We’d just returned from a lovely vacation to Chile, and after taking a day to sleep off the jet lag and pisco sour/vaina hangovers, we visited my parents to hand out the traditional gifts and share the traditional pictures. Show over, we sat down at the dinner table and my beloved old fart father immediately got on my ass.
“I think you’ve given Clapton short shrift,” said Dad.
There was no response from his usually loquacious child. From a father’s perspective, he saw a daughter with a quizzical look on her face and assumed he needed to elaborate on his original statement.
“I know you don’t like his solo work, but geez, there’s still the Blues Breakers album, Fresh Cream, Derek and the Dominoes . . .”
“Earth to Sunshine, Earth to Sunshine. Hello, Sunshine!”
The term of endearment yanked the daughter from her reverie, and looking directly into her father’s eyes, she asked the question that had initiated the break from the here-and-now.
“What’s a shrift?”
“You said I gave Clapton short shrift. What’s a shrift?”
“It’s a—uh—hell, I don’t know—it’s just a phrase.”
“I’m going to look it up.” I returned to the dinner table in less than a minute, accompanied by Merriam-Webster.
“‘Shrift’ means ‘a confession to a priest,” and ‘short shrift’ means ‘barely adequate time for confession before execution.’ Now that we’ve gotten rid of the death penalty in most civilized parts of the world, the meaning has morphed to give something or someone ‘little or no attention or consideration.’ So, you were saying . . . ”
“You’ve given Clapton short shrift.”
“You’re right. I’ve given Clapton short shrift.”
Dad narrowed his eyes to communicate suspicion. “Wait a minute. What’s going on here?”
“What do you mean?”
“You never say I’m right. What are you up to?”
“I’m not up to anything. You mentioned some Clapton albums—which one do you want me to do?”
“It’s gotta be Blues Breakers. When that album hit the streets—I can’t begin to describe what an impact it had on every guitar player I knew. Within a few weeks, all the bands in town were messing around with “Hideaway” and “Steppin’ Out,” trying to get the riffs down, trying to get that sound.”
“I’ll do Blues Breakers. Sounds like fun.”
Dad narrowed his eyes again. “What the fuck? Why are you being so goddamned agreeable all of a sudden?”
“Dad, you didn’t have to work that hard to get me to do another John Mayall album.”
He finally managed to put two and two together. “You were planning to do that album all along, weren’t you?”
“First thing on my to-do list when I came back!”
“So I really didn’t win, did I?”
“No, dad,” I said with a sigh. “I wish you’d just accept the fact that you belong to an inferior gender and that you’ll never, ever win.”
“Yes, please do,” added my mother.
Before I shower Eric Clapton with encomia, allow me to point out that there were a few other guys who had something to do with making Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton (BBEC from now on) one of the most enjoyable blues records around. The rhythm section of Hughie Flint and John McVie is rock-solid, handling the in-flight rhythm changes featured in several tracks with relative ease. Many of the rhythmic changes appeared in the original version of the cover songs, but here they help enhance a pattern of sonic diversity that characterizes the album, where each track serves as one tile in a multi-faceted mosaic of varying dynamics, tempos, instrumentation and recording approaches. Blues Breakers has far more diversity than the typical blues album, and if you ever get into an argument with someone who claims the blues is a highly limited form of music, this is the album you want to use to counter that argument. In the right hands, blues is a happy marriage of the familiar and the unexpected, and Blues Breakers reminds you of the innate flexibility and extensive possibilities of the genre.
Though Clapton has garnered well-deserved attention for his contributions, much of the credit for the album’s timeless listenability goes to the master of ceremonies, Mr. John Mayall. Doing his best imitation of Peter Sellers, Mayall played multiple roles—songwriter, arranger, organist, pianist, lead singer, harmonica player, second guitar, facilitator—and he was also the guy who thought it was a good idea to bring in a horn section on a few tracks to strengthen the links to Chicago blues. His unflagging enthusiasm for the music infuses the album with energy while setting a high bar for excellence in execution.
And speaking of excellence . . . BBEC was more than Eric Clapton’s coming out party. When you listen to the track that convinced Mayall, McVie and Flint that Clapton would be a good fit for the band (The Yardbirds’ “Got to Hurry”), you hear a highly competent, comparatively nimble lead guitarist who has obviously spent some time studying the work of the great blues guitarists—a solid performance but hardly game-changing. On BBEC, the power and clarity of his sound is shocking, especially when considered in the context of his times; the only comparison I can offer is the early solo work of Louis Armstrong with the Hot Fives, where the cornet sounds like full-on sunshine breaking up a dark, cloudy day. Just as jazz would never be the same after Armstrong, Clapton’s work here redefined and expanded the role of lead guitarist, leading to multiple generations of guitar heroes (and a whole lot of wannabes). The sound from that Les Paul plugged into a prototype Marshall on overdrive was stunning in itself, but even more importantly from a musical perspective was the quantum leap in Clapton’s phrasing skills—like the great lead singers, he frees himself from the tempo and plays to the feel of the song instead of always trying to be a good student and hit the right notes at the right time.
One note about the source recordings: the album was recorded during the time of transition from stereo to mono. The original album came out in mono; there was a stereo release in selected countries a few years later. I personally don’t think you get all that much from the stereo version, as Mike Vernon did a fabulous job producing the album, but they’re your ears, so go with what sounds best to you.
