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John Lee Hooker: John Lee Hooker: Documenting the Sensation Recordings 1949-1952

Jakob Baekgaard BY

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John Lee Hooker: John Lee Hooker: Documenting the Sensation Recordings 1949-1952
Sam Phillips of Sun Records fame had an ear for musicians who stood out. He liked artists who were different, and he recognized the earth-shaking potential of John Lee Hooker's "Boogie Chillen,'" an early blueprint, it could be argued, for the rock 'n' roll sound pioneered by Sun. Phillips didn't get the chance to bring Hooker to Sun, but instead he found another unique blues personality to record, Howlin' Wolf, and the rest is history.

Blues history was also made by Hooker at the time he recorded his famous "Boogie Chillen,'" but that record was only one out of many tracks cut for Bernie Besman's Sensation Records. The richness of this material is revealed in its full scope on a 3-CD box set released by British Ace Records: Documenting the Sensation Recordings 1949-1952. It includes 71 tracks with several alternate takes, among them five versions of the rough and rollicking "Boogie Chillen' #2," with more boogie than chillin.' Five versions of the same tune might seem like too much, but it's important to remember that Hooker rarely followed the predictable 12-bar format of the blues. Instead, he was a fountain of rough rhythm. Dr Wayne Goins has written a deep musical analysis of Hooker's style, which can be found in the booklet that also contains a preface by Peter Guralnick and a detailed sessionography. Goins' observations on Hooker's use of rhythm is worth quoting (as is practically the whole essay):

"The man had serious rhythm in his bones—cranking out unwavering quarter notes with one foot, as he interspersed eighth-note rhythms with the other. Damn near impossible to hear any of his early years without that driving force promulgating the proceedings. Yeah, stompin' the blues, that's what he's doing. When that foot starts to pumpin,' the groove starts jumpin.'"

Interestingly, Goins also notices a kinship with jazz in the way Hooker improvises lyrics. He compares him to a saxophonist playing a solo, and in that way, each take becomes different. Hooker is not trying to do the same thing again and again, he's trying to find the feeling in the song he's doing at that moment, and that is what makes this box set with many takes of the same song thrilling rather than tiresome.

In terms of subjects, there is nothing new under the sun. Lots of lust, women and worries, but the existential masterpiece "Build Myself A Cave (aka The World Is In A Tangle)" sticks out with its bleak message saying: "Lord I'm gonna build myself a cave / Lord I'm gonna move down in the ground." This is the blues version of Dostoevsky's Notes from the Underground. However, the world-weary musings are balanced by the many tracks filled with zest and lust for life.

With his raw guitar playing, improvisational lyrics and foot-stomping rhythms, Hooker is literally a one-man band. Proving this, one of the less successful tracks is "It Hurts Me So" with its harmony vocals and a strange organ accompaniment. It consists of erratic extended organ sounds equivalent of the organist falling asleep and hitting the keyboard with an elbow before waking up again. It's interesting, but John Lee Hooker doesn't need this. His voice, guitar and feet are enough to create original music that resonates somewhere between country blues and electric blues. Or as Sam Phillips said on hearing Howlin' Wolf: "This is where the soul of man never dies."

Track Listing

CD1: Sally Mae; War is over (Goodbye California) (Extended Version); War is over (Goodbye California) (Alt Take)War is over (Goodbye California) (Extended Version of Gb LP; Boogie Chillen'; Henry's Swing Club; Drifting from Door to Door; Hobo Blues; Numbers Blues (Aka She Ain't Good for Nothin'); Alberta; Alberta (Alt Take); Howlin' Wolf; Crawlin' King Snake; Hoogie Boogie (Instrumental); Hastings Street Boogie (Extended Version); Build Myself a Cave (Aka the World is in a Tangle) (Take #1); Build Myself a Cave (Take #2); Build Myself a Cave (Take #3); Build Myself a Cave (Specialty LP Version); Graveyard Blues; Momma Poppa Boogie; Burnin' Hell; Sailing Blues (Aka Drifting Blues); Black Cat Blues. CD2: Weeping Willow Boogie; Miss Sadie Mae; Sail on Little Girl; Alberta Part 2; Wednesday Evening; Canal Street Blues; Huckle Up Baby; Let Your Daddy Ride; Goin' on Highway #51; My Baby's Got Somethin'; Boogie Chillen' #2 (Take 1); Boogie Chillen' #2 (Take 2); Boogie Chillen' #2 (Take 4); Boogie Chillen' #2; Boogie Chillen' #2 (Aka 21 Boogie) (Extended Version); Roll 'n' Roll (Alt Take); Rollin' Blues; Three Long Years Today; Strike Blues (Extended Version); Do My Baby Think of Me?; Give Me Your Phone Number (Alt Take); The Story of a Married Woman (Alt Take); Moon is Rising (Alt Take). CD3: John L's House Rent Boogie (Aka House Rent Boogie); John L's House Rent Boogie (Fragment) (Alt Incomplete Take); Queen Bee; Grinder Man; Walkin' This Highway; Women in My Life (Aka Goin' Away Baby); Tease Me Baby (Aka Tease Me over Baby); I Need Lovin' (Aka Tease Me over Baby); How Can You Do It; I'm in the Mood (Three Voice); I'm in the Mood (Humming Version); I'm in the Mood (With Harmonica Overdub); I'm in the Mood (Alt One Voice); Turn over a New Leaf; It Hurts Me So; It Hurts Me So (Alt Take); I Got Eyes for You; I Got Eyes for You (Take 2 or Take 5); Key to the Highway; I Got the Key (Aka Key to the Highway); Bluebird Blues; That's All Right; It's Time for Lovin' to Be Done; That's All Right Boogie (Under Dub).

Personnel

John Lee Hooker: guitar; James Watkins: piano; Eddie Kirkland: guitar, electric; Bernard Besman: organ, Hammond B3.

Album information

Title: John Lee Hooker: Documenting the Sensation Recordings 1949-1952 | Year Released: 2020 | Record Label: Ace Records

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