King of the Boogie

John Lee Hooker 5 disc set

Photo: John Lee Hooker’s 5 disc set released August  22, 2017 in celebration of his 100th birthday.

By Tim Walker

What can one say about John Lee Hooker and his music that hasn’t been said already? The legendary man’s name itself defines a certain strain of electric blues, steeped in the music of the Mississippi Delta, lowdown and honest and dirty, and if you’re a lover of this influential and uniquely American style of music, then you can name a dozen recordings from the great man without even breaking a sweat. If not, then this new 5-disc collection is your chance to catch up with the rest of the civilized world.

In honor of the 100th (or so) anniversary of his birth, Craft Recordings, the catalog division of Concord Bicycle Music, has released King of the Boogie, a career-spanning retrospective of the best of John Lee Hooker’s many recordings. This 5-CD boxed set delves deep into the catalog of the iconic artist, who passed away in 2001, featuring not only his many instantly recognizable hits, but also rare and previously unavailable tracks and a variety of live recordings. Packaged with a 56-page book, the collection includes a wide selection of fantastic photos taken throughout the musician’s life, a track-by-track listing of each track’s history, and two sets of lengthy liner notes, written by John Lee Hooker historian Jas Obrecht, and by the artist’s longtime manager and friend, Mike Kappus.

Born in Mississippi, John Lee Hooker was the youngest of the 11 children of William Hooker, a sharecropper and Baptist minister. Not only is the exact location of his birth a point of contention – it’s assumed to be either Tutwiler, Mississippi, or somewhere near Clarksdale, in a neighboring county – but the exact year is unknown, as well. What is known is that sometime between the years of 1912 and 1923 – the great bluesman himself once said 1920 – Hooker was born and subsequently grew into a musician of uncommon brilliance. The 11 Hooker children were homeschooled, and they were permitted to listen only to religious songs; the spirituals sung in church were their earliest exposure to music. In 1921, their parents separated, and the next year, their mother married William Moore, a blues singer, who provided John Lee with an introduction to the guitar. Hooker would later credit Moore for influencing his distinctive playing style.

King of the Boogie kicks off with one of Hooker’s best-loved songs, “Boogie Chillen’”, written by Hooker and producer Bernard Besman and recorded in 1948 in Detroit, Michigan. Besman felt that Hooker would sound best if he was recorded as a soloist, and did a lot to give his guitar and voice its well-known cavernous sound. To achieve this effect, he miked Hooker›s guitar, then put a speaker in a toilet bowl to capture the echo. He also put a board under Hooker›s feet to pick up his tapping feet. “Boogie Chillen’”, one of the songs that came out of their first session together, became a huge hit, eventually selling an estimated one million copies. It also helped define Hooker›s recorded sound, which relied upon heavy walking beats, boogies, and an eerie, echoing atmosphere. Besman went on to record a number of tracks with Hooker in the late ‹40s and early ‹50s, and it was his idea to double-track the voice and guitar for «I›m in the Mood,» a technique considered revolutionary in 1951, and one which resulted in another huge hit.

“I’m in the Mood” is also included in the King of the Boogie collection, along with popular songs such as 1962’s “Boom Boom”, 1949’s “Crawling King Snake”, 1956’s “Dimples”, and Hooker’s slightly-revised version of Rudy Toombs’ “One Scotch, One Bourbon, One Beer” – honestly, does the correct order really matter? (Classic rock fans will be familiar with George Thorogood’s rendition from his first album, which is actually a medley with another Hooker song entitled “House Rent Boogie”. Thorogood himself is featured in this CD collection, dueting with John Lee on a 1988 cover of “Sally Mae”.)

The first three CD’s are all straight-up John Lee Hooker blues, 70 of his classic tracks distilled from his peerless six-decade-long career. Disc 4 is made up of live recordings of the artist, spanning the years from 1960 to 1983. Disc 5 consists of 15 “duet” tracks, and features Hooker teaming up with a number of other musicians – Van Morrison, Canned Heat, Eric Clapton, Carlos Santana, Los Lobos, Robert Cray, and Bonnie Raitt among them – in reinterpreted and re-recorded versions of his songs.

Let there be no mistake – Hooker’s music can be stimulating, and this boxed set, if listened to from start to finish, will certainly start the red blood pumping through your veins (if you know what I mean). Many of Hooker’s best recordings – “Blues Before Sunrise’, “Sugar Mama”, “Grinder Man”, “Good Rockin’ Mama” – are mean and dirty and primal, and if you haven’t heard them you owe yourself a listen. Late at night over a drink or two with your lover, ideally. Trust me.

Oh yes, John Lee Hooker was the King of the Boogie, chillen’… and then some.

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Tim Walker
Tim Walker is 51 and a writer, DJ, and local musician. He lives with his wife and their two children in Dayton, where he enjoys pizza, jazz, and black T-shirts. Reach DCP freelance writer Tim Walker at TimWalker@DaytonCityPaper.com

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