The Otis Rush piece “All Your Love” serves as a good warm-up number, delivered in a slower tempo than the Rush original and without the horn support that makes Otis’ version an incredibly sexy dance number. Without the horns and the more assertive drums of Rush rendition, it falls upon Clapton to shoulder the load, and he starts out with straight-up supporting fills in response to Mayall’s vocal. His moment in the sun is counter-intuitive—he gives his nimble left hand a rest and gives us a deliciously slow, lingering arpeggio in the luscious, thick tone made possible by the Les Paul-Marshall combination. The sound is so fascinating that Clapton actually slows down, falling behind the beat, savoring each and every note like he’s sampling a vintage Château Margaux, letting each sustain fully run its course until the full chord slide that heralds the ending of this magical moment. The band then shifts to double-time, where Clapton snaps out of his sonic reverie and lets it rip.
“All Your Love” is just the foreplay that leads to the orgasmic experience of “Hideaway,” the Freddie King number that inspired young Eric to take up the guitar. Both the original and the tribute are instrumental masterpieces designed to brighten your mood and get you to shake your fanny, legs and whatever else you’ve got. The essential difference between the two is in the attack—Freddie takes a more laid-back approach, leaving more room for the rhythm section to drive the song, whereas Clapton sees it as his opportunity to leave it all on the field. After years of intense practice and deep study of guitar and scales, and following the ultimately dissatisfying experience with The Yardbirds, Clapton finally found someone in John Mayall who was more than willing to give him the chance to release his incredible potential. On “Hideaway,” Mayall made sure that the rhythm section (Mayall on organ, McVie on bass, Flint on drums) provided a solid foundation while doing nothing to draw attention to themselves, rather like the foundation of the house that does its work with invisible efficiency. This is Clapton’s moment in the spotlight, and he fucking nails it.
The solo integrates the prominent patterns of the original, all presented with more oomph thanks to the Les Paul-Marshall sound. The first verse is pretty close to Freddie’s version, but Clapton’s greater dexterity is clearly audible in the additional notes contained within the runs and the quick full chord downslide that doesn’t appear in the original. At this point, I’ve already concluded that the teenage guitar players of my dad’s era who wanted to emulate Clapton after hearing “Hideaway” were the most hopelessly naïve human beings our species has ever produced: they simply didn’t have a fucking chance. In the second verse, Clapton follows Freddie’s lead and clips his notes; the difference is that Clapton not only varies his attack but produces a greater number of notes to clip. When we arrive at the “catchiest” phase of the song, Clapton plays the slower boogie-woogie variant riff with absolute precision, letting the fat sound carry the load. When we return to the verse structure, the two versions take different paths, with Freddie staying down low and Clapton letting it rip. On the next verse, Clapton plays tribute to the original by duplicating the partial chord attack but while Freddie disappears into the rhythmic support role, Clapton uses those bars to add a set of very tasty riffs. Mayall’s band executes the boogie-woogie stutter on the next segment with greater precision than Freddie’s combo, with Clapton backing off to reproduce the main theme. At this point, Freddie repeats the first verse pattern whereas Clapton launches an all out assault that leads to some of the sweetest high note bends on record, finishing up with yet another extraordinary rush high on the fretboard. I invariably want to scream when this piece ends because it’s so damned short (a little over three minutes) and like a great orgasm, I wish the experience would go on forever.
In the Mayall original “Little Girl” we hear some of the best band work on the album, spiced with a couple of in-transit duets that knock my socks off. The first is the opening duet featuring Mayall on organ and Clapton on lead where they match each other note for note before heading in separate supporting directions. The second comes at the start of Clapton’s solo, when John McVie steps out of the shadows and supports Clapton’s pizzicato attack with some of his own before both guys start flying all over their respective keyboards. McVie remains prominent for the rest of the song, and lo and behold, Hughie Flint slipped in some shimmering cymbal work while Mike Vernon wasn’t looking (Vernon had allegedly instructed Hughie to stick to the high hat). All things considered, “Little Girl” is probably the best ensemble number on the album.
Unfortunately, it’s also one of John Mayall’s most regrettable compositions. This is one of two rescue songs on the album, both written by Mayall, and both display to varying degrees the obtuseness of the unenlightened men of the era who never really got their heads around the immense socio-cultural impact of The Pill. “Little Girl” is the worst offender, and how you measure its offensiveness depends entirely on whether or not you insert or omit a comma between the words “love” and “child.”
I’m gonna give you a love, child, you won’t feel bad again
I’m gonna give you a love child, you won’t feel bad again
Since the magical effect of one fuck is unlikely to last a lifetime, the more plausible interpretation dispenses with the comma, because when you have a kid, well, it’s a lifetime kind of thing. Here are the full lyrics, sans comma:
You’re gonna be mine, little girl, you’ve been through 18 years of pain (2)
I’m gonna give you a love child, you won’t feel bad again
You’ve been mistreated, little girl, but I swear, I swear it’ll be outgrown (2)
I’m gonna give you a love child, something you’ve never known
You’re gonna be mine, little girl, even if I can’t have you by my side
You’re gonna remember the love child, that made you satisfied (2)
Wait . . . what? Let me try to get my head around this. You’re going to cure my PTSD—no doubt the result of a lifetime of male-initiated abuse—by knocking me up and then hitting the road? So, going through the physical trauma of childbirth and becoming a single mother with non-existent self-esteem and no source of income is supposed to make me feel better? Really? You really think that? Well, sonny, you better hit that fucking road right now because I’m about to kick your nuts so hard you’ll never make an appearance inside any woman’s pussy as long as your sorry ass inhabits this earth . . . which I hope won’t be for very long.
