooker eventually settled down in Detroit in 1943 and started playing in the burgeoning club scene centered along the famed Hastings Street.  Released in 1948, his debut album spawned the hit “Boogie Chillen”, which quickly climbed to the top of the R&B charts.  Featuring only Hooker’s raw vocals backed by electric guitar and the pounding of his foot, his early recordings were primitive by modern standards.  Despite the rudimentary backing, the power of Hooker’s voice was impossible to miss, even on his earliest releases. 

Hooker recorded prolifically from the late ‘40s through the ‘50s for many different labels, under a host of different names, including Texas Slim, Delta John, Birmingham Sam & His Magic Guitar (my personal favorite), Little Pork Chops, John Lee Booker, and the Boogie Man.  He continued to have chart success, with such classics as “Crawling King Snake Blues”, “Baby Lee”, “Dimples”, “No Shoes”, and the extraordinary “Boom Boom” first appearing during this period.  In the early ‘60s, Hooker’s influence began to be felt more widely, as the first wave of British blues spread across Europe with the Animals and the Yardbirds.  His reputation continued to grow among rock fans throughout the ‘60s, eventually resulting in a high profile collaboration with Canned Heat in 1970, called Hooker ‘n Heat.

cover art

John Lee Hooker

The Best of Friends

(Shout Factory)
US: 3 Apr 2007
UK: Available as import

After recording a series of lackluster albums during the ‘70s and completing a wonderful but entirely too short cameo in The Blues Brothers, Hooker eventually settled into a comfortable role as elder statesman.  Beginning in the late ‘80s, Hooker recorded several albums loaded with famous guest stars, the highlights of which are compiled on The Best of Friends.  The latest in a series of reissues by Shout Factory, this disc features a previously unreleased outtake (“Up and Down”, originally released on the Japanese edition only) and new liner notes by Rolling Stone journalist Jas Obrecht. 

The 14 tracks here feature an extraordinary list of guest stars, including Eric Clapton, Jim Keltner, Ry Cooder, Nick Lowe, Carlos Santana, Van Morrison (on the Grammy-winning “Don’t Look Back”), Booker T. Jones (of Booker T. and the MGs), Jimmie Vaughn, Bonnie Raitt (on the Grammy-winning “I’m in the Mood”), Roy Rogers, Ben Harper, Charlie Musselwhite, Robert Cray, Steve Berlin, Louis Pérez, Conrad Lozano, David Hidalgo, and Cesar Rosas (of Los Lobos), Ike Turner (sans Tina, thankfully), and Charles Brown.  Many classic tracks appear here in one form or another, from “Dimples” and “Boogie Chillen” to “Boom Boom” and “Baby Lee”.  Unfortunately, only a single track features Hooker alone with his guitar.  And although Hooker would sound great backed by Hanson, there’s simply no need to dress up any of these classic tracks with complex arrangements, keyboards, reverb, or any other studio trickery.  That said, the added accompaniment sometimes works beautifully, nicely complementing Hooker’s guitar, as Johnnie Johnson’s piano does on the bonus track “Up and Down”.  Still, I much prefer Hooker’s earlier work, no matter how rudimentary it may sound, as displayed on his early Chess recordings.

The Best of Friends

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