Thursday, April 29, 2010

John Lee Hooker

John Lee Hooker: early promo shot.
Looking menacing for the camera.
Down In The Alley.
Demonstrating his favorite chord.
John Lee Hooker (b. Aug. 22, 1917 outside of Clarksdale, Mississippi) was probably the most recorded blues artist of all time. I don't know how many John Lee Hooker albums, CD's, 78's and 45's I own, and I'm not about to try and count them, but let's just say there's a mess of 'em here, some of 'em are great, some are good and some aren't so good. But he was not only one of the most famous blues singers of all time, he really was probably the most primitive artists to sell a lot of records. His best sides are usually one chord boogies or stomps, crude, distorted and utterly compelling discs, but often obscured by the amount of crap he later recorded and that fills up the record bins. I'm always suprised at how the group of record collectors and fans that grew up in the eighties and ninties know all about obscure acts like Esquerita and Kid Thomas but don't own one John Lee Hooker (or Lightnin' Hopkins or Jimmy Reed) record. They were the rare case of the cream rising to the top, they were the best, but since all three singers made piles of records, I think it confuses people, some of whom bought one or two mediocre or crappy records then gave up. If you are perplexed as to how to go about sorting out the good records from the bad ones, my advice stick with his earliest, Detroit recorded sides, where he mostly plays solo with just his distorted guitar and stomping foot (which was amplified and is an essential part of his sound). He made some good records with bands, especially the early ones on Fortune which are so chaotic they're almost funny.
Since, like Lightnin' Hopkins he kept no regular meter, most musicians found it nearly impossible to follow him, although he did cut some good sides with a small group for Vee Jay in the early 60's (using many of the same players that appeared on Jimmy Reed's sides), some of which were even hits (Boom Boom, Dimples), and are probably his last great records. He'd go on to record with many rock stars including Canned Heat, all the various superstars that appeared on his last (Grammy winning!) albums like The Healer, even Miles Davis (on the soundtrack to the film Hot Spot). These discs are best left to completest and fans of dull bar band blues. Hooker's recording career was always like this, right from the start, Hooker would record a few tunes for anyone with cash in hand, often changing his name, so he appeared on labels like Chess, King, Modern/RPM, Fortune/HiQ, Specialty, Regal, Gotham, Sensation, etc. not only under his own name but as John Lee Booker, John Lee Cooker, The Boogie Man, Birmingham Sam, Johnny Williams, et al. When Hooker himself wasn't out hustling the record companies, his first producer Bernie Bessman was leasing the many sides he stockpiled to as many labels as he could find to take them. Bessman was a good producer for Hooker, he came up with the idea to amplify his foot, and even when his judgements were questionable (such as the strange organ overdubs on some tunes like It Hurts Me So), they were at least interesting, even hilarious on occasion. No matter, what ever name Hooker used, whatever label he ended up on, there was no mistaking his sound.
When I want to hear Hooker, I prefer to pull out a few 78s and spin 'em. Since he usually only played one chord, listening to an entire box set, or even a whole CD, can be a tiring experience, but hearing Boogie Chillen', Burnin' Hell or Cry Baby blasting out of the speakers is a lot of fun. I still think the cheesy old Crown album, which can still be found at reasonable prices, despite the crappy pressings, are a lot of fun and are my favorite Hooker albums. If you want to get started on the cheap you can check out the links below, I don't feel bad directing you to free downloads since none of these labels ever payed Hooker any royalties anyway, and he didn't expect them to, he never signed a contract and got his cash up front. Of course it's good to move fast, these things disappear pretty quick. A quick browse through the Captain Crawl MP3 search engine turned up enough good Hooker sides to keep you busy for a month. Try these for starters, and then you can find you way around the ones you want to actually buy:
One of my personal favorites is the Crown LP- John Lee Hooker Sings The Blues (early Modern/RPM sides), here are 137 early Detroit sides (1949-52) including Modern/RPM, Sensation, Fortune/HiQ, Specialty and King recordings. Charley Records' This Is Hip collection of early 60's Vee Jay hits are his last great sides in my estimation and show him in a band setting that for once sound great. This site has three CD's worth of mostly alternate takes from the early Detroit years, issued under the dumb title Alternative Boogie. Here's some more early sides including all his Fortune material and the RPM sides with Eddie Kirkland (1953-54).
Despite his crude guitar playing, his style is nearly impossible to replicate. It was a sound that was as much a part of him as his earlobes and toenails. If you don't believe me, try playing along to any of the above records.
That said, Hooker who died in June of 2001, was a rare blue man who was able to capitalize on his talents. For a guy who stuck to one chord for fifty years, he did pretty well for himself. He outlived virtually every one of his contemporaries and died a very rich man. His later day appearences with his Coast To Coast Blues Band may have exemplified the worst examples of an authentic bluesman catering to suburban, white tastes, but when he perfomed solo (I only remember him making one such appearence in NYC at Hunter College in the early 80's when he played an indredible solo set. Later shows I saw where interesting for the in between song tuning up which was the only time you could his his guitar) he was still the master of a style that he pretty much invented. There is no school of John Lee Hooker, although R.L. Burnside
and African player Ali Toure Farka were obviously inspired by his one chord drone, and his music deserves to be heard by everyone who likes that sort of thing, if only such folks could sort the great sides from the dull ones. Well, I hope this helps.