Even if you insert the comma, it really doesn’t change the interpretation much. Any man who thinks he’s such a stud that he can transform a woman’s future with a one good fuck is a narcissistic asshole who deserves a good whack in the balls as much as the love child guy. We have too many of those assholes in the gene pool already.
Mayall does much better when he changes the subject to the cherished Southern tradition of sending black men to jail on little more than a racist whim. “Another Man” is extreme Delta style—harmonica, vocal and hand clapping, no guitar. The song conjures up the image of a man crouching in the cotton fields sharing the latest news with his friend once the overseer is out of sight—“another man done gone . . . he’s on the county farm . . . I didn’t know his name” are all the words we need to put the story together, a tale of intimidation and oppression where your best chance of survival means knowing nothing and saying less. We’ll hear a second exploration of this theme on Side 2 with “Parchman’s Farm,” but this is a brilliant little piece by Mayall that earns him partial forgiveness for whatever the hell he was thinking when he wrote the words to “Little Girl.”
“Double Crossing Time” was allegedly written in response to Jack Bruce’s sudden flight to Manfred Mann. Rock star gossip aside, Mayall does an excellent job tinkling the ivories, with just the right amount of touch and sensitivity to the rhythmic flow. Clapton opts for a contrasting aggressive approach, bursting out of the background with a screaming solo featuring exceptionally long sustains. Mayall’s vocal mirrors Clapton’s anger, resulting in a solid and intense performance that probably helped them get over the Bruce fiasco pretty quickly.
Producer Mike Vernon really didn’t want Mayall to do “What’d I Say,” feeling that going up against Ray Charles was a losing proposition—and he really resisted the idea of a drum solo for Hughie Flint. Hughie wasn’t keen on the idea either, but Mayall argued that the song always elicited a positive response from a live audience. If that’s the case, they should have done a live recording, because this piece goes nowhere in the studio. Mayall is competent on the organ, and Hughie’s solo isn’t that bad, but it lacks the exciting spontaneity of the Ray Charles original.
Side 2 opens with a bright horn combo, the intro to our second rescue song, Mayall’s “Key to Love.” Unlike “Little Girl,” the guy isn’t itching to saddle a broad with a kid, but seems more like the hanger-on who thinks the babe will eventually change her mind and spread. My main quibble here is that the horns bury a brief Clapton solo, which contradicts the notion of Clapton as featured artist. Next up is a version of Mose Allison’s adaptation of Bukka White’s “Parchman’s Farm,” a euphemism for the Mississippi State Penitentiary. It’s actually John Mayall’s adaptation of Mose Allison’s adaptation, as Mayall chooses to drop the key closing line in Allison’s version where the convict admits he killed his wife and replace it with a repetition of the closing line of the first verse: “ain’t other done no man no harm.” I suppose that could imply “but I have done women harm,” but Mayall’s translation clearly calls out the injustice of the too-frequent occurrence of the innocent black man winding up in jail. Mayall’s musical interpretation is actually light-hearted, a speedy run through the spare tale featuring high-speed harmonica—and I love hearing John Mayall defy the physiological limits of human breathing as he attacks a harp.
The horns that open “Have You Heard” are absolutely first-rate, featuring a marvelous high-end tenor sax solo from Alan Skidmore that stretches the scale and threatens to go free-form from time to time. The horns shift to unison in Stax mode during the second verse, and unlike “Key to Love,” they balance out Clapton’s fills without drowning him out. When Clapton steps up for his solo, he is in full command of the instrument’s voicing, expressing all the pain and anguish of lost love with a combination of soul-ripping attack and high-end bends. This would compete with “Little Girl” for best ensemble piece on the album had the horns actually played with the rest of the band, but I will compliment Mayall and Vernon for some damned solid post-production work.
Eric Clapton’s debutante moment also featured his first lead vocal. Unfortunately for those who like their triumphs to arrive free of flaws and disappointments, Clapton chose to do Robert Johnson’s “Ramblin’ on My Mind,” a song requiring far more vocal talent than Clapton would ever develop. I appreciate his deep admiration of the King of the Delta Blues, but I wish he’d chosen a different way to express that admiration. Nobody does Robert Johnson like Robert Johnson.
Fortunately for the listener, Clapton steps away from the mike, grabs his Les Paul and leads the band through Memphis Slim’s “Steppin’ Out.” Here there can be no comparison to the original since Memphis Slim was a piano player, so Clapton has only the musical structure to guide him on his journey. He takes a spirited approach in contrast to the late-night naughty tone of the original, with a dazzling variety of bends, off-rhythm phrasing, licks within licks and complete command of the blues scale. Of the two songs on the album mentioned by my dad as practice pieces for budding guitarists, I think “Steppin’ Out” is the more useful lesson because of its relative faithfulness to the blues scale. Master the opening riffs and you’ve learned half of two blues scales (C and G) in one sitting! And guess what? If you keep moving your fingers up or down a fret and play the same notes, you have the essence of all the major blues scales! Amazing! It would be a really good idea if you took the time to master all the scales in their entirety and ponder how the structure of the scale gives a song a certain feel, but if you just learn the two scales on the intro, I guarantee that you won’t embarrass yourself the next time you jam with the gang and someone shouts “Blues in C!” And with lots and lots of practice, you may be able to duplicate Eric Clapton’s agility and broad understanding of music just about the time old-age arthritis sets in. Good luck!
