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The Top 6 Albums of John Lee Hooker

posted by Kevin Lannister

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The Top 6 Albums of John Lee Hooker
1. Dont Look Back
2. It Serves You Right
3. Urban blues
4. Mr Lucky
5. Hooker n Heat
6. The Healer

“I have heartaches, I have blues. No matter what you got, the blues is there. ‘Cause that’s all I know – the blues. And I can sing the blues so deep until you can have this room full of money and I can give you the blues.”

“The one thing the blues don’t get is the backing and pushing of TV and radio like a lot of this garbage you hears. They choke stuff down people’s throat so they got no choice but to listen to it.”

“I remember back in Detroit, I used to go to the Apex Bar every night after I got off work. The bartender there used to call me Boom Boom. I don’t know why, but he did.”

One of the most distinctive and enduring of Blues icons, John Lee Hooker created a stark, brooding signature style rooted in his primitive, hypnotic guitar grooves, along with a highly original songwriting sensibility. His trademark sound and imposing presence helped to make “the Hook” one of the most popular Blues performers of the post-World War II era, and an influence on many Rock and Roll musicians.

John Lee Hooker was born near Vance, Mississippi, on August 22, perhaps in 1917, though he also claimed other birth years between 1912 and 1923. His parents were The Reverend William Hooker, a tenant farmer and part-time evangelical preacher, and Minnie Ramsey Hooker. As a youngster, Hooker received his first guitar, a beat-up model, from an itinerant blues man who was courting one of his sisters.

John Lee’s father, who believed, like many religious African Americans, that the blues wasthe Devil’s Music”, reluctantly allowed his son to keep the guitar, but only on condition that he never bring it into the house. Eventually Hooker’s parents separated, and, unlike his ten brothers and sisters, young John Lee moved in with his mother and stepfather, Will Moore.

Moore was a Louisiana-born guitarist who frequently played with such blues luminaries as Charlie Patton, Son House, and Blind Lemon Jefferson. Hooker’s new stepfather bought him a mail-order guitar and taught him all he knew about playing it. Hooker always claimed that this knowledge helped him to evolve throughout his long career.

About 1933, the teen-aged John Lee Hooker fled to Delta for the greater musical opportunities he felt awaited him in the big city of Memphis. Although he was returned to his mother and stepfather by relatives, Hooker ran away again and this time escaped the Delta permanently. He moved from Memphis to Knoxville, then to Cincinnati, before finally settling in Detroit.

At each stop along the way, John Lee worked a day job in a factory and played blues joints and house parties at night and on weekends. He launched his career as a conventional blues singer, whose Delta style, and perhaps erroneous birth date of 1917, allowed him to claim to be of the same lineage as already established performers like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf.

Because of the need to be heard over the noise in the blues clubs, John Lee quickly adopted an electric guitar, for, as he said, “You barely have to touch the guitar, and the sound comes so silky. Electric sound is so lovely. I felt drawn to it. It’s the feel of it, the touch of it.”

Hooker was based in Detroit, where he had moved in 1943, working during the day as a janitor at Dodge Motors or Comco Steel, and, at night, playing in the black clubs around Hastings Street. Never much given to reminiscence, he managed to preserve a good deal of vagueness about his early life, whether in Clarksdale, Mississippi, where he was born into a family of 11 children, or in Memphis and Cincinnati, where he spent periods in his teens.

In Clarksdale, his stepfather gave him a few lessons on guitar, including the open-G tuning he would employ to such resonant effect, and what would become one of his favourite songs, When My First Wife Quit Me. He also listened attentively to the obscure Mississippi bluesman Tony Hollins, from whom he derived one of his early successes, Crawling King Snake, though most of his highly personal conception of blues-singing and playing appears to have come from within him.

Let’s investigate now the top six albums of this blues giant:


6. The Healer

On The Healer, Hooker has concocted big, bad medicine. The opening title cut, performed with Santana, is sheer spirit-invoking incantation. Then Hooker enters the realm of the senses, covering his 1951 million seller “I’m in the Mood” in a slow bump-and-grind duet with Bonnie Raitt. As John Lee states his need, Raitt, at her seductive best, sidles up to and curls around each phrase in a sassy moan and response.

