John Lee Hooker was the first authentic old school blues man I saw perform live. Back in 1987, I went with my friend Scotty to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival for the first time. We went to a midnight performance on the Riverboat President by the Fabulous Thunderbirds & Friends......a line-up which included Katie Webster, Duke Robillard, Lazy Lester, Dr. John, Bonnie Raitt, Rockin' Sidney, and the Roomful of Blues Horns. What I didn't know prior to arriving (the trip was sort of last-minute) was that John Lee Hooker was going to be opening the show.
Now, I had seen Hooker on TV and in the movies. He was part of the Blues Brothers movie, of course, and I had seen him on a few concerts that aired on Public Television over the years, so I kind of knew what to expect. He came out onstage, I think he was probably close to 70 at the time, and he looked his age as he ambled to his stool at center stage. I think he was carrying his guitar with him, but he was dressed sharp in a suit and matching hat. He mumbled a few words into the mic, which I was unable to hear because everyone around me was still talking and continued to talk after he started playing (one of my FAVORITE things about attending a concert).
About three songs in, he launched into "Boom Boom," which was one song that everyone there was familiar with, so everybody began to stop chattering and started listening. By the time he finished playing about thirty minutes later, the room was pretty much quiet and focused on him. He played 12-15 songs and talked between several of the songs.....mostly asides regarding the boat like, "Whoa, is this boat movin'?" Then, he stood up, took a bow, and ambled off stage just like he ambled onstage.
Not long after this appearance, maybe a couple of years, Hooker was in the spotlight again with his album, The Healer, for which he won a Grammy. That album was loaded with guest musicians, Carlos Santana, Bonnie Raitt, Robert Cray, Los Lobos, and Johnnie Johnson, and earned Hooker a lot of attention. I picked up this album a few weeks after it was released, and at the same time, I found a collection of hits and rarities that the label released about the same time as The Healer. It was called The Hook: 20 Years of Hits & Hot Boogie, and collected several of his major hits and mixed in a few seldom-heard tunes as well. I have to say that, at the time, I preferred The Hook to The Healer. With The Hook, you got the essence of John Lee Hooker's style. With The Healer, you got what sounded like Hooker accompanying others. There were some good songs on The Healer, but even a novice like me understood what was up.
So even though The Healer wasn't John Lee Hooker at his best, it nevertheless served its purpose by introducing him not only to a lot of new blues fans, but also to music fans in general. Hooker's profile increased considerably, especially on TV with commercials and in magazine ads. He also continued to record throughout the 90's, releasing a new album every couple of years until he passed away in 2001.
For a listener who's getting into Hooker for the first time, the sheer volume of his catalog can be intimidating......it was for me. I wasn't sure where to get started initially, once I heard the first couple. However, the great thing about listening to John Lee Hooker is that it really doesn't matter where you get started......at the beginning going forward, near the end going backward, or in the middle going in either direction. He maintained a pretty amazing consistency throughout his career, whether he recorded as John Lee Hooker, John Lee Booker, Texas Slim, Little Pork Chops, Johnny Williams, the Boogie Man, Johnny Lee, Delta John, or Birmingham Sam & His Magic Guitar.
Hooker recorded for multiple labels under those different names, but he started out with Modern Records under his own name, where he first recorded "Boogie Chllen" in 1948. His dark and moody vocal, accompanied by only his guitar and his foot keeping time, was unlike anything that was being recorded at the time for the R&B charts. Soon, the song was perched at the top of the charts, followed by several other hits......."Hobo Blues," "Crawling King Snake Blues", and "I'm In The Mood," sometimes using Eddie Kirkland as a second guitarist.
After Vee-Jay, Hooker was still prolific, recording for several labels during the late 60's (Chess, Verve, Impulse, BluesWay among them), and teaming up with the blues-rock band Canned Heat to release the best seller Hooker 'n' Heat in 1970. By now, based on the covers of his tunes by British bands and the album with the highly regarded Canned Heat, it was obvious that Hooker was a big influence on many of the up-and-coming rockers. It's hard to find a rock band during this time period that didn't cover a Hooker song or incorporate his relentless boogie sound into their own. He was a huge influence on ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons (listen to "La Grange," as fine a musical tribute as you'll ever hear).
The 70's found Hooker more or less hitting a wall. Though his output during the decade was consistent, it wasn't quite as, um, magical as his Vee-Jay days, though he did have some peaks to go along with the valleys, though his minimalist approach was often compromised by more rock-oriented arrangements at times. The appearance in The Blues Brothers movie in 1980, did bring him some much deserved attention, but it wasn't until he connected with guitarist Roy Rogers, who helped him record The Healer (and served as producer) that Hooker began his real upward climb.
In his last few years, Hooker enjoyed a nice level of prosperity that often eluded blues men. He owned several house, and received a lot attention for his appearances in TV commercials, and released several popular albums during the 90's. I didn't listen as much to these as I did to his older fare because, as stated above, Hooker was sometimes overwhelmed by the guest stars. You can't blame him, though......these records sold very well and the recognizable guest list was definitely a factor in that.
Though Hooker has been gone for fourteen years, passing away in June of 2001, he remains a major influence on not only blues guitarists, but even rock and country guitarists. Whenever anybody plays that hard-driving endless boogie riff, it's hard not to think of John Lee Hooker doing the same thing during his 50-plus year career.
A few suggested John Lee Hooker albums (for those just getting started): This are some of the discs in my collection and I think they provide a pretty good starting point for new fans, covering a wide range of his career.....a couple of compilations and one of my favorite albums. Others may have their own favorites, but these are mine.
The Legendary Modern Recordings 1948-1954 (Ace Records): This is a nice collection of Hooker's early recordings....24 of his best-known songs. He recorded a lot of these tunes multiple times, but these are the first versions and the deepest and rawest blues he ever made.......just him, his guitar, and his stomping foot for percussion. This is a nice place to start, but I would recommend maybe starting with his newer material and backing up. This is pretty raw and intense.
The Hook - 20 Years of Hits (Capitol): This set collects some of Hooker's best work for Vee-Jay, plus a few rarities. I would probably start with this one. These are some of his most familiar tunes, the way they're most often heard. You could probably find a better collection of his Vee-Jay hits, but this is the one I found and it works fine for me.
The Definitive Collection (Hip-O): This is a pretty solid overlook of Hooker's career, going from his Modern recordings all the way through The Healer and mixing in some tunes from Vee-Jay and Bluesway and a few surprises. It's about as comprehensive as you'll get on a single disc. It really shows that Hooker's sound did change over the years, but really the primal nature and raw urgency of his blues remained undiminished over his 50+ year career. For those who want a more comprehensive set than this, check out Rhino's two-disc Ultimate Collection.
Sittin' Here Thinkin' (32 Jazz): Late 50's recordings with not much information, although it sounds like Eddie Kirkland on second guitar. This is a pretty laid-back, easygoing set. I really enjoy putting this one on when I'm unwinding. Most of the songs are slow-paced, with a very hypnotic feel and really take their time developing. Again, there are probably better sets that Hooker has done over the years, but I find myself listening to this one an awful lot.