I don’t know if it’s true that no blues album would be complete without a least one Little Walter number, but I’d be fine with that criterion. “It Ain’t Right” was a high-speed rocking blues Little Walter put together when his Chess mate Bo Diddley was making a name for himself in rock ‘n’ roll circles, and the Mayall version is pretty faithful to the original. The guitar on both versions is a frantic, barreling boogie riff that requires tremendous discipline, fast fingers and intuitive knowledge of the fretboard—a difficult proposition indeed. Clapton, of course, nails it with ease, committing himself fully to the supporting role. Mayall has a great time trying to emulate one of his harp heroes, and manages to get pretty damned close to a very high bar.
Wow! This was fun! BBEC is certainly an uplifting experience, an album of good vibes, great energy and best-in-class musicianship. John Mayall is all about the music, and I always approach a Mayall album with a positive orientation because I know he’s going to give it all he’s got and bring in musicians willing to do the same. And though I abhor the whole Clapton-is-God thing as much as he does, his performance on BBEC changed musical history, so the adulation is somewhat understandable . . . but I think the story is much more meaningful if we attribute the result to the hard work and absolute dedication of a living, breathing human being.
Over the years, my music collection has grown into a completely unmanageable mess, especially since I started the blog. Those of you who regularly read my stuff know that I listen to each album three times without distraction, then listen to it again as I write. What you don’t know is when I review an album not in my collection, I usually don’t just buy the record I’m going to review—I also buy the surrounding albums in the artist’s timeline. For example, in preparation for my upcoming review of Blondie’s third album, Parallel Lines, I also bought their first, second, fourth and fifth. I like to know where an artist has been and where they’re going, and I feel like I’m cheating the reading audience if I don’t understand the developmental context of a particular piece of music.
And because my life is quite full without the blog and because I travel through six time zones to earn my daily bread, life is sort of a happy blur for me. I hate sitting on my ass doing nothing, and even if you were to see me sitting on my ass apparently doing nothing, my mind is going a mile a minute with plans, possibilities, musical construction and plenty of sexual fantasy. Stimulation is a permanent state of affairs for me.
While I do like the constant action, it does have its downsides. I forget where I put things. When I lived in the States, I had to file an extension every year because I’d never get around to paying my taxes. I give really bad directions because the part of my brain that processes geography stopped working after years of complete neglect. I just go, and figure it out on the way. And sometimes I buy things that I already have—duplicate sweaters and skirts, duplicate glassware, and oodles of duplicate music.
All of these influences converge right here, with The Best of John Lee Hooker. I have no fucking idea how this particular John Lee Hooker record wound up in my collection. According to Discogs, this particular version of The Best of John Lee Hooker (there are several) was released in Australia and New Zealand in 1993. I’ve never visited either country and don’t know anyone who lives there. It appears to be a later release of a version released in the U. S. in 1974, but I wasn’t alive then and that version was unavailable until recently (it’s now a pretty expensive piece of music history).
Worse still, when I started my annual blues jag and browsed through my collection, I found no less than four John Lee Hooker compilations in the vault, with many of the same versions of the same songs. It’s entirely possible that I saw those records in a store, felt my diddle twiddle and rushed to the checkout stand without considering the possibility that I already owned the music.
Oh, well. I never wanted to be rich anyway. Better to piss it away on music than a Maserati.
I chose this collection for three reasons. One, the sound is fantastic. Two, it’s a solid representation of his work spanning three decades with few significant omissions. Three, this collection opens with John Lee’s opening remarks for a gig he played with Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry. Some of his words are elusive, but the essence of his message is a timeless statement of artistic purpose:
It’s a big wide world. You can roam a long ways. I’m so glad that we are here . . . You know we have come a long ways . . . we all are entertainers . . . trying to reach you . . . to bring you the message of the blues.
There are few bluesmen as qualified as John Lee Hooker to bring the message of the blues to a modern audience. He is a superb storyteller, making it easy for the listener to visualize a moment, share his joy or empathize with his pain. While the departure point for most of his songs is the standard blues progression, he nearly always wanders from the model—sometimes by dropping the fifth entirely or by replacing it with an unusual chord created by using standard positioning in open tuning. To the endless frustration of those who had the honor to play with him, he would unexpectedly drop or add measures according to how he was feeling it, giving his music an unusual immediacy. John Lee also combined lessons from his bluesman stepfather with open tuning to create a drone effect that gives his sound a different flavor than classic Delta blues and its offsprings. Like Muddy Waters, his music bridges the acoustic-electric/Delta-Chicago shift of the post-war era.
And the boy knew how to boogie-woogie—it was in him and it got to come out!
However, not all is sweetness and light when it comes to John Lee Hooker, particularly when it comes to his attitude towards women. While he’s hardly alone among bluesmen in voicing his ever-throbbing machismo, he is unusual in his directness and in the specific requirements he imposed on broads who wanted to bang him. I have no problem with the directness, but I do have to hold him accountable for some of his more outrageous sexist meanderings and, from my perspective as a dominant female, take him to task for what I feel are ineffective domination techniques more likely to backfire than set the bedroom on fire.
One final note: like Thelonious Monk, John Lee Hooker recorded many of his great songs several times over the years. Most of the tracks in this collection are from his Vee-Jay years, a mix of new recordings and new takes on earlier work. The years you see in parentheses are the year of the first-known recording (according to Discogs), which may or may not be the year the version in this compilation was recorded. When it matters, I’ll point it out—but we have more important things to do.
Like getting down to boogie!
