June 13, 2024

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Call John Lee Hooker a “blues legend” and you’re not just mouthing a cliche: Videos

22.08. – Happy Birthday !!! In what would have been his centennial, we take a look at the essential tracks from an artist who, along with Chuck Berry, changed rock forever.

Call John Lee Hooker a “blues legend” and you’re not just mouthing a cliche. You’re missing the specificity of what he brought to the form, the unique strand of DNA he sent coursing through the gene pool of countless rockers and blues artists in his wake.

Hooker honed the blues into something new – a grinding, hymnal vamp, which he finessed for all it was worth. Hooker’s essential sound dispensed with the usual 12-bar blues progression to throw the focus on the thrust of the rhythm. It’s deep groove music he made, with a sound as indebted to the beat as funk, and as enamored of repetition as an incantation. In Hooker’s greatest recordings, repetition bred intensity, both in his guitar playing and in his vocals which, in their chanting, droning cadence, could reach the transcendence of devotional singing.

All of this is worth noting as we approach what may or may not be the 100th anniversary of John Lee Hooker’s birth. The star, who died in 2001, upheld the blues tradition of not being overly concerned with exact birth dates. A variety of origin years have been credited by various sources, so let’s just settle on the one chosen by the record company now releasing his music, Vee-Jay Records. It picked this year to toast his centennial, marked by a well-curated, 16-song compilation of Hooker’s work, titled Whiskey & Wimmen, out on 31 March.

Hooker’s anniversary will arrive two weeks after the loss of another pivotal figure in 20th-century music – Chuck Berry, who was 90. In the same way Berry proved crucial to creating rock’n’roll, Hooker held a seminal role in the birth of the boogie branch of blues. On one level, his style transposed the earlier style of boogie-woogie piano to the guitar, then distilled it down to a groundbreaking, minimalist kind of blues. To help create it, he used a different tuning than most blues players do. He went with “standard” tuning, as opposed to the “open” tuning favored by most such artists. Hooker learned that style from his stepfather, Will Moore, an entertainer himself who had worked with Charley Patton and Son House. Hooker, who was born in Coahoma County, Mississippi, left the family by age 14 and went to live in Memphis, where he performed on Beale Street. He cut his first records, starting with 1948’s Boogie Chillen, for the LA-based Modern Records. Hooker’s early songs were all singles, for a variety of labels, but he later developed into a prolific album artist imitated by thousands. Over the years, his songs were covered by stars such as the Rolling Stones, Van Morrison, Bonnie Raitt, Carlos Santana and countless others. Amid his sprawling catalogue, these 10 pieces best express his rarity and genius.

Hooker’s follow-up to his Boogie smash finds him singing with a knowing wink, addressing a woman who’s been driving him mad. The song showcases his sexy vibrato and his darting acoustic guitar work, which finds subtle intricacies in the beat.

Bonnie Raitt was so moved by the need and randiness in Hooker’s original version from 1951, she later cut a take with him on an all-star duets album, The Healer, in 1989. Their tandem recording won Hooker his first Grammy, while the album earned the star his highest-listed album on the pop chart. Raitt later said working with Hooker changed the way she thought about men in their 70s and 80s.

Of all the Hooker/Morrison hook-ups, Waterfront features the greatest rapport between the two. Its elegant jazz melody, composed in 1933 by Johnny Green, leaves space for maximum improvisation, a hallmark of both stars’ styles. Hooker also cut his own version, in 1967, on a like-named album, letting him showcase a very different style from his usual boogie.

Hooker laid down the hammer on Boom Boom, a sexy vamp with a sly guitar and a rolling piano. One of his biggest hits, cut in ’62 and redeployed in 1980 in the Blues Brothers movie, the song has been covered by everyone from the Animals to Mae West. Its stop-start rhythm lends it a killer hook while Hooker’s conversational vocal plays it cool.

There’s a bit of a cheat going on here. Hooker ’n Heat is actually a full album – a double set, in fact – rather than a single song. In 1971, when Hooker was living in LA, he met the members of the boogie-rock band Canned Heat. Together, they cut a classic, 17-track set that contains some of the star’s most committed performances, as well as some of his most intuitive collaborative works. Together, that resulted in Hooker’s first charted album. In deference to his genius, the band gives all of side one to him alone. For side two, the Canned Heat member Alan Wilson comes in on piano and harmonica; in the final songs, the whole band chimes in. It culminates in a sprawling, 11-minute rethink on Hooker’s very first record, Boogie Chillen No 2, demonstrating just how far, and free, his vamps could roam.

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