Review of "John Lee Hooker: His Best Chess Sides."
Wed Jul 9 20:37:30 EDT 1997
Review of "John Lee Hooker: His Best Chess Sides." (MCA CHD-9383).
John Lee Hooker was not a typical Chess Records artist. He did not live in
Chicago and he did not rely on the talented cadre of Chess sidemen for
support. However, Hooker did record for Chess, during a time when he found
ways to work for every interested label. As another release of the Chess 50th
Anniversary Collection, MCA has produced "John Lee Hooker: His Best Chess
Sides." The 15 tracks extend about 50 minutes in length. Most date to the
wild and woolly days of 1950-1952, when Hooker, a hot property, used a number
of pseudonyms to slip through contracts. Four sides date to a May 1966
session. Mark Humprey's liner notes review Hooker's colorful recording
relationship with Chess and contain photos of the brooding boogie man.
Most of the tracks have Hooker playing solo or with a single sideman on
guitar or piano. Many tracks also will have a familiar feel to dedicated
blues fans. John Lee Hooker was fond of reworking other's songs (particularly
Blue Bird artists) into his own sound. He also frequently reused the same
melody structure with different sets of lyrics. For example, two different
songs on the album have the same melody as Hooker's version of "Bottle Up and
"Mad Man Blues" is the first of these. It is as fun and thumping, with the
feel of a train that is nearly out of control. "Louise" is a slow, rumbling
blues about a man trying to find his love. "High Priced Woman" is a
foot-stomping- boogie, which shares some of the same lyrics with "I'm in the
Mood." Both feature Eddie Kirkland on second guitar. "Ground Hog Blues" and
"Leave my Wife Along" hit the same theme of a suspicious husband planning on
his revenge. "Ground Hog Blues" focuses on a "dirty old ground hog" who hangs
around his wife all day; it is similar to Hooker's "Crawlin' King Snake."
"Leave my Wife Along" features the same pounding melody of "Mad Man Blues"
and "Bottle up and Go," but with brooding, dangerous lyrics. "Sugar Mama" is
John Lee Hooker's reworking of John Lee Williamson's classic. Hooker's nasal
voice reverberates that along with his guitar.
"Walkin' the Boogie," from 1952, essentially is "Boogie Chillen'," Hooker's
1948 huge success. Chess, apparently trying to make it distinct, added
double-tracked vocals and an over-dubbed, accelerated guitar to the single
release, but the unaltered original is in this compilation. "Bluebird" is
Hooker's fairly faithful cover of another John Lee Williamson standard. Chess
never released it as a single, as Hooker had a coughing fit near the end of
the piece. Likewise, "Please Don't Go" is another blues standard that Hooker
imprints with his distinctive riffs and foot stomping. "Blues for Big Town"
matches Hooker with pianist Bob Thurman, whose left-hand boogie dominates the
piece. Hooker covers Big Maceo on "Worried Life Blues," a real gem. It is
slow, and John Lee's guitar playing is haunting as he does his own thing.
The remaining four tracks are from the spring of 1966, when Hooker visited
Chess for some studio work produced by Ralph Bass. The sound is richer. On
three of these, Hooker has the backing of combos, which included Eddie Burns,
Fred Below, and Lafayette Leake. They reworked Hooker's 1951 classic, "I'm in
the Mood," as a slow, driving number. "Let's Go Out Tonight" is a wild,
rambling, fun piece where Hooker shouts and howls for nearly seven minutes.
"I Cover the Waterfront" is a mood-rich, quiet, solo ballad about loneliness
and separation. Hooker later reused the melody for "My Dream" on "The Healer"
album. The final cut is "One Bourbon, One Scotch, and One Beer," another
rollicking number taken from Amos Milburn's 1953 R&B hit.
Previous MCA-Chess compilations have many of these songs, but none comes
close to duplicating the sequence of "John Lee Hooker: His Best Chess
Sides." The four 1966 tracks do occur on "John Lee Hooker: The Real Folk
Blues." Several others are scattered among "John Lee Hooker Plays and Sings
the Blues" and "John Lee Hooker: House of the Blues." However, these are all
older compilations, not commonly found in store racks, and probably heading
for deletion. "John Lee Hooker: His Best Chess Sides" is a good single-CD
survey of his early 1950s and mid 1960s music.
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