“Dimples” (1956): “Dimples” is a timeless ode to female magic featuring an irresistible swing that Ted Gioia described as something that “sounds like a twelve-bar blues with a few beats amputated.” This early Vee-Jay recording utilized Jimmy Reed’s backing band, and in spots you can hear the band’s hesitation as they struggle to follow John Lee’s unexpected truncation of measures. It hardly matters, because what drives this song is John Lee’s testosterone, and a great male lover always shifts his rhythms based on how he’s feeling it and how she’s responding. “Dimples” is as hot as fuck, whatever your gender. For the ladies, it’s the ultimate sashay song, encouraging you to thrust those hips and shimmy those shoulders. For the gentlemen . . . well, it’s no surprise that the McCann Erickson agency used the instrumental passage from “Dimples” to advertise Viagra. “You’ve reached the age when giving up isn’t who you are, this is the age of knowing how to make things happen. So why let erectile dysfunction get in the way? Talk to your doctor about Viagra—20 million men already have.”
Ask your doctor if your heart is healthy enough for sex. Do not take Viagra if you take nitrates for chest pain—it may cause an unsafe drop in blood pressure. Side effects include headache, flushing, upset stomach and abnormal vision. To avoid long-term injury, seek immediate medical help for an erection lasting more than four hours. Stop taking Viagra and call your doctor right away if you experience a sudden decrease or loss in vision or hearing.
Men will do almost anything to keep their plumbing in working order, even dangerous drugs. Takeaway for the ladies: before sex, ask your prospective stud if he takes any performance-enhancing supplements, and if he answers in the affirmative, respond with “I’ll take the top position.” If he’s going to croak during the act, this gives you an easy exit strategy while leaving the crime scene relatively pristine.
“Hobo Blues” (1949): John Lee ran away from home at the age of fourteen, escaping the dead-end of Mississippi for the music magnet called Memphis. Although he didn’t know it at the time, the escape triggered an itinerant phase in his life that would last several years. The man knew all about “hoboin’,” but unlike others who have sung of the trials and tribulations of life on the road, here John Lee sings about the more crucial moment when his mother followed him down to the train yard and watched her son climb into a boxcar. The music is both rhythmic and mournful, a one-chord acoustic guitar drone punctuated with steady handclaps and nimble fills that enhance the emotional content of voice and lyrics. The closing passage, where he describes his mother crying, “Take care of my child!” is deeply moving, the picture of the moment intensified by the repetition of the line as the song fades into darkness. Unlike Edith Piaf, John Lee Hooker faced his regrets, and we’ll see this tendency in other songs in the collection. It’s one of the personality traits of John Lee I admire most—the willingness to look back on those moments in life when we chose one path over another, and learning to accept the fact that tough choices almost always involve hurting someone else, hurting ourselves, or both. Those choices are the essence of the human experience.
“Boogie Chillen” (1948): This is definitely NOT the original. This seems to be the Vee-Jay version from 1959, but he recorded and re-recorded this song so many times it’s hard to know which version is which. It hardly matters—“Boogie Chillen” (or “Boogie Chillun)” is one of the great blues songs of all time, combining an irresistible guitar hook with John Lee’s spontaneous approach to rhythm and his remarkable ability to make a story come alive.
The 1948 version definitely sounds like a younger man who knows he has a hit on his hands—the bubbly confidence in his voice comes through loud and clear. And he was right—this sucker was a monster hit, shooting up to #1 on the “Race Records” (oh, for fuck’s sake) chart and selling around one million copies. The radio audience of the time was so taken with this song that WLAC of Nashville played it ten times in a row one night. John Lee commented, “The thing caught afire. It was ringin’ all around the country. When it come out, every juke box you went to, every place you went to . . . they were playing it there.” The song was successful enough to allow John Lee to pursue a full-time music career and abandon his job as a janitor in a manufacturing plant.
I still can’t get my head around that—one of America’s greatest musicians having to earn a living in one of the lowest-status jobs on the planet—the guy who has to clean up everyone else’s shit. John Lee doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who would have gone back to the factory in his brand new Lincoln Continental and told the foreman to fuck off, but I hope there was some psychic payback somewhere along the way.
The version on this collection is more commanding—by this time, John Lee knew the song inside and out, so his vocal and guitar are more disciplined and intentional. The crucial component of the song is the last verse, when his father realizes John Lee’s purpose in life. John Lee nails it in both versions:
One night I was layin’ down
I heard mama and papa talkin’
I heard papa tell mama, “Let that boy boogie-woogie
It’s in him and it got to come out.”
Well I felt so good
And I went on boogey-woogeyin’ just the same
I think what drew people to this song more than anything else is the mesmerizing guitar figure that dominates the song. Guitar World published a superb analysis in Andy Aledort’s article In Deep With Blues Masters John Lee Hooker and Lightnin’ Hopkins, with charts and tabs for those in the audience who’d like to give it a shot. I’m forever fascinated by contra-rhythmic passages, and “Boogie Chillen” has a great one, described by Aledort as follows: “Though written in 4/4, this figure is played with a triplet, or swing-eighths, feel, which means that notes indicated as pairs of eighth notes are actually sounded as a quarter note followed by an eighth note within a triplet bracket.”
But the thing about the blues is you can’t sit down at the piano like Mozart and scratch out notes and tempo with a quill pen. It’s all in the feel, and the great bluesmen like John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson loved messing with our conventional notions of time and space.