Song after song lands its ideal grooves as Hooker guides his players through an earthy blues cycle that chronicles the rites of carnal knowledge — from the don’t-do-me-wrong pleas of “Baby Lee,” spiked with Cray’s trenchant guitar, to the somber, contemptuous stomp of “Sally Mae,” whammied with Thorogood’s slash ‘n’ trash slide.


5. Hooker ‘n Heat

This double album is the combined efforts of John Lee Hooker and Canned Heat. Based on the laid back timbre of the songs and talking between tracks. I’d wager this was recorded over the course of a weekend with basically no rehearsal. John makes mention of how no matter what he does, he can’t lose that guy.

For Canned Heat, Hooker ‘n Heat ultimately proved a slightly bittersweet experience. Wilson had battled depression for years, and was spending his nights at a psychiatric facility while the album was being tracked; although band members hoped the experience of recording alongside Hooker might help revitalize their friend, he died before the record was released, succumbing to what was determined to be accidental acute barbiturate intoxication in September 1970.


4. Mr. Lucky

Mr. Lucky refines the strategy of The Healer, from 1989, which paired Hooker with a variety of rootsy rockers who had been touched by his rhythmic mojo. While there’s nothing here quite as stunning as Hooker’s saucy, Grammy-winning duet with Bonnie Raitt on “I’m in the Mood”, Mr. Lucky is all around a sharper fit. The players on this outing aren’t rock stars paying tribute to a legend, but superb sidemen for a great bluesman.


3. Urban blues

This is the Boogie Man’s 1967 ABC-BluesWay album in its entirety. Hooker’s Chicago sidemen (including Eddie Taylor, Wayne Bennett, and Louis Myers) deftly handle Hooker’s eccentricities on “Mr. Lucky,” and the harrowing “The Motor City Is Burning,” as well as a sprightly remake of “Boom Boom.”


2. It Serves You Right To Suffer

Given Hooker’s unpredictable timing and piss-poor track recording with bands, this 1965 one-off session for the jazz label Impulse! would be a recipe for disaster. But with Panama Francis on drums, Milt Hinton on bass, and Barry Galbraith on second guitar, the result is some of the best John Lee Hooker material with a band that you’re likely to come across.

The other musicians stay in the pocket, never overplaying or trying to get Hooker to make chord changes he has no intention of making. This record should be played for every artist who records with Hooker nowadays, as it’s a textbook example of how exactly to back the old master. The most surreal moment occurs when William Wells blows some totally cool trombone on Hooker’s version of Berry Gordy‘s “Money.” If you run across this one in a pile of 500 other John Lee Hooker  CDs, grab it; it’s one of the good ones.


1. Don’t Look Back

The album combines modern state-of-the-art production techniques and raw, deep blues born in another era. The result is timeless treatment of classic material. The title track and Morrison‘s “The Healing Game,” as well as “Travellin’ Blues” and “Rainy Day,” show Hooker and Morrison trading lines with their legendary voices emoting spontaneously with each line.

“Blues Before Sunrise” is a slow, tasty blues that showcases Hooker’s vocal style. Hooker then gets playful on “I Love You Honey” and gives us his signature driving boogie on “Spellbound.” And Jimi Hendrix is done proud on “Red House,” a favorite of Hooker’s and a song that he promised Hendrix’ father and sister he would record for this album

To Hooker, it was all about the music. As he told his biographer in 1991, “When I die, they’ll bury the blues with me, but the blues will never die.”  When he passed away, on June 21, 2001, John Lee Hooker was mourned as a beloved elder statesman for the blues, a pop icon to be sure, but also a skilled performer whose influence helped to shape the blues, rhythm and rock ‘n’ roll for more than half a century, and, because he “Never Got Out of These Blues Alive,” continues to do so.

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Kevin Lannister (see all articles)

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