John Lee Hooker: Hooker

[27 October 2006]

By Michael Keefe

“Boom, boom, boom, boom.” Lyrically, those words aren’t much to look at. But, when sung by blues master John Lee Hooker, they accrue a gut-level poignancy, bringing smiles to the faces of generations of listeners. They make you boogie across the room and toss your troubles out the back door. This deep yet easygoing joy was Hooker’s gift, and he shared his amazing talent with the world during a recording career that lasted half a century. Incredibly, despite dozens of studio LPs and countless compilations, no one’s ever attempted to capture the breadth of John Lee’s recorded output. Shout! Factory correct this huge oversight with Hooker, a box set whose four CDs chronicle every facet of the bluesman’s career, beginning with his late 1940s sides for Modern and finishing with a 1998 duet with Eric Clapton.

Fifty years before teaming with Slowhand, Hooker met up with Detroit businessman Bernie Besman, who would be credited as co-author and producer of many of John Lee’s earliest singles. Most notably, Besman got Hooker signed to Modern Records in Los Angeles. The fabulous, primitive, soulful cuts recorded for that label in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s comprise a good chunk of the 26 tracks on disc one of Hooker. I’ve long considered The Legendary Modern Recordings to be one of the absolutely essential blues CDs. Rarely has one man communicated so much with just his voice and the strutting chords of his electric guitar. The folks at Shout! Factory selected the crucial cuts here, including his 1948 debut single, “Boogie Chillen’”, which made it all the way to #1 on the R&B charts. How’s that for launching your career! Also present here is “I’m in the Mood”, a 1951 Modern side that features a very early experiment with double-tracked vocals, imbuing an already very sultry song with an otherworldly force. Still, all of these excellent tracks are redundant with earlier releases. What Shout! Factory has managed to pull off is the licensing of a great array of John Lee Hooker songs from a large number of different labels. As was common practice during this time, Hooker recorded pseudonymously for several different imprints, picking up paychecks as Texas Slim (for King), Johnny Williams (Staff), and, not so stealthily, as John Lee Booker (for Deluxe). Thanks to beautiful remastering and great sequencing, the fruits of these diverse sources all come together seamlessly here, capturing the rambling bluesman as never before.

After the raw, early, mostly solo performances of the first disc, the second CD finds us in 1956, with John Lee Hooker recording for the legendary Vee-Jay Records in Chicago, backed by drums, bass, and guitar. He fits very well into the mold of that time, which was cast primarily by Chess Records and the likes of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. Hooker was never really involved in a single scene, though. He always played his own style, even as he adapted his sound to the contemporary trends of the day. In 1959, John Lee traded in his electric for an acoustic guitar, getting in on the ground floor of the folk blues revival of the 1960s, when seemingly forgotten artists like Mississippi John Hurt were rediscovered. Fortunately, Hooker never disappeared and was never in need of being revived. But he was always restless and open to new approaches. It turned out he was equally brilliant on the acoustic. Thanks to the top-notch sound equipment at Riverside Records, which was primarily a jazz label, the intimacy captured on a track like the semi-narrated, slow, haunting “Tupelo” is riveting. The remainder of disc two features a handful of excellent electric sides for Vee-Jay and a grab bag of other labels. It’s mind-boggling to contemplate what the compilers of Hooker must have sorted through in order to get all of his many recordings down into this assemblage of tracks. When listening, however, their efforts are transparent. The mix simply works.

The third disc begins with John Lee Hooker’s 1966 Chess sessions that would lead to his installment in their The Real Folk Blues series, which actually captured the current electrified sound, ignoring any pre-World War Two roots implied by the title. All the same, his “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer” is a classic. After a handful of great-sounding live cuts from the mid-sixties, we soon find ourselves in 1971, and a whole new era is upon us. The blues was rocking during this time, and Hooker dives right in by teaming up with the band Canned Heat, who actually prove to be a fairly tasteful backing group. On 1974’s groovin’ “Bluebird”, he’s jamming with Tower of Power’s horn section. This cross-pollination with stars of other genres was a preamble for what was to come.

First, however, John Lee Hooker went into semi-retirement, tired of scrimping by on what little he made from the many labels for whom he recorded and the many shows he played. The last few tracks on disc three actually mark the beginning of yet another chapter in Hooker’s career. 1986 was the beginning of his comeback, if one could call it that. He’d taken himself out of the game, so this wasn’t a typical career renewal. On Jealous, Hooker emerged from his semi-retirement and began a streak of strong albums that would last another two decades. Disc four kicks off with a trio of tracks from the album that brought him back into the ears of many listeners, 1989’s The Healer. For this disc, Hooker teamed up with a number of musicians whom he’d inspired, including (and found on this set) Robert Cray, Bonnie Raitt, and a man who would come to rely on this guest strategy in later years, rock guitarist Carlos Santana. Despite some big studio ornamentations, these sessions captured the essence of John Lee Hooker, and the album was a great success. I was a 20-year-old into alternative music at that time, and even I thought it was cool. He stuck with this formula to the end of his career. And why not? The results, both artistically and commercially, were highly satisfying. On Hooker, we get to hear John Lee teamed up with a host of other modern legends, like Van Morrison, Ry Cooder, and Los Lobos. On these cuts, he revives and recasts many of his greatest songs, including “Boom Boom” (with help from Jimmie Vaughan) and another solo acoustic take of “Tupelo”, this one from 1993, which shows that Hooker had lost none of the deep, quiet potency he’d displayed 34 years earlier. On 1998’s “Boogie Chillen’”, the aforementioned song with Eric Clapton, the box set closes with a new, full-band version of the same song that kicked it all off. Then in his 80s, John Lee Hooker still had his mojo workin’. He boogied strong until the end.

Hooker is everything one would want from a box set. It encapsulates a vast swath of musical history, showing both the personal evolution of a legendary musician and the gradual transformations that occurred in the genre. The tracks are impeccably well-chosen and lovingly remastered. The liner notes, with a compelling bio from Ted Drozdowski and highly detailed track listings, are enjoyable and an excellent resource. And, unlike many artists, John Lee Hooker’s music never turned downhill. On too many box sets (or even two-disc compilations), a halving of the act’s material would suffice. But any trimming here would be a crime.

John Lee Hooker was among the most important musicians of the latter half of the 20th century. He took the spare and lonesome sound of pre-World War Two acoustic blues and electrified it for the modern aesthetic, bridging two distinct eras of the genre. The insistent chug-chugging beat of Hooker’s guitar prefigured the steady, driving force of rock ‘n’ roll, while his lyrical attention to the physicality and sensuality of music was foundational to the allure of R&B. In other words, the man made us wanna boogie. Soon after John Lee’s arrival, Little Richard and Elvis Presley would follow suit. Hooker blazed trails in his youth and remained consistently sharp and inspired in middle age, never backing down from expanding his patented style. In his later years, he became a living musical icon, instantly recognizable by sight and sound. Even when hawking jeans and cola on TV, the bluesman was still irrevocably cool, embodying a deeply American authenticity all but lost in music today. He was one of the most highly regarded and consistently enjoyable artists of his time. To follow his career was to follow the evolution of music itself across those same 50 years. All of this is embodied in the four CDs that comprise Hooker, the perfect tribute to both John Lee and the sound of an era that he helped to define.

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