Boogie rambler: Box set captures John Lee Hooker’s blues

By Mark Guarino

The greatest of the great blues masters did not just have great voices, they wielded big beats. John Lee Hooker invented boogie, giving swagger to rock and tightening the knot between West African work chants and American popular music. Like Bo Diddley, Hooker was an innovator whose creation became bigger than the man himself.

This will be the year of reinvention for Hooker’s estate. In the late fall of last year, the reissue label Shout! Factory released “Hooker,” an inaugural 4-CD box set followed by repackaged editions of Hooker’s catalog. In late March, the campaign continues with reissues of “The Best of Friends” and “Jealous,” two late career albums.

Although the last decade of his life was marked by requisite superstar collaborations, industry awards and ad campaigns designed to bring attention to his stature, Hooker was a fascinating figure in popular music primarily because he was an outsider. His music was sexual, raw and seductive, but it also stuck to singular vamping chords and stomping beats that did not sound of any time, no less the pre-WWII era where big bands ruled. Living in Detroit as opposed to other fertile blues centers like Chicago, New Orleans, Houston or New York City, Hooker was able to create music that was singularly weird and even industrial, as if the ugly machinations of the surrounding auto plants had found a common bond with the heat of working the soil.

Like many blues musicians of his generation, Hooker grew up in a family bound to a sharecropping life in northern Mississippi. When his parents divorced, he stuck with his mother. The decision proved crucial for his later musical life. His mother ended up marrying Will Moore, a musician from Southwest Louisiana, where the music of West Africa was allowed to openly flourish, opposed to Mississippi plantations where slave owners outlawed field chanting a century earlier.

The link is crucial to appreciating Hooker’s music. Moore was reportedly a musician who performed with Son House and Charley Patton, yet he kept to a style that abandoned the guitar slide, did not follow the 12-bar chord progression and treated the guitar as a percussion instrument. Hooker incorporated his stepfather’s invention and brought it to the world. His earliest recordings, starting with the 1948 hit “Boogie Chillin’,” are performed mostly solo despite the massive sound of Hooker’s voice and rumbling, trance-like guitar.

“Hooker” the box set is a faithful look at his career. The third disc will be familiar to rock fans, with the inclusion of tracks from his collaboration with Canned Heat and his more band-oriented work from the 1970’s when he was a familiar presence on rock festival stages around the world. The fourth revisits the star-studded albums of the 1990’s, when he re-recorded his earliest songs with superstars like Carlos Santana, Van Morrison and Eric Clapton.

The real pleasures come from the first two discs when he recorded for a myriad of small labels under just as many names including Texas Slim, John Lee Booker and Johnny Williams. These songs are mesmerizing for their grimy atmosphere and deep complexity. With their massive beat, stabbing, electro-shock guitar lines, crude overdubbed vocals and blurry production, songs like “Down Child” are “I’m in the Mood” sound of no particular time and as if they were found somewhere, rooted to all American music before and definitely after. It is a sound connected with his peers in Africa, particularly the Malian guitarist and singer Ali Farka Toure, and one that continues to be cherry-picked by contemporaries, from George Thorogood to The Black Keys. While the blues is often disregarded for its simplicity, Hooker transformed a single chord, a few words and a basic beat into a complex language, hypnotic and always sly.

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