Blues great John Lee Hooker[/link">, born in the Mississippi Delta, but also one of the movers-and-shakers of Detroit's post-war blues scene, possesses a nearly-impossible-to-list discography. Hooker would often record under a variety of names, from Johnny Lee and John Lee Booker to Delta John, Texas Slim, and even Birmingham Sam. It's said that Hooker recorded better than 100 albums, and when you throw in live albums of questionable pedigree, any attempt to anthologize John Lee Hooker's career would be a dicey proposition, indeed.
50 Years: The John Lee Hooker Anthology
In spite of the gargantuan task of compiling a John Lee Hooker career retrospective, the good folks at Shout! Factory Records have attempted to do so with 50 Years: The John Lee Hooker Anthology. Like the album's title states so succinctly, 50 Years covers the entire five decades of John Lee Hooker's illustrious career, from the first smash hit sides that he recorded for Modern Records in the late-1940s through the superstar collaborations that kept his star burning bright during the 1990s.
50 Years begins, appropriately enough, with the gem of Hooker's first session, the driving "Boogie Chillen'." Recorded solo in September 1948, the song was a built around an old lick that Hooker had learned from his stepfather, Will Moore. With its hypnotic rhythm and talking blues styled vocals, "Boogie Chillen'" captured the public's imagination and would top the Billboard magazine rhythm & blues chart in November of that year.
Hooker Keeps Hitting The Charts
The hits just kept rolling from there: the country-blues styled "Hobo Blues," with subdued vocals and imaginative guitarwork from Hooker, would rise to #5 on the R&B charts in early 1949. The rollicking "Hoogie Boogie," with its unusual percussion (courtesy of Hooker's stomping foot) and droning fretwork, would hit #9 on the R&B charts, followed closely by the classic "Crawlin' King Snake," with its menacing old-school, Delta-style guitar and Hooker's deep, booming vocals.
Just as interesting are Hooker's "misses" from this period, songs included on 50 Years that nevertheless failed to chart for one reason or another. "Let Your Daddy Ride," a 1950 side by Hooker that included pianist James Watkins, is a lively boogie-woogie swinger, while "John L's House Rent Boogie," a humorous talking-blues tale of empty pockets delivered atop a recurring riff, would later find a new audience through blues-rock guitarist's George Thorogood's mashup of the song with Hooker's "One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer."
The Vee-Jay Years
The smoldering 1951 track "I'm In The Mood" would be Hooker's last hit for Modern. Accompanied by the striking fretwork of guitarist Eddie Kirkland, the song would hit #1 on the R&B charts. Hooker would then sign with the Chicago-based Vee-Jay Records, which would release many of the bluesman's mid-1950s chart hits.
Typically, Hooker would record with a small band during this time, including the talented guitarist Eddie Taylor, who would appear on R&B hits like "Dimples" and "I Love You Honey." Although Hooker's mid-50s output certainly has its charm - the two aforementioned recordings with Taylor are lively, combo-backed blues with a hint of boogie-woogie piano-bashing, and some interesting interplay between the guitars. Too much of it seemed to be trying to force Hooker into a Chicago blues mode, however, resulting in dwindling commercial fortunes for the artist.
The British Invasion
The second act in John Lee's career would occur accidently, when a bunch of white kids on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean would embrace the bluesman's music with an unexpected fervor. Recorded with a full band, 1961's classic "Boom Boom" nevertheless placed Hooker's resounding baritone and unique six-string riffing high in the mix, thereby creating the blueprint by which bands like the Animals and the Yardbirds would help create the British Invasion.
Also recorded in 1961 in Chicago, the wonderful "She's Mine" didn't chart, though it probably should have been a hit. One of Hooker's more adventuresome songs, "She's Mine" features a slightly chaotic jazzy soundtrack and catchy exotic rhythm, performed explosively by the great rhythm section of bassist James Jamerson and drummer Benny Benjamin.
Hooker ended his association with Vee-Jay in 1964 with a pair of fine singles: the raucous "Big Legs Tight Skirt," which features some short-but-sharp single-note leads, and the classic "It Serves Me Right To Suffer," which showcases some of the darkest, dirtiest garage-blues grunge guitar, a dangerous vibe, and one of Hooker's most emotion-drenched vocal performances.
Chicago & Chess Records
Hooker would accompany his friend, guitarist Eddie Burns, to Chicago for a one-off album for the legendary Chess Records label. Recorded and released in 1966, at the tail-end of the folk-blues revival, The Real Folk Blues attempted to sell Hooker as a country bluesman but the music is pure, joyous electric-boogie. The timeless, lovelorn "One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer" was the result of these sessions, Hooker's strutting rhythm guitar set at a sharp angle against Burns' fluid leads.
Another song from the Chess sessions, "Let's Go Out Tonight," is a lusty blues romp with a shuffling rhythm, driving guitar, and Burns' scorching lead fretwork...the result resembling nothing like "folk blues." Hooker would finish his flirtation with Chicago and Chess by the end of 1966, recording the badass track "I'm Bad Like Jesse James," a stomp-n-stagger houserockin' blues tune, live with Muddy Waters and his full band, including the elegant ivory work of pianist Otis Spann.