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John Lee Hooker - Hooker (4 CD box set) Review

by Gary Schwind

This is a real start-to-finish look at the career and music of John Lee Hooker, from 1948 to 1998. What's amazing is that in that time, his sound didn't change. The recording quality may have changed, but Hooker's rumbling boogie guitar didn't.

Disc one
This includes some of the songs that Hooker recorded under the pseudonyms Texas Slim, Johnny Williams and John Lee Booker. According to the liner notes, Hooker's money for the singles he recorded from 1948 to 1954 "didn't quite trickle down fast or full enough." (I know, it's hard to imagine a musician not receiving his fair share.) To bring in some of the money he was missing, he started doing work with other labels, which violated his contract. Thus the pseudonyms. Hooker was pretty crafty too because on "Black Man Blues" (recorded as Texas Slim), he changed his vocals from the normal growl to an old-time Delta blues vocal sound. "Stuttering Blues" on the other hand isn't nearly as crafty. It was recorded as John Lee Booker and sounds just like the songs he recorded with his given name. He does, however sing the song with a stutter similar to the one that affected his speech since childhood.

Some of the classic (OK, so they're all pretty classic) Hooker tunes ("Boogie Chillen," "Sally Mae," and "Crawling King Snake") are on this disc. No matter how many times you've heard them, they still stand up as great raw blues tunes.

Some of my favorites on disc one are: "Huckle Up Baby" and "John L's House Rent Boogie." The latter is a great song about a guy trying to scrape up the rent money to get the landlord off his back. Hooker has a way of taking a familiar theme in song and making it his own, and "John L's House Rent Boogie" is a great example of that.

Disc two
This one includes songs from 1956 to 1964. It includes "Tupelo," a haunting spoken-word song about a great flood in Mississippi. It's a tremendous song and Hooker's voice really conveys the pain that was felt because of the flood.

If the Democrats had a shred of hipness (I'll wait for the laughter to die down), they would use "Democrat Man" as their theme song the next time they want to re-take control of the legislative branch of American government. In this song, Hooker sings, "I know I'll get shoes, I'll get clothes when the Democrats get back in again." Then he closes the song with, "I'm a Democrat man and will be till I die."

Another highlight for me on disc two is "Whiskey and Wimmen" in which JL says "Whiskey and wimmen nearly wrecked my life. If it weren't for whiskey and wimmen, I'd have money today." Another example of a classic theme in the distinctive Hooker style.

"Teachin the Blues" is another great tune. He talks about how he learned his sound from his stepdad when he was thirteen. This song is funny because he gives a quick tutorial in how to achieve the Hooker sound.

You listen to these songs and you realize that people just don't write songs like this anymore. Take "Big Legs, Tight Skirt" for example. He sings "Big legs, tight skirt, you 'bout to drive me out of my mind." And if that weren't enough he says, "When she walk down the street, she rocks like a motorboat." Is that great or what?

Disc three
The third disc kicks off with "One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer." This song is a real testament to the talents of JL Hooker. I've heard this song lots of times, but every time I hear it, it still sounds fresh.

This disc includes some live tracks ("Let's Make It," "King of the World," and "I'm Bad Like Jesse James") and three tracks ("Burning Hell," Peavine," "I Got My Eyes on You") with Canned Heat.

"King of the World" is an awesome tune. In it, he sings that if he were king of the world, there would be no war, fighting, or race riots. If we're going to have a king of the world, that certainly seems like a winning platform to me. In "Burning Hell," he sings how he believes there is no heaven or hell and no one knows what will happen to his body after he dies. Sounds to me like this guy had it all figured out.

"Mean Mean Woman" is another song about a familiar topic, but this song isn't just about any mean woman. In this song, he sings that he's afraid to go to bed with this woman because she sleeps with an icepick in her hand. I'd be afraid to go to bed with a woman like that too.

At first glance, this seems like the shortest disc because it contains only 16 songs. As I listened, I realized that this disc has fewer songs, but only because the songs are a little longer than on the first two discs. But like the first two, this disc is packed start to finish with good tunes.

Disc four
This is a collection of duets with artists such as Bonnie Raitt, Robert Cray, Van Morrison, Eric Clapton and others. "I'm in the Mood" and "I Cover the Waterfront" are incredibly soulful tunes. It's awesome to hear Hooker with this vast collection of singers and songwriters.

This box set is quite simply a great listening experience. Each of the four discs exceeds seventy minutes and there is not one song in all four discs that I even considered skipping. It will take you a while to get through all four discs, but the payoff will be worth it. Trust me. If you are a JL Hooker fan, this is a great look at his lengthy an impressive career.

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John Lee Hooker - Hooker (4 CD box set)

Label:Shout! Factory

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