23 comments:

Anonymous said...

Some of my favorite Hooker sides are the ones he recorded for Miami record honcho in his pre-disco days, Henry Stone. These were recorded in either Miami or Cincinatti circa 1953 and got released on singles for Rockin, Chart and Deluxe. They were all compiled on an LP for Atco called Don't Turn Me From Your Door years later. Tracks like Wobbling Baby and Stutterin Blues are a few of my all time favorite Hooker sides! Eddie Kirkland (possibly his best sideman) contributes the second guitar on Wobbling Baby. -Barry Soltz

Daria Sellon McQuade said...

Love this piece & pretty much everything you post on here. Best-D

Chris said...

John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Reed, and Hound Dog Taylor
are my holy trinity! another great post, Hound.

The Hound said...

"Some of my favorite Hooker sides are the ones he recorded for Miami record honcho in his pre-disco days, Henry Stone. These were recorded in either Miami or Cincinatti circa 1953 and got released on singles for Rockin, Chart and Deluxe."

All of that stuff (1953-4) can be found at the link "more early sides", it's certainly some of his best. I kind of doubt it was recorded in Miami, my guess is Stone bought the masters from someone else. Some of them are identical to versions of tunes issued on one of those cheesy King albums. Who knows? Hooker's discography is one of the most confusing of all, although I know someone published it in book form in the last few years I still haven't gotten around to buying it.

The Hound said...

"Love this piece & pretty much everything you post on here. Best-D"

Are you the Daria that used to work @ the Lakeside? and if so, how's little Footbll doin'?

Anonymous said...

John Lee Hooker was illiterate which helps explain some of his business dealings.

My favorite story was at a recording session when the whole band changed the chord, but JLH didn't. The take came to a crashing end - 'We change when I says change, goddammit' was the explanation; after that the band stayed on its toes.

Gramercy7 said...

Typically astute Hound post with mucho great music included. Any comments on the Hooker biography by Charles Shaar Murray? (I've never read it.)

I saw Hooker at the Beacon Theater in NYC sometime in the Eighties. (The Fabulous Thunderbirds were on the bill and may have backed him.) I remember that he walked on stage, took off his watch, and hung it from the mic stand!

I think John Lee played a gig (in the Bay Area) just a few days before he died. And did he own or have an interest in S.F. nightclub the Boom Boom Room?

Anonymous said...

Nice post.
I saw Hooker in the early 1980's with The Coast to Coast Blues Band. The show was a real stinker, apart from when John Lee played by himself. I never went to see him again because I was afraid he would bring a band.
A similar thing happened with Lightnin' Hopkins, although he had the good sense to avoid a second guitarist.

Anonymous said...

I've always liked his music but like the man said there's so much out there I just listen and it blends into the next, bought the Detroit special LP on ebay so hopefully that will be good, anybody know of it or if it's any good? Will I get a reply?

The Hound said...

"Detroit special LP "

The Atlantic one? That's actually not bad, recordings from around '63 originally released on atco as Don't Turn Me From Your Door, except if I remember correctly he's playing acoustic guitar on it, he's better heard w/the electirc guitar.

Nick said...

Are there any live tapes circulating from the early days or when he was playin' for the folk boom kids in the early 60s?

Joe Bonomo said...

Hound, it's funny that you say that Hooker's sound is impossible to replicate. When the Fleshtones did Burning Hell on Hexbreaker they turned it into something virtually unrecognizable (and great). The only way you can do Hooker without sounding slavishly submissive, I guess, and you're likely to fail at that, anyway. He was a true weird wild original.

The Hound said...

"Are there any live tapes circulating from the early days or when he was playin' for the folk boom kids in the early 60s?"
The best thing is a CD Flyright issued of Hooker playing a private show for a bunch of Europeans at a party called The Unknown John Lee Hooker 1949 Recordings. There's some early 60's acoustic stuff like Hooker On Campus, etc. but they're pretty dull. The
'49 thing is from a house party in Detroit for some Czech visitors and is excellent.

