By: Chris Pacifico
John Lee Hooker. A name synonymous with the blues, Hooker also started boogie rock and was able to add rustic, down home ambiance to nearly every song he ever cut. Hooker (Shout Factory) is a fabulous four-disc box set that chronicles his half a century of music making music that comes with an informative booklet detailing his life, recordings and influences, as well as commentary from classic rock royalty like Carlos Santana, who calls Hooker an "ocean of inspiration".
Hooker was born in Clarksdale, Mississippi, smack dab in the middle of the Delta Blues. Though he retained parts of that roots source, he was fearlessly innovative in molding his signature vibe - somniferous, single chord sways and a half-articulated singing style. Hooker was able to elucidate his woes not just through words but also through his chilly, humming, moaning and hooting. His lyrical innards churned on boozing, women, drifting and more booze and more women, be they exclusive or the ones on the side.
Disc One is a smorgasbord of his classic recordings, cut mostly in Detroit in the late '40s and early '50s, including the timeless "Boogie Chillen," "Sally Mae" and territorial masculine ode "Crawling King Snake." Hooker is mostly accompanied by his foot stomping on a wooden platform, his cranked up electric guitar and his deep craggy voice. The vagabond lifestyle is brought to life on "Hobo Blues" and "Driftin' From Door to Door" with their trysts with married women and Appalachian zest. "Let Your Daddy Ride" evokes a Southern juke joint, as do many tracks Hooker recorded while part of the legendary Chess in the '50s. During this time period, Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry also filtered into Hooker's psyche.
Disc Two covers Hooker's days on Vee-Jay Records, one of the earliest African-American owned and operated labels. "Dimples" still sounds fresh nearly fifty years after its release. "Tupelo" is a chilling narrative from Hooker's most rustic release, 1960's Country Blues. Icy finger picking pitter-patter and vernacular singing describe a devastating flash flood and the tragic fate of its victims. 1960 is also the year Hooker endorsed the Democratic Party - most for John F. Kennedy's solid civil rights record – with the passionate track, "Democrat Man." "Don't Turn Me Away From Your Door" has Hooker focused on the troubles and bad luck of the drifter lifestyle, though his tired man remains on the prowl for some good lovin'. The criminally overlooked Jamaican bluesman Eddie Kirkland throws down his distinct swinging blues tinges on "When My First Wife Quit Me".
Chances are the stop time hook and eternal riff of "Boom Boom" are familiar to anyone with ears. With a slew of Motown session musicians playing on the recording, "Boom Boom" is still an enticing alloy of blues, early funk and folk. One thing that John Lee Hooker knew how to do well was to keep current with music of the times, fusing his unique playing and singing with what was coming to light out around him. And the 60's were a time of great musical upheaval. Hooker experimented with bossa nova shimmy on "She's Mine," had Mary Wilson of the Supremes guest star on the Motown-meets-Brill-Building pop of "Frisco Blues" and had Martha and the Vandellas joined him on "Big Legs, Tight Skirt".
Disc Three showcases how Hooker's music began to reach out to white audiences, and the tremendous impact that would have on American and British rock bands from that point forward. The proof of his massive influence can be found on "One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer," which years later became a hit for George Thorogood and the Destroyers. Other standouts include the time shifting stomp riff on "I'm Bad like Jesse James," a tune that just spells out b-a-d-a-s-s.
In 1970, Hooker and protean white blues hippies Canned Heat put out a landmark double LP, Hooker n' Heat, which became Hooker's first album to ever chart. It came in at a respectable number 73. Between tracks Hooker banters with the Canned Heat boys, including one bit where Hooker tells them it doesn't take him three days to finish an album. "Burning Hell" is probably the premiere cut from the album, with the late Alan "Blind Owl" Wilson blazing the harmonica, one of the few musicians that could keep pace when Hooker grooved out. Hooker can be overheard mumbling, "I dig this kid's harmonica. I don't know how he follows me but he do. Musta been listenin' to my records all his life". Sadly, these were Wilson's last recording sessions. He passed away three months later from an overdose of barbiturates. Hooker also chats about his visits in the country with Grateful Dead keyboardist Ron McKernan (aka Pigpen), and about how he can't cook before trailing off into the granola jam of "Peavine." Other guests include Steve Miller providing a sauntering groove to "Doin' the Shout."
Disc Four contains a slew of duets with Bonnie Raitt, Van Morrison, Robert Cray and Jimmie Vaughn, to name just a few. These are all priceless moments as Hooker jams with artists who owe some part of their success to his influence. Hooker passed away on June 21, 2001. This box set shows how in his 83 years on Earth, this man stood tall. From humble beginnings, he become one the Godfathers of Rock and Roll, making a mark on music that won't ever wither or fade.
JamBase | Down South
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