Music

John Lee Hooker: King of the Boogie

Photo courtesy of artist site

While 100 songs may seem like a lot, this is just a small slice of bluesman John Lee Hooker's vast output. He put out well over 100 albums during his lifetime.

John Lee Hooker may be the undisputed King of the Boogie, as he has been crowned by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Blues Hall of Fame and the Grammys, but what the heck does that mean? Defining boogie is a difficult task. The piano can be played to a boogie beat, but Hooker was a guitar player with a very idiosyncratic style that doesn't really resemble its piano analog. The term implies something fast, as in let's boogie from this place, but Hooker always played strong and steady. He was not known for his speed as much as his touch.


John Lee Hooker

King of the Boogie

(Craft Recordings)

Release Date: 6 Oct 2017

But what a touch he had! Hooker infused his guitar strokes with grit and had a voice that came out of some primal place that could only be reached by deep excavation. His grunting "uh-huh-huh-huh" before starting a song announced the authenticity of what followed. While his music may have been steeped in the blues, Hooker's music wasn't sad. B.B. King once said of Hooker's music, and it is cited in the excellent liner notes (a 56-page illustrated book) to this five-CD compilation, "it was get up and get it, get up and go". Songs such as Hooker's 1949 number one R&B hit, "Boogie Chillen" were upbeat and urged one to have fun.

"Boogie Chillen" was one of Hooker's earliest sides, so it makes sense to start this 100-song anthology with that recording. What follows are a plethora of tunes that were on a host of different labels and includes rarities, live recordings, collaborations with artists such as Carlos Santana, Van Morrison, Bonnie Raitt, and Eric Clapton, and several previously unreleased tracks. While 100 songs may seem like a lot, this is just a small slice of Hooker's vast output. He put out well over 100 albums during his lifetime. One could quibble with why certain cuts were not included and others were (i.e., why a live version 1983 version of "One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer" instead of his successful 1966 studio version?) but all the music here is first rate. The curators did a great job of displaying the range of Hooker's abilities.

Hooker's had such an influence on rock and roll, that those hearing these sides for the first time will be amazed of how much of his sound they are already familiar with thanks to artists such as the Rolling Stones, ZZ Top, Tom Petty, and many others who learned from Hooker's records. The bulk of the 100 titles here were not hits, but are instantly recognizable as Hooker's tunes because of his distinctive way of singing and playing. They are deceptively simple. He was never flashy. And what is not played—the use of silence between the beats and the dynamics of soft and loud without extremes—function as a way of building musical tension in a way that mimics sexual excitement. After all, the term boogie also means having sex.

King of the Boogie is handsomely packaged and released as part of a year-long celebration marking the 100th year of Hooker's birth. While Hooker's actual birth date of 1917 may not be accurate as the state of Mississippi didn't keep detailed records on the black son of a Mississippi sharecropper, it's the date Hooker was told by his parents and passed down as the truth. What matters is how terrific and important Hooker's music has been. Rock and roll wouldn't be the same without him. These five discs show Hooker's talents in all their glory.

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