“Little Wheel” (1957): “Little Wheel” is John Lee Hooker’s interpretation of a song that has gone through oodles of permutations; the one that listeners know best is “Matchbox,” as popularized by Carl Perkins and The Beatles. Instead of the big dog/little dog dynamic, we have the big wheel/little wheel metaphor, with the big wheel serving as the broad’s main squeeze and the little wheel happy to make her twat tingle when the big wheel is unavailable. The band does seem to have a problem following John Lee’s chord changes, moving to the fourth when he’s stubbornly hanging on to the first. What carries this number is the stop-time interruption in the middle and John Lee’s absolute confidence in his ability to “do more rollin’ than your big wheel ever done.” This was a man who loved being a man.
“Process” (1961): This is one of several cuts from John Lee’s great Vee Jay album Burnin’ that found their way to this collection. “Process” is a strong, slightly slow-tempo Chicago blues with a fabulous droning sax, solid bass from an uncredited James Jameson and some of John Lee’s best solo licks. From a musical perspective, “Process” is one of the strongest tracks on the album and is frequently featured in my fuck playlists when I anticipate a night of slow grind. Sadly, the lyrics indicate that John Lee and I would have never made it as a couple, given his disdain for women who think too much and lack sufficient cash flow. If I could go back in time, I’d tell him right to his face that intelligence enhances eroticism and I’M BROKE BECAUSE I SPENT ALL MY FUCKING MONEY BUYING JOHN LEE HOOKER RECORDS!
“Blues Before Sunrise” (1961): The second regret song in this collection (also from Burnin’) is my favorite John Lee Hooker song of them all. In “Blues Before Sunrise,” John Lee immerses himself in that dreadful moment when after a fitful sleep you wake up and remember that your long-term partner has ended the relationship, leaving you all alone in the world with nothing but a continuous replay loop of self-recrimination and self-justification. The utter sincerity of the performance is demonstrated in John Lee’s refusal to limit himself to verse structure to express himself—his lines spill over the edges, running into the following verses. The poetic meter follows no fixed pattern, making the monosyllabic tetrameter of “Lord knows I tried” extraordinarily powerful, especially given the metrically broken lines that follow:
My wife had left me
Left me for another man
For seven long years
Lord knows I tried
Everything I could
To get along with my wife
Oh, blues before sunrise
Tears standing in my eyes
A horrible feeling, boys, that I do despise
By the last verse he is reduced to repeating the themes of failed effort and loss, admitting he “tried too hard” to make things work. With strong support from the studio band (especially Benny Benjamin on drums and Joe Hunter on piano), “Blues Before Sunrise” is an absolute classic.
“Let’s Make It” (1961): I’ve frequently mentioned my disdain for sexual euphemisms, and though I really wish John Lee had replaced the phrase “make it” with “fuck,” I’m pretty happy with his direct approach in this piece:
Let’s make it, let’s make it, baby
Let’s make it, oh, right now, oh, yeah
Let’s make it, oh, baby, me and you
I don’t care what the world may say
Let’s make it, let’s make it
The directness is intensified through the complete lack of chord changes—one chord, one simple concept—what more do you need? Get the fuck on with the fucking! Towards the end, it looks like the object of the invitation wanted to talk things over before jumping into the sack, but John Lee nips that shit in the bud (“We ain’t sayin’ nothin’, we ain’t sayin’ a thing”). That’s good dominance—keeping your partner focused on the only thing that matters: poontang!
“No Shoes”(1960): “I know why the best blues artists come from Mississippi. Because it’s the worst state. You have the blues all right if you’re down in Mississippi.” So said John Lee Hooker in Ted Gioia’s book Delta Blues. And this ain’t past history—it’s now. This morning I read a summary of a U. N. report indicating that extreme poverty is on the rise in the United States, and the U. N. Team didn’t even visit Mississippi, which ranks last or close to last in nearly every measure of the human condition. I visited the Delta about ten years ago and some of the poverty I saw there was worse than anything I’ve seen in Africa.
When America was a future-oriented, progressive country, they used to say, “If you want to know where America is heading, look to California.” As long as Trump and the GOP have their way, the future of America looks a lot more like Mississippi. It’s incredible that the richest country on the planet has a government that prioritizes making “No Shoes” the future anthem of America’s underclasses.
Dominated by a guitar riff that expresses both anguish and puzzlement, John Lee amplifies the tragic nature of the situation through a vocal that sounds like an embarrassed cry for help:
No food on my table
And no shoes to go on my feet
No food on my table
And no shoes to go on my feet
My children cry for mercy
They got no place to call their own
Homeless and hungry, suffering hard times that “seem like a jealous thing” in terms of sheer relentlessness, we leave the scene with the “children crying for bread.” The reaction to this song should be deep shame and immediate action, but in the land of the free, people are free to starve because it’s their own damn fault if they weren’t born white and they should just shut up, accept god’s will and pray to Jesus to forgive them for their poverty.
“Drug Store Woman” (1961): One of the great things about America before white flight from the cities created the atrocity known as the suburban shopping mall was the local drugstore. It seems like there was a scene in every American movie from the 1930’s to the early 60’s where one of the characters had to stop at the drugstore. The drugstore had everything! Cigarettes! Coffee! Chocolate malts! Grilled cheese sandwiches! Candy for the kids! Nylons! Lipstick! Perfume! And there was a real phone both with a seat and a door so you get the latest report from your private detective, then go to the pharmacy counter in the back, buy arsenic from the man in the white coat and get rid of your cheating husband! What a great place!
