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Call for Music Critics and Essayists: If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by our quality readership.

John Lee Hooker: Blues Kingpins

John Lee Hooker
Blues Kingpins

With the vast number of CDs currently marketed in a given time frame, it is rare to encounter an offering that fosters genuine excitement and justifies the use of adjectives such as “brilliant” or “stellar.” This is the case however with the John Lee Hooker tribute disc in the new Blues Kingpin Series.

Released as one volume in a series of six, (the remaining five CDs pay homage to Fats Domino, B.B. King, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Elmore James, and Ike Turner), the 18 song collection affords listeners a chance to travel back 50 years and catch the legendary Hooker in his prime.

Many of the tracks feature a solo Hooker, armed with nothing more than his guitar and the metronome precision of his tapping foot. The starkness of his music resonates with passion and energy, running the gambit from the smoldering “Crawling Kingsnake Blues” and “Howlin’ Wolf” to the jump and jive of “How Can You Do It” and “I Got Eyes for You”. Hooker signature tunes “Boogie Chillen” and “Sallie Mae” are featured alongside lesser-known, but no less potent songs like “Love Money Can’t Buy”. It is sometimes forgotten that Hooker was not only a bluesman extraordinaire, but also the high priest who wed “boogie” to “woogie”, incorporating musical elements from his many geographic influences into a distinctive potpourri of sound.

Hooker’s lone performances are complimented with several others that feature accompaniment by a backing band of talented players. “I Tried Hard” and “The Syndicator” give Hooker’s slow blues drawl added punch, while the rollicking “Hug and Squeeze” mirrors the Big Joe Turner classic “Shake, Rattle and Roll.” Hooker’s prolific recording output allowed him the luxury of playing and recording in a multitude of settings, and differing tracks on a single disc compilation is a unique and valuable gift.

Half a century before MTV placed the spotlight on unplugged performances, Hooker and his contemporaries were honing their craft in the stripped down confines of gin mills and dance clubs from New Orleans to Detroit. As they furthered the music given to them by blues forefathers Robert Johnson, et al., they also laid the groundwork for a new generation of artists.

Hooker’s legacy in particular is an interesting one, in that he experienced success on Billboard‘s charts and became an idol to many young performers in the early days of rock’s British Invasion. Musicians ranging from Eric Clapton, Peter Green, John Mayall, and Pete Townshend have credited Hooker with being influential to their respective careers, and 1970 saw the pairing of Hooker and Canned Heat for the splendid crossover collaborative effort Hooker ‘n’ Heat.

While it would be impossible to fully represent Hooker’s storied career on a single CD, this generous selection of songs, (several re-released for the first time), coupled with wonderfully informative liner notes provides listeners with a credible aural and written history lesson as to the scope of Hooker’s achievements.

The Blues Kingpin series, taken individually or as a set, is one of the finest major label offerings available in years. Aficionados can revisit the glorious past of their favorite blues artists via a magnificent package, and the uninitiated can experience the work of Hooker and his fellow musical pioneers for the first time.

If every tribute series was this good, we’d all be singin’ the blues . . .