John Lee Hooker
Point Blank/Shout! Factory
The Best of Friends
Anyone who thinks John Lee Hooker was running out of gas in his
later years needs to re-listen to these 1990s gems. Boom Boom, Chill
Out, and Best of Friends are chill-generating master works that not only
point to the reverence in which the master was held by his peers, but
the continued enthusiasm and chops he brought to the sessions.
The 1970s and '80s were slow for Hooker, but things perked up with the
release of The Healer (1989, Chameleon), an album that garnered first
time Grammy awards for both Hooker and Bonnie Raitt for their re-make
of “I’m In The Mood.” Mr. Lucky (1991, Point Blank), Boom Boom (1992,
Point Blank), Chill Out (1995, Point Blank), and Don’t Look Back
(1997, Point Blank) followed to equally strong popular appeal.
The Best of
Friends (1998) culled from various of these sessions, with additional
tracks with Charlie Musselwhite, Ry Cooder and Ben Harper, gets my vote
for the standout re-issue of 2007 thus far.
Boom Boom is closer to root Hooker than the others, though like the
others is heavy on the guest star list. The title cut has Jimmy Vaughan guesting, and Robert Cray and his band sit in on a superb “Same Old
Blues Again.” Pianist Mitch Woods is the guest star on “Trick Bag (Shoppin’
For My Tombstone),” Albert Collins and organist Deacon Jones top the
list on “Boogie At Russian Hill,” and John Hammond sits in on “Bottle Up
and Go.” As impressive as the guest list is, all of the players, even
the irrepressible Collins, bend themselves to Hooker’s personality.
Indeed, the real standout numbers are the solo Hookers: “I’m Bad Like
Jessie James, “Sugar Mama,” the country-imbued “Hittin’ The Bottle
Again” and “Thought I Heard,” the latter a duet with Charlie Musselwhite’s harp.
The bonus material, “Dimples” and “Ain’t No Love In This House,” are
stellar and add more excitement to a thoroughly exciting disc.
The opening title cut on Chill Out, “Chill Out (Things Gonna Change),”
features Carlos Santana’s sizzling guitar work and is among the
strongest pieces found on any of these three wholly impressive discs. It
re-appears on The Best of Friends disc, as well. The version of “Kiddio,”
with Charles Brown’s tasty piano supplying counterpoint, is delightful;
the medley of “Serves Me Right To Suffer/Syndicator,” with Booker T
supplying that instantly recognizable organ underpinning and Hooker’s
pal Van Morrison sharing vocals, is killer; and “One Bourbon, One
Scotch, One Beer,” with Roy Rogers on board, is a blast. Rogers is the
lynchpin to this and the other collections, serving as producer and
visionary partner throughout.
“Annie Mae” brings Charles Brown back in,
the gorgeous “Too Young” pairs Hooker with guitarist Billy Johnson, and
“Talkin’ The Blues” and “If You’ve Never Been In Love” offer delightful
duo dialogue between Hooker and Rogers. “We’ll Meet Again” is a
fantastic country-style blues that features organist Deacon Jones.
Pianist Johnnie Johnson sits in on “Down So Low” and the closing “Fire
Down Below” adds guitarist Johnson and others. The latter two are bonus
tracks. Again, the solo cuts are superb. “Deep Blue Sea,” the stirring
“Tupelo,” and “Woman On My Mind” are Hooker distilled.
The Best of Friends is, not surprisingly, the best of the lot. Here are
“Boogie Chillen” redone with Eric Clapton burning behind that glorious
Hooker voice. Recorded specifically for the anthology, this is nothing
short of a spectacular collaboration. With Bill Payne (keys), Jim
Keltner (drums), Reggie McBride (bass), and Johnny Lee Schell and Rich
Kirch (guitars) on the session, it serves as a brilliant opener to a
14-song collection that never fails to mesmerize.
“This Is Hip,” from Mr. Lucky, has Ry Cooder, Nick Lowe and the dynamic vocals of Bobby King
and Terry Evans spicing it up. Count this as another of the most
exciting of the tunes on the three collections. “The Healer,” with
Carlos Santana and band, is the song that started the Hooker
renaissance, and it impresses still. Van Morrison and Booker T are back
in the saddle on a moving “I Cover The Waterfront,” a Hooker original,
not the jazz standard. Following “Boom Boom,” John Lee and Bonnie Raitt
do a wonderful remake of “I’m In The Mood,” a duet that sent the two
back home with their first ever Grammy awards. It was a song fully
deserving of the accolade.
“Burnin’ Hell” recorded in 1998 for the
collection spotlights guitarist Ben Harper and harmonica great Charlie Musselwhite. At the tale end, after Harper takes it out
stratospherically, Hooker says, “What is that? Sounds like a freight
train going through there…” The solo “Tupelo” is reprised, followed by
“Baby Lee,” from The Healer, with Cray and band on hand,
“Dimples,” from Don’t Look Back, features the members of Los Lobos with
Juke Logan on harp.
“Chill Out” is followed by a re-make of “Big Legs
Tight Skirt.” Another song recorded exclusively for the package, it
features Ry Cooder, Ike Turner, Terry Evans and others. The title cut
from Don’t Look Back, a disc scheduled for release later this year, is
spellbinding. Danny Caron’s guitar work is chilling here. The final cut,
“Up and Down,” also cut specifically for the collection, pairs Johnnie
Johnson, the great pianist who came to prominence with Chuck Berry, with
the great blues master.
Hooker tried to “retire” in 1990, then opened a club (The Boom Boom
Room) so he could play when the muse struck. He had the boogie woogie in
him and it had to come out. When he died June 19, 2001, it was a dark
day, indeed. These Shout! Factory reissues help keep the flame alive.
The packaging and liner notes are typically flawless and the
re-mastering brings nuances to light that spark the eardrums.
--- Mark E. Gallo