Sadly, John Lee does not approve of one core component of the drugstore: the extensive beauty section where a girl can try and buy the latest beauty aids from Revlon, Max Factor and Maybelline. In this single-chord monologue addressed to the “fellas,” John Lee disapproves of the merchandise and the women who shop there, buying lipstick, powder and nylons.
Huh? Why wouldn’t you want your woman to look her best and feel good about herself? A woman who feels beautiful fucks beautifully! What the hell DO you want, Johnny?
I want the kind of woman that stay home every day
Be home when I get there
My meal’s on time—-everything on time
She meet me at the door, she says, “Johnny, are you tired?”
I say, “Yeah.”
My supper’s ready
My bathwater is ready
Everything is ready
Let me leave a note on the fridge: Johnny, your Hungry Man meal is in the icebox. If you don’t want it, shove it up your ass.
“Boom Boom” (1962): Though I bemoan the imagery that links guns to penises, “Boom Boom” fucking rocks, featuring one of the best backing band performances of John Lee’s Vee-Jay years. The stop-time pauses after each line help energize and focus the band, and every time they hit their spots they seem to ramp up the energy a little higher. John Lee’s vocal combines clear intent and extraordinary reserve, expressing the inner heat you feel when your eyes have landed on the ultimate object of your desire.
The origins of the song are fascinating, as described in this snippet from Songfacts:
I used to play at this place called the Apex Bar in Detroit. There was a young lady there named Luilla. She was a bartender there. I would come in there at night and I’d never be on time. Every night the band would beat me there. Sometimes they’d be on the bandstand playing by the time I got there. I’d always be late and whenever I’d come in she’d point at me and say, ‘Boom Boom, you’re late again.’ And she kept saying that. It dawned on me that that was a good name for a song. Then one night she said, ‘Boom boom, I’m gonna shoot you down.’ She gave me a song but she didn’t know it.
I took that thing and I hummed it all the way home from the bar. At night I went to bed and I was still thinking of it. I got up the next day and put one and one together, two and two together, trying to piece it out – taking things out, putting things in. I finally got it down right, got it together, got it down in my head. Then I went and sang it, and everybody went, Wow! Then I didn’t do it no more, not in the bar. I figured somebody would grab it before I got it copyrighted. So I sent it to Washington, D.C., the Library of Congress, and I got it copyrighted. After I got it copyrighted I could do it in the bar. So then if anybody got the idea to do it I had them by the neck, because I had it copyrighted. About two months later I recorded it. I was on Vee-Jay then. And the record shot straight to the top. Then, after I did it, the Animals turned around and did it. That barmaid felt pretty good. She went around telling everybody I got John Lee to write that song. I gave her some bread for it, too, so she was pretty happy.
As far as The Animals’ version is concerned . . . well . . . here’s my write-up from my review of The Animals Retrospective:
Look, when John Lee Hooker sings, “I’m gonna shoot you right down” to his woman, he fucking means it, whether the shooting is a euphemism for getting a sassy bitch off her high horse, a fluid he would like to eject from his hardened member, or a small metal object expelled from the barrel of a .44. Eric Burdon doesn’t mean it, because he didn’t have the life experience to give those words the layers of meaning in the original. Once again, he overdoes the vocal. John Lee’s is one of quiet, cocky confidence: he knows that bitch is goin’ down.
“I’m in the Mood” (1951): John Lee simply had to write this song, because it seems like he’s always in the mood. This is a seriously hot blues with the resonance from the hollow body electric guitars coming through loud and clear. The original (this isn’t it) sold over a million copies, making it one of the biggest selling blues singles in history. No surprise there—most of us get horny at least once a day, so eventually song will sync with mood if you’ve got the radio on all day. What I love about John Lee’s performance is that there’s no messin’ about—he’s in the mood, he wants to sing about it, and as soon as this recording his over, he’s going to do something about it.
“Maudie” (1959): I’ve never figured out why John Mayall and The Animals bothered to cover this song, as it goes absolutely nowhere. The storyline: “I love Maudie. She left me. I’m hurt.” We never find out a thing about Maudie—nothing about what she looks like, how she talks, how she shimmies or even if she shimmies. Not one of John Lee’s better efforts, but stay tuned—we do learn a bit more about Maude Mathis, John Lee’s first wife, in the closing track.
“Crawlin’ Kingsnake” (1949): I fully understand why this ancient Delta blues number has been covered by everyone from The Doors to George Thorogood to Buddy Guy—it integrates a powerful phallic symbol with a clear statement of the male right to take multiple mates while keeping the little woman safely locked up at home and telling her to mind her own fucking business. John Lee’s performance is a near-perfect expression of man-on-the-prowl, a feeling amplified by quiet passages where the guitar almost disappears and all we hear is John Lee’s deep-throated whisper, dripping with testosterone. I can put aside the laughable argument of male superiority and the tendency to overrate the importance of the penis and appreciate what is really one of the great blues vocals ever. Of all the versions out there, John Lee’s is the gold standard.
But if I want a version I can sing along to, I’ll put on Etta James’ version on her album Blues to the Bone. Singing the song from a woman’s perspective, she properly recalibrates the meaning of “snake in the grass,” calls bullshit on the whole operation and makes this pompous ass of a kingsnake shrivel to the size of a baby earthworm.
