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John Lee Hooker Buyer's Guide

The Boogie Man, The Healer, the blues shaman who sounded like nobody else and influenced almost everybody else. These are the John Lee Hooker albums you need…

Miles Davis called him “the funkiest man alive”. Harp giant Charlie Musselwhite said of his music, “No deeper blues was ever played.” Delta-born John Lee Hooker – who left the stage in 2001 aged somewhere between 80 and 90 (depending on which of his many birth-dates finally turns out to be correct) – was The Boogie Man. He began his roller-coaster recording career with the million-selling Boogie Chillen back in 1948, and soared through his last dozen years with a string of top-selling albums, beginning with 1989’s The Healer, stuffed with contributions from legendary admirers of the calibre of Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Carlos Santana, Bonnie Raitt, Van Morrison, Johnny Winter, Albert Collins, Robert Cray, Ry Cooder and George Thorogood, none of whom came within a Delta mile of upstaging him. Along the way, during that half-century-plus of bringing the Delta to Detroit and the world, he wrote and recorded standards such as Boom Boom, Dimples, Crawling King Snake, One Bourbon One Scotch One Beer, I’m In The Mood, and It’s My Own Fault.

Less ‘primitive’ than downright primal, much of his music, with its seeming disregard for conventional song structure, sounded ‘older’ than blues recorded a quarter-century earlier. His guitar combined tough riffing and eerie, exotic modalisms; his deep, rich voice was incantatory and shamanic, and the unmistakable combination downright hypnotic.

His extraordinary late-blooming success followed almost two decades in the commercial wilderness: despite his 50s and 60s triumphs, he didn’t have a recording contract for most of the 70s and 80s. He more than made up for it, ending his life as archetypal bluesman, lionised as an iconic cultural treasure with a shelf full of Grammys, a bulging bank account and a planetful of devoted fans.


ESSENTIAL

The perfect introduction

Hooker (SPV/Shout Factory)

Exhaustive four-CD overview of The Boogie Man’s oeuvre.

The luxury one-stop shop is this admittedly pricey four-CD box set, hitting most of the high spots of Hooker’s chequered half-century career. It goes from a generous helping of the heavily electrified solo boogies of the early Detroit years (starting, of course, with Boogie Chillen), through the rocking band grooves cut for Chicago’s Vee Jay label (the most famous of which are – equally of course – Dimples and Boom Boom), along with a handful of the acoustic tracks (with a laid-back jazz rhythm section) with which the canny Hooker surfed the folk boom.

This exhaustive set also includes some raucous mid-60s Chess sessions and an epic live Jesse James (aka I’m Mad Again) cut with Muddy Waters’ band – including Muddy himself – playing in support, plus a tantalisingly brief excerpt from that brilliant Canned Heat collaboration. Its all-encompassing reach even extends as far as Hooker’s ‘superstar collaboration era’ launched with 1989’s The Healer.

If you want the same ground covered in more affordable bites, there’s also Rhino’s two-CD The Ultimate Collection 1948-1990 and PointBlank’s The Best Of Friends (which picks up where the Rhino set leaves off) but, despite a few startling omissions, this deluxe box set provides a better-than-decent map of the territory from which any number of further explorations into Hooker’s world can be launched, a prime filleting of a lifetime’s work.

The background behind him may change, but Hooker is always Hooker: simultaneously straightforwardly simple, and irreducibly mysterious and complex.

SUPERIOR

The releases that built his reputation

The Complete 50s Chess Recordings (Chess)

All the cuts from Hooker’s first stint with the legendary label.

Despite being ‘exclusively’ signed to the LA-based Modern label and producer Bernard Besman (who ‘discovered’ him and cut Boogie Chillen), for much of the early 50s Hooker would record ‘off the books’ for anybody who’d put cash in his hand, and these mostly solo sessions were either cut specifically for Chess or acquired by them from smaller labels. Swampy, funky and brilliant, this collection is studded with gems: Leave My Wife Alone, Walkin’ The Boogie (a spectacular Boogie Chillen remake with an insanely speeded-up guitar overdub), Sugar Mama and It’s My Own Fault are essential listens.

Hooker ’N Heat (Bgo)

Hooker hooks up with hippies for this scorching double set.

When Hooker’s devoted fans Canned Heat – Californian boogie/blues enthusiasts who played at the Woodstock festival and enjoyed hippy-era hits with covers of Floyd Jones’ On The Road Again and Wilbert Harrison’s Let’s Work Together – decided to produce an album for him in 1970, they made one very wise decision: to cut a John Lee Hooker album featuring Canned Heat, rather than a Canned Heat album featuring John Lee Hooker. The result was stunning: more than half of the double album featured Hooker solo or accompanied only by Alan Wilson on harp, guitar or piano. The Boogie Man himself was on towering form: it would be nearly 20 years before he cut another album as good.

The Hot Spot (Antilles)

All-star collaboration between Hooker, Miles Davis and Taj Mahal delivers wonderful soundtrack to appalling movie.

The Hot Spot, Dennis Hopper’s 1990 cinematic exercise in Texas noir, was a mediocre movie, but thanks to producer, composer and arranger Jack Nitzsche it had an astounding soundtrack, bringing together John Lee Hooker, Taj Mahal and Miles Davis for a succession of grippingly atmospheric mood pieces, fast and slow, in which Hooker demonstrates that he doesn’t need more than a few words to tell you a story, like he doesn’t need more than a couple of guitar riffs to drive a band. Meanwhile, Davis proves just how hard this venerated giant of jazz can do that dirty lowdown boogie.

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Don't Miss...

GOOD

Worth a look

The Legendary Modern Recordings 1948–1954 (Ace)
The Boogie Man’s earliest sides capture a legend in the making.

If the first few tracks on the big box have whetted your appetite for the grungey boogies and menacing slow blues of Hooker’s early work with Bernard Besman, here’s whereyou sign up for the full 24-course meal. Contemporaneous with the Chess sides but way dirtier, this collection provides definitive examples of phase one John Lee Hooker, the legend in the making, with all the early hits and a whole bunch more in the same vein. As the man himself used to say, “Nuthin’ but the best and later for the garbage”.

That's My Story/The Folk Blues Of John Lee Hooker (Ace)

John Lee goes acoustic.

Contains most of the material from the two albums recorded for the Prestige jazz label during a gap in his Vee Jay contract, the first solo and the second with jazz saxophonist Cannonball Adderley’s rhythm section. Hooker enjoyed the intimacy of the acoustic setting – he loved playing folkie coffee houses partly because he didn’t have to shout and audiences actually listened, and partly because it took him back to his earliest Delta days – and these tracks reveal a different side of him from the rocking blues’n’boogies he cut both before and after.

AVOID

Like the plague

Free Beer And Chicken (Proper)

Despite free chicken and beer, still feels like a rip-off.

Assembled by producer Bill Scymzyk and released in 1974 as a makeweight fulfilment at the tail-end of Hooker’s ABC Bluesway contract, this faux- psychedelic mess is exactly what it sounds like: an assemblage of funk jams, rejected takes and incomplete snippets for which the musicians are probably grateful to remain uncredited. The guest vocal by a scarily drunk Joe Cocker is pure train wreck.


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