Joined by a full band that includes two other guitarists (John Garcia, Jr. on lead and Ron Thompson on rhythm), John Lee Hooker is passionately rockin' on this live date (recorded at the Keystone in Palo Alto, CA in 1997). Hooker has always been known for taking quite a few liberties with his material, something that could easily throw some musicians off. Without a doubt, Hooker keeps a sideman on his toes - and he presents even more of a challenge on stage because there are no second and third takes. But this is a band that, although not in a class with Canned Heat, obviously understands (and even thrives on) his sense of spontaneity, and rises to the occasion on such familiar gems as "One Room Country Shack," "When My First Wife Left Me" and "Tupelo," as well as the invigorating "Boogie On" (one of the many variations of "Boogie Chillen" Hooker has provided over the years). Hooker doesn't do as much improvising as he did when playing unaccompanied at New York's Hunter College the previous year, but he never ceases to be confidently soulful. Although not quite essential, The Cream is an engaging CD that definitely has a lot going for it.
- Alex Henderson (All Music Guide)
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It's a safe bet that his like will never pass this way again.
At the time of his death on June 21, 2001 (he passed away peacefully in his sleep), John Lee Hooker was reaping the rewards of his venerated status as one of the post-war era's greatest electric blues pioneers. Instead of touring mercilessly as he had for decades, the Boogie Man finally had the wherewithal to savor the relaxed pace of semi-retirement. "I just kind of gave it up," he said in 1995 of his noticeable absence from the concert trail. "You get tired of running over the roads, here and there and over in Europe and everywhere. I still love it, though, but nothing lasts always." Instead of suffering the stereotypical hardscrabble existence associated with the blues life, the Hook was mostly chilling out up and down the California coast, making a fresh album every so often that was inevitably loaded with cameos by worshipful rock superstars cognizant of his massive sway on their own music.
"I got five homes in all," he reported. "I lay around and watch TV. I love to buy cars. And baseball. It's my favorite sport." The Dodgers were his team, and Hooker adored their garrulous skipper Tommy Lasorda, whose staying power on the diamond rivaled Hooker's in the blues world. Like his fellow luminaries B.B. King, Buddy Guy, and Koko Taylor, the Boogie King had a blues club to call his own in San Francisco. He appeared memorably on the silver screen in The Blues Brothers and starred in a clever national TV spot for Pepsi.
In short, the last few years of life were extraordinarily sweet for the soft-spoken Mississippi Delta native whose primal modal boogies and deeper-than-deep mournful blues made him both a throwback and a visionary for more than half a century. Musical trends came and went, but Hooker never went out of style. During the 1940s and '50s, he anchored Detroit's then-thriving blues scene. In the '60s and 70s, he deeply influenced the Animals (the British bad boys hit big in 1964 with a bouncy cover of his "Boom Boom"), Johnny Rivers (not only did the title track of his '64 Imperial LP At the Whisky a Go Go expertly replicate his boogie groove, one entire side of a subsequent Rivers LP was occupied by a song reverently entitled "John Lee Hooker"), Van Morrison, Canned Heat, 11 Top, George Thorogood, and a mob of other high-profile blues-rockers who borrowed his hypnotic groove and adapted it to their own needs.
Hooker's monumental role in helping to create electric urban blues is a breeze to document, but pinning down his precise birthdate isn't. Wire service obituaries listed him at anywhere from 80 to 85 at the time of his passing. August 22, 1917 is cited by several reliable research sources as the day he was born, yet other books list August 17, 1920. Whatever the case, we can confidently document that Hooker was born in Coahoma County, outside of Clarksdale, Miss., and that his unique guitar technique was a direct product of his upbringing.
"My stepfather, he taught me how. Will Moore. That was his style. I play just like him," said Hooker. "He said, 'You don't play this way, you ain't playin' the blues.' He said, 'Rear your head back and play that guitar and sing.' That's what I did. Just throw the books away." Hooker began performing gospel music as he entered his teens, but after five or six years, the blues permanently won his heart. Clarksdale couldn't contain John Lee for long-he traveled north to Memphis at age 14, living with his aunt and ushering at a Beale Street theater while scuffling for musical opportunities. After an extended stint there, Cincinnati was Hooker's next stop; he stayed for nearly seven years.
