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.