John Lee Hooker’s first hit single, 1948’s “Boogie Chillen’,” is a song about a young man’s love for boogie-woogie. Papa came to his defense as he told mama, “it's in him, and it got to come out.” That same line could very well apply to Hooker and the blues, which came out in a career that spanned more than 30 labels, 50 years, and 100 albums. Shout Factory presents his first career retrospective in a four-CD box set.
Hooker had a perfect upbringing to play the blues. He was born near Clarkdale, Mississippi in 1917, and his father was a Baptist preacher and a sharecropper. After his parents separated, his mother married blues singer William Moore, who introduced him to the guitar. Moore is referenced on “Teachin’ The Blues,” a song that finds Hooker providing his autobiography and guitar instruction.
This collection is filled with the familiar panorama of the blues, an array dealing with life’s troubles, money and women, sex and death. Some songs are pleadings made to a lover, a rival, or the Lord to ease those burdens, albeit in different ways. When Hooker sings the blues, they are authentic regardless if he truly lived them or if they are a performance. When The Beatles sing “Money (That's What I Want),” it doesn’t have the same power as when Hooker sings the same song, titled as “I Need Some Money.” The Beatles want it, but you believe Hooker’s survival depends on it.
Because the pay was so poor for a black musician, Hooker went round to different studios looking for work. He recorded under different names so as to not to break his recording contract. This set features three tracks by Texas Slim, two by John Lee Booker, and one by Johnny Williams. The work is definitely that of Hooker, but the audio quality is not up to the standards of the other material.
A good many tracks are created just from the three-part combination of Hooker’s voice, his electric guitar, and the tapping of his foot to keep the beat. There is something irresistible and charming in the simplicity of his music. Yet he shows the versatility of his skills on “Huckle Up Baby.”
His trademark sound is also presented in a variety of arrangements and small combos. A set of spoons or spurs creates a jangle on “Weeping Willow Boogie.” He overdubbed his voice three times to create an interesting effect on “I’m In The Mood.” “Frisco Blues” finds him backed by female singers a la The Raelettes. Disc Three concludes with four tracks where an organ is more prominent than guitar. They are “Bluebird”, “Early One Morning”, “We’ll Meet Again”, and “Loving People.”
Hooker’s influence on the music world is presented. We get the originals of “Crawlin' King Snake,” covered by The Doors, and “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer,” covered by George Thorogood, who also included a bit of “John L's House Rent Boogie” into his version. Hooker recorded with Canned Heat in 1970, creating a double album appropriately titled Hooker ‘N Heat. It was Hooker’s first time on the Billboard charts. Three tracks are from those sessions, “Burning Hell,” which includes 90 seconds of Hooker banter at the open, “Peavine,” and “I Got My Eyes On You.”
Disc four showcases Hooker’s collaborations in his later years when many artists came to pay tribute. Robert Cray is the most frequent guest at three appearances. Bonnie Raitt turns “I’m In The Mood” into a wonderful duet. Charles Brown plays piano on “Kiddio.” Los Lobos gets things rockin’ on “Dimples.”
Unfortunately, it’s the weaker disc of the bunch because very few songs come close to the originals. “Boom Boom” with Jimmie Vaughan and “Boogie Chillen’” with Eric Clapton are all right, but there’s no reason to listen to them over the originals. Some are very different arrangements that appear to be Hooker sitting in rather than collaborations. The two songs with Van Morrison are almost too lush and Hooker’s voice has too much echo; however, taken as Morrison songs, they work. The two songs with Santana are Latin jazz/rock and Hooker’s voice doesn’t fit at all.
Forget Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft, and the rest of that pharmaceutical nonsense. Instead, take two CDs from Hooker and call me in the morning. Your blues are sure to disappear.