Cavorting with Nudists said...

Actually, Hound, he is playing electric on "Don't Turn Me From Your Door," and it's a great one.

I'm a big JLH fan and a little more forgiving of some of his later stuff (not too much later). I actually really like the "Hooker 'N' Heat" set (half of which is almost solo electric, with just Alan Wilson on harp, and is more intense than you might expect). I also like the sides collected as "The Complete '50s Chess Recordings" (not "The Complete Chess Folk Blues Sessions," which have a couple of OK songs but are mostly kinda eh), and the set on Stax called "That's Where It's At!" (Also produced by Henry Stone, dunno when, but the titles don't overlap with the "more early sides" stuff above.)

Ed Ward said...

In re Lightnin' Hopkins, one of Stevie Ray Vaughn's band (can't remember which one) told me years ago about his early days in Houston clubs playing behind him. On the first gig, he was almost in tears after the first set and backstage he said "Lightnin', you gotta tell me when you're gonna change." Hopkins glared at him and said "Lightnin' change when Lightnin' WANT TO change." Guy said he figured it out, sorta, after that.

Oh, and did you know that John Lee had a building in Oakland in the '70s with a sign outside saying John Lee Hooker Blues Academy where you could take guitar lessons? Probably not from John Lee, but it was a strange thing to see.

The Hound said...

"In re Lightnin' Hopkins, one of Stevie Ray Vaughn's band (can't remember which one) told me years ago about his early days in Houston clubs playing behind him. On the first gig, he was almost in tears after the first set and backstage he said "Lightnin', you gotta tell me when you're gonna change." Hopkins glared at him and said "Lightnin' change when Lightnin' WANT TO change." Guy said he figured it out, sorta, after that.
"

That same story shows up in Alan Govenar's new bio of Hopkins, only credited to Anson Funderburgh, and I'd heard that story told by Henry Vestine, he put himself and JLH in the story. I'm sure it happened more than once, but it's funny how that story is practially an urban legend at this point.

Mihaleez said...

"Bessman was a good producer for Hooker, he came up with the idea to amplify his foot"

Fantastic idea! I really need to hear this! I got a copy somewhere of an ACE compilation with Modern stuff... Are these recordings and if not where should i look to purchase them?
-----------------------------------
"although he did cut some good sides with a small group for Vee Jay in the early 60's (using many of the same players that appeared on Jimmy Reed's sides)"

It's the same band that had great Eddie Taylor on guitar?

Thanks! Great stuff as usual!

The Hound said...

"I got a copy somewhere of an ACE compilation with Modern stuff... Are these recordings and if not where should i look to purchase them?"

Most of the early Modern sides (Boogie Chillen, etc.) were leased from Bessman, so yes, good place to start.

"It's the same band that had great Eddie Taylor on guitar?"

Eddie Taylor is ineed playing on Dimples and some of the other Vee Jay sides.

Mitchhz said...

Hey Hound, what's happening to the Mississippi Delta right now is absolutely terrible, well the whole region! I live very far away but I can't listen to the news anymore. We are left totally helpless, it's so depressing!

The Hound said...

"Hey Hound, what's happening to the Mississippi Delta right now is absolutely terrible, well the whole region! I live very far away but I can't listen to the news anymore. We are left totally helpless, it's so depressing!"

Maybe they can just light the whole oil slick on fire and then people can surf on the flames?

Gerund O'Malley said...

One of my fave LP's is "It Serve You Right To Suffer" - later changed to "It Serves You Right To Suffer", if memory serves. (I preferred the earlier title). That was my entree back into the earlier stuff... and I enjoyed him right up to the end. I remember him appearing in a Van Morrison doc of some sort... and playing with him at the Beacon in the 80's, I think it was.
As always, love the posts- thanks!

Anonymous said...

As far as the urban legend where Lightnin' Hopkins tells the young white musician "Lightnin' change when Lightnin' WANT TO!", the version I heard was from Billy Gibbons from Z.Z. Top. It was between sets at a Lightnin' show where Billy was a member of the band...Lightnin' overheard Billy tell a friend how hard a time he had keeping up with the changes, and that's when Lightnin' uttered the famous line.

I believe ALL the stories, 'cause I'm sure Lightnin' had to explain hisself more than once.

The Hound said...

"I'm sure Lightnin' had to explain hisself more than once."

I'm sure you're right, I don't know why they even bothered to hire rhythm sections, I thought the best shows I saw him do were when he played without one, although who ever is playing drums on the Herald sides does a good job keeping up with him.

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