Album Reviews

John Lee Hooker

The Modern, Chess & Veejay Singles Collection 1949-62

Artist:     John Lee Hooker

Album:     The Modern, Chess & Veejay Singles Collection

Label:     Acrobat

Release Date:     08/08/2016

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Internationally known as the “King of the Boogie,” John Lee Hooker has had a huge impact on modern music and influenced generations of musicians. Often employing only one chord, Hooker created hypnotic, droning tones that can still lure the listener into trance with a voice and a storytelling style that hearkens back to the griots of Western Africa. Indeed, much has been made of the connection between American Delta Blues and the music of Mali in recent years, but Hooker’s story and those of his contemporaries are unique to the United States.

John Lee Hooker was born near Clarksdale, Mississippi on August 22, 1917 and grew up in a sharecropping family. His stepfather, William Moore, taught Hooker to play guitar and influenced his “talking blues” style. Like many southern blacks seeking opportunity, Hooker headed north eventually landing in Detroit in the early 1940s. He worked as janitor at the Ford Motor Company by day and performed house parties at night, eventually trading in his acoustic guitar for an electric one as his popularity and crowds grew. “House Rent Boogie” tells the tale of playing to pay the bills. Hooker eventually made his way to Modern Records, where he had massive hits with “Boogie Chillun,” “I’m In The Mood,” “Crawling Kingsnake” and “Hobo Blues.” He would go onto record with Veejay Records, releasing over 100 songs, and later worked with iconic Chicago blues label, Chess Records, as well.

The 1960s brought a great revival of the blues when it was “discovered” by white youth. Hooker’s tunes were popularized during “The British Invasion” by the Rolling Stones, the Animals and the Yardbirds. Fellow Americans, Canned Heat, built much of their sound on his boogie chord structure, eventually recording, supporting and touring with him. In 1971 they released Hooker ’n’ Heat, which became his first charting album.

Hooker continued to tour as a solo act throughout the late 1970s and 1980s, and at age of 72 released The Healer, featuring a who’s who of roots Americana artists including Carlos Santana, Los Lobos, Robert Cray, Bonnie Raitt and many others, all backing up the grand master. The “Hook” finished out the ’80s as a frequent guest on the Rolling Stones’ “Steel Wheels” tour.

During the ’90s, Hooker released five studio albums, including Mr. Lucky, which saw him teamed him up with Van Morrison and Keith Richards. In 1991, John Lee was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and recognized with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000. He was 88 years old when he died in California in 2001.

Acrobat Music’s release, John Lee Hooker: The Modern, Chess & Veejay Singles Collection 1949-62, is a comprehensive compendium of the key cuts for which he was best known. With over 100 tracks featuring a variety of lineups including solo acoustic and accompanied by various bands, this collection is a wealth of music best suited to the hardcore fan. Some of the ’60s era recordings include the superfluous use of instruments such as organ and reflect an attempt by labels to sound “hip.” However, Hooker was at his best either solo or when the band was restrained enough to provide simple, swinging grooves as on “Boom Boom” and “Dimples.” The package includes a comprehensive booklet with discographic and session information and photos.

About his music, Hooker once said, “Every song I sing is something that happened to my life or somebody else’s life in this world. You might lose your money or your car, or can’t pay the rent–every person had these heartaches and tribulations. That’s why everybody digs the blues. When I sing these songs I feel them down deep and reach you down deep.”  

John Lee Hooker tapped into profound human emotions and forged a singular style that still resonates today. This extensive collection allows listeners to dive deep into his unique brand of the blues. Highly recommended.  

-Mike Cobb

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