Best John Lee Hooker Songs: 20 Essential Tracks By The Blues Legend

Best John Lee Hooker Songs: 20 Essential Tracks By The Blues Legend

Introduction

John Lee Hooker is widely regarded as one of the greatest and most influential blues musicians of all time. Born on August 22, 1917, in Mississippi, Hooker had a difficult childhood. He was raised in a poor family by a sharecropping Baptist preacher. However, his life took a turn when his parents split up when he was nine years old. His mother remarried to William Moore, a blues guitarist who introduced Hooker to the world of music.

Hooker’s stepfather taught him guitar and shared his droning, insistent style of playing. These early lessons would shape Hooker’s unique musical style, which he later incorporated into his own songs.

Early Career and Essential Track

As a young musician, Hooker left home at the age of 14 and never looked back. He found his way to Memphis, where he played at house parties and struggled to make a living. Seeking better opportunities, he joined the wave of southern migrants moving north during World War II and found work at Ford in Detroit.

In Detroit, Hooker’s musical career began to take off. He performed in clubs on the city’s East Side and gained recognition for his electrifying performances. His unique boogie style caught the attention of Modern Records in Los Angeles, and he released his first hit single, “Boogie Chillen,” which topped the R&B charts and launched his career.

Another essential track in Hooker’s discography is “Crawlin’ King Snake,” which he first recorded in 1949 and copyrighted. The song became a staple in his performances and gained popularity when The Doors covered it on their album “LA Woman” in 1971.

Record Label Hopping and Success

Throughout his career, Hooker moved between various record labels, always seeking the best opportunities and financial support. He worked with labels such as King, Regent/Savoy, and Chess. His hard-rocking boogie style was difficult to replicate, making him a sought-after artist.

In 1951, Hooker achieved another R&B chart-topper with the song “I’m In The Mood,” which he recorded multiple times over the years. The song even attracted Bonnie Raitt, who later performed a duet with Hooker.

Hooker’s success continued when he signed with Vee-Jay Records in 1956. His hit single “Dimples” became popular among both blues and folk audiences. Vee-Jay recognized the potential of the folk boom and licensed Hooker out to the New York company Riverside. This move expanded his reach and introduced him to a new, predominantly white audience.

One of the standout tracks from Hooker’s Riverside albums is “Tupelo Blues,” a song inspired by a flood in the Mississippi town where Elvis Presley was born. The song showcased Hooker’s ability to infuse his blues with a historical context.

Exploring Folk and Rhythm ‘n’ Blues

Hooker’s versatility as a musician allowed him to explore different genres, including folk and rhythm ‘n’ blues. Despite his blues roots, he embraced the folk scene, performing alongside Bob Dylan in New York City in 1961.

In London, Hooker’s music became the sound of clubland, particularly the emerging mod scene. His songs, such as “Boom Boom” and “Dimples,” provided the soundtrack to fashionable dances and gained popularity among the mod crowd.

During the 1960s, Hooker collaborated with various musicians, including Motown artists like The Supremes and The Vandellas. He also recorded an album called “The Big Soul Of John Lee Hooker,” which featured the song “Frisco Blues,” inspired by Tony Bennett’s “I Left My Heart In San Francisco.”

Later Collaborations and Revival

In the late 1960s, as the hippie generation sought to rediscover the roots of rock ‘n’ roll, Hooker collaborated with bands like Canned Heat. They released the album “Hooker’n’Heat,” featuring tracks like “Whiskey And Wimmen.” Hooker had previously recorded with The Groundhogs in London in 1964, and they named themselves after his song “Ground Hog Blues.”

Hooker’s career continued with a series of studio albums for ABC and live recordings throughout the 1980s. He made a notable appearance in the movie “The Blues Brothers” in 1980, although his version of “Boom Boom” did not make it onto the soundtrack.

In 1988, Hooker experienced a major revival with the release of “The Healer,” an album featuring collaborations with rock stars like Carlos Santana. The title track gained attention and brought Hooker back onto the charts, providing him with both financial and artistic success in his later years.

Subsequent albums, such as “Mr. Lucky” produced by Ry Cooder, continued Hooker’s successful formula of collaborating with renowned musicians, including Keith Richards and Van Morrison. These albums showcased Hooker’s ability to adapt to different styles while maintaining his blues roots.

Final Years and Legacy

Hooker’s final album, “Don’t Look Back,” was released in 2001, shortly before his passing. The title track took on a spiritual tone and served as a fitting conclusion to his illustrious career.

John Lee Hooker’s impact on the blues genre and music as a whole cannot be overstated. His unique playing style, powerful vocals, and ability to cross genres have influenced countless musicians. His legacy lives on through his timeless recordings, which continue to captivate audiences and inspire new generations of musicians.

If you want to explore the best of John Lee Hooker’s music, the 5CD box set “King Of The Boogie” provides a comprehensive collection of his essential tracks.