In 1943, Hooker settled in the Motor City. "I left home when I was really young, about 14," he said. "I didn't want to come to Chicago. There was too much competition there. All the blues singers was there. I went to Detroit where there wasn't nothin'." That changed the minute the Boogie Man took up residence (he made Detroit his home until 1970). Hastings Street was hopping, and John Lee established himself as an up-and-comer in local nightspots.
Though record store owner Elmer Barbee cut some demos on John Lee with a small combo, producer Bernie Besman wisely opted to record Hooker in a solo setting during the summer of 1948. Among the fruits of that first historic session were the epochal one-chord workout "Boogie Chillen" and its flip "Sally Mae," John Lee's electric axe and steady foot stomps providing all the accompaniment he required.
Besman's own Sensation Records was deemed too minuscule an operation for Hooker's debut. "He had a little old label, and I got on his label," said Hooker. "His label was so little, he put it on a bigger label." That lucky company was the Bihari brothers' Los Angeles-based Modern Records. Hooker's stark country blues attack, intensified by ringing, echo-laden amplification on his guitar, struck a resonant chord with downhome blues fans across the country. "Boogie Chiilen" rocketed to the top of the R&B charts in February of 1949.
"Boogie Chillen" paid lyrical tribute to one of Detroit's top gin joints, Henry's Swing Club. "Everybody was talkin' about it, because everybody would go there," he said. "And I just wrote a song about it." In the wake of "Boogie Chiilen" and the Boogie Man's 1949 hit followups "Hobo Blues" b/w "Hoogie Boogie" and "Crawling King Snake Blues" for Modern, indie R&B labels of every size and stripe quickly came calling. John Lee didn't turn any of them away, often recording his renegade output under the supervision of Hastings Street record shop owner Joe Von Battle while continuing to collaborate with Besman for Modern.
"The record company wasn't paying me that much, the Bihari brothers," explained Hooker. "I was kinda hot then. Every little label wanted to do something. If they'd pay me good, I'd go out and change my name and do it." There was no need for Hooker to toil at his factory job any longer.
Usually recording solo but occasionally accompanied by various combinations of local players that included guitarists Eddie Kirkland and Andrew Dunham, harpist Eddie Burns, and pianists James Watkins and Boogie Woogie Red, Hooker masters were peddled to King, Savoy, Prize, Staff, Sensation (Besman's imprint scored nationally with John Lee's "Huckle Up, Baby" in 1950), Chance, Chess, Gotham, and other diskeries under a dizzying array of nom de plumes: Delta John, John Lee Cooker, Johnny Williams, the Boogie Man, John Lee Booker, Texas Slim, and the equally whimsical aliases Little Pork Chops and Birmingham Sam & His Magic Guitar. Despite this contractual skullduggery, Modern ended up with the Hook's biggest seller of all: "I'm In The Mood," sporting a crudely multi-tracked vocal and churning overdubbed guitar lines, paced the R&B lists for four weeks in late '51.
In 1955, Hooker more or less settled in at Chicago's Vee-Jay Records for a bountiful run of close to a decade, his support crew sometimes including labelmates Jimmy Reed and Eddie Taylor. Rock and roll's nascent rise largely curtailed his hitmaking activities, though Hooker's voluminous Vee-Jay catalog rates with his most significant work and demonstrated that his notoriously erratic sense of timing could comfortably co-exist with the right band personnel. He only scored three national R&B chart entries during his Vee-Jay tenure: "I Love You Honey" in 1958, "No Shoes" in '60, and the seminal "Boom Boom," cut in Chicago with a cadre of moonlighting Motown sessioneers, in 1962.
"I walked in a bar one night. I was playing there, the Apex Bar," recalled Hooker of the often-covered latter song, his only crossover pop hit. "I was never on time. This bartender, this woman whose name was Willa, I walked in the door and she said, 'Boom boom, you're late again!' Like she was shootin' a gun, put up fingers: 'Boom boom, you're late again!' And I picked up on that."
Spurred by the folk-blues revival (when ancient pre-war blues icons were dusted off and revered like royalty), a new core audience of young college-educated whites embraced Hooker during the early 1960s. This crowd generally preferred its boogies unplugged, and John Lee was eager to oblige. European aficionados picked up on Hooker's singular sound once he began to perform overseas, and they didn't mind encountering him in full amplified glory (his rocking "Dimples" was a British chart hit in 1964).
A wide array of musicians deftly handled Hooker's penchant for unpredictable chord changes after Vee-Jay conked out. A British outfit led by guitarist Tony McPhee backed him on a 1965 set that emerged stateside on Verve-Folkways; jazz luminaries Dicky Wells, Milt Hinton, and Panama Francis provided swinging accompaniment later that year for Impulse!, and Muddy Waters' rugged crew offered tough support on a '66 ABC-BluesWay album.
But it was John Lee's teaming with L.A.-based blues-rockers Canned Heat in 1970 for the acclaimed two-LP set Hooker 'N Heat on Liberty Records that fully propelled the Boogie Man into the lucrative rock arena. Before year's end, another double-album project for ABC that found Hooker surrounded by Steve Miller, Jesse Davis, Carl Radle, and Jim Gordon (among a host of rockers) was bathed in the endless boogie ambiance that defined much of his latter-day appeal. Crossover success came with an unhappy side effect: artistic stagnation.
Still, Hooker had no problem whipping his followers into a frenzy at the Keystone in Palo Alto, Calif., where this concert was captured for posterity in 1977. Hooker's Coast to Coast Blues Band had to live by its collective wits in coping with an unexpected chord change every so often, but the combo-lead guitarist John Garcia, Jr., rhythm guitarist Ron Thompson, bassist Mike Millwood, drummer Larry Martin, and a very unobtrusive Charlie Musselwhite on harp-followed along adroitly.
More than once over the course of his generous set, Hooker dug deep into a lowdown one-chord mode, his brooding vocals on "Hey Hey," the ominous "T.B. Sheets," a down-and-out "Bar Room Drinking," and a mournful revival of California-based pianist Mercy Dee Walton's 1953 hit "One Room Country Shack" punctuated time and again by brief blasts of his razor-sharp guitar (Garcia assumed most of the extended solo load).
The band melded particularly well when revisiting "Tupelo"; first waxed by Hooker for Vee-Jay at the 1960 Newport Folk Festival, it vividly describes the destruction unleashed by a 1936 flood that devastated the Mississippi town. On this occasion, John Lee dedicated it to then-recently departed Tupelo native Elvis Presley, declaring "He was the king" during its intro and decreeing Presley "One of the greatest people that's ever been born" midway through the lament.
Though he didn't revisit "Boom Boom" or "Boogie Chillen" (the climactic jam "Boogie On" is a thundering variation on the latter), Hooker did hark back for the lascivious "Sugar Mama" (he first did it for Chess in 1952), "Louise" (another Chess standout from a year earlier), a sinister "Drug Store Woman" originally done for Vee-Jay in '61, and his signature piece "When My First Wife Quit Me." "You Know It Ain't Right" is a rocking adaptation of Little Walter's '55 stormer for Checker, and "I Want You To Roll Me" stands as the Boogie Man's personalized treatment of the warhorse "Rock Me Baby," granted a relentless shuffling thrust.
Though he never faded from view during the '80s, Hooker's profile soared higher than ever when Chameleon Records issued his superstar-studded set The Healer in 1989. Produced by his ex-guitarist Roy Rogers and featuring duets with the likes of Carlos Santana, Bonnie Raitt, and Robert Cray, the album introduced Hooker to yet another generation of listeners and won him a Grammy. Several similar all-star CDs for Pointblank followed, providing Hooker's legion of disciples the opportunity to pay loving homage to one of the last living blues immortals if sometimes reducing John Lee to sideman status on his own albums.
"Ooo-wee! Everybody knows me," said Hooker upon the 1995 release of the Grammy-winning Chill Out. "It's nice to be around to see. It's nice to get that recognition while you're livin', and not when you're gone."
He's gone now, but that universal acclaim will never dissipate.