“Tupelo” (1959): Another reason Mississippi sucks: the place floods with cruel regularity. Memphis Minnie and hubby Kansas Joe sang about The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 in “When the Levee Breaks,” a human-scale re-telling of the most destructive river flood in United States history. Although Songfacts claims that John Lee wrote this song about a Tupelo flood that took place “twenty years before,” I can find no evidence of such a flood occurring in 1939. Tupelo was hit by a massive string of tornadoes in 1936 that killed over two hundred people, but there’s no reference to tornadoes in the song.
Therefore, we can assume that this is another tale about The Great Mississippi Flood, and I’m good with that. Listening to John Lee makes me feel like a kid sitting on a rickety porch on a warm night in the Delta listening to the old folks tell the old stories you love to hear—a feeling intensified here because it’s a live recording. The tale is liberally spiced with complementary guitar riffs and held together by a calm, steady beat. My favorite turn of phrase (atheist that I am) is, “There were women and there were children, screaming and crying, ‘Lord have mercy, in the great disaster, who can we turn to but you?'” Assistance from the federal government at the time was extremely limited, and as is always the case, the needs of white property owners came first. The key takeaway here is that the black people of the Delta remembered the flood as an unforgettable display of the awesome power of nature, and another indignity in a long line of indignities heaped upon people whose skin is unacceptably dark.
“Whiskey & Wimmen” (1960): I have no problem with men seeking solace in booze and broads after another boring day on the job. My problem is men who a.) get drunk, stupid and unfuckable and b.) men who don’t back the fuck off when I tell them I’m not interested. And it really pisses me off when guys blame booze and broads for wrecking their lives as John Lee does here in such an inaccurate and incomplete manner. It wasn’t the booze—it was your inability to moderate your booze intake! It wasn’t the women—if you thought the way to a woman’s pussy was by throwing your hard-earned dollars around like confetti, you’re a fucking moron! Stop blaming women for inherently male limitations!
“Whiskey and Wimmen” has a definite honky-tonk feel with its boogie-woogie riff, so I don’t pick up the needle when it comes on, but it’s sort of a nowhere song unless you’re in denial and peaking on a testosterone high.
“I’m Going Upstairs” (1961): I love the basic riff here—it was so good it was ripped off by Canned Heat in “On the Road Again,” but since John Lee and Canned Heat hooked up later for the double album Hooker ‘n’ Heat, I guess that imitation-flattery thing pays off! Despite the snappy, upbeat rhythm, this is a story of a guy whose mother is dead and gone, his father doesn’t want him around and his girlfriend has found a younger stud. The Depression Trifecta! The disconnection between music and story is too great for this to rank as one of his best songs . . . but I do love that riff.
“Want-Ad Blues” (1961): Except for the howl following the line, “But when it comes to lovin’, I’m a lovin’ little fool,” this piece really doesn’t work for me due to the inconsistency with “Let’s Make It.” Here John Lee meets a promising squeeze he found in the want-ads but when it comes time to go to the bedroom, she wants to . . . talk. John Lee enthusiastically responds, “All right!” This can’t be the same guy who refused to take that talking shit in “Let’s Make It,” and given the extreme Cold War tensions that dominated 1961, I’m claiming that this is not John Lee Hooker singing but a Soviet agent sent to discourage Americans from engaging in the reproductive act.
“Five Long Years” (1960): Most of the songs in the collection were written by John Lee, either alone or with his most frequent collaborators, Bernard Besman or Vee-Jay Records exec James Bracken. “Five Long Years” is a cover of the Eddie Boyd original, which is frigging outstanding. Eddie was a great blues pianist with a smooth mid-range voice who had an excellent command of vocal dynamics. In his version of “Five Long Years,” the blues he’s feeling over getting dumped by the wife after having worked his ass off for five years while faithfully bringing home his paycheck every week is masterfully communicated through varying dynamics and a tone of “Man, did this broad play me for a sap, or what?” The underlying absurdity of the situation is emphasized by a seriously growling sax and barroom atmosphere, which adds to the song’s Everyman flavor. You leave the song rooting for Eddie, hoping he’ll make good on his commitment to never let it happen again.
John Lee takes a completely different approach. His version is as still as a dark night, featuring only voice, guitar and a light beat, transforming the song into one of personal reflection as opposed to outreach for sympathy. His voice is generally subdued, as if in shock. The extended guitar fills are marvelously varied, the sounds of a man trying to translate powerful but still confusing feelings into some form of human communication. You leave John Lee’s version in a state of devastation, feeling deep empathy for a broken man who did all he could but still lost out.
“My First Wife Left Me” (196o): Our final regret song is the deeply personal “My First Wife Left Me,” John Lee’s reflections on losing Maude Mathis. Applying the same spare arrangement he used on “Five Long Years,” John Lee engages in an extended confessional, calling into question all his kingsnake tendencies and wishing that he would have tempered the insatiable male urge to prove one’s masculinity by balling other women:
I had a good wife, but I did not treat her right
It’s my fault–only have myself to blame
It’s my fault, it’s my fault, boys–I only have myself to blame
She would have been home right now if I hadn’t wanted every woman that I seen
I found out one thing: these women don’t mean you no good
I found out one thing, people: these women don’t mean you no good
You mistreated a good girl for some woman–that she’d turn around and turn her back on you
I love it when he speaks directly to the “boys,” the “fellas” he addressed in the sexist rant in “Drug Store Woman.” It’s fucking hard for men to let down their guard and show vulnerability, but most men have told me it’s ten times harder with the guys due to the unwritten codes of male bonding behavior. I also love this song’s placement at the end of the collection, as it demonstrates another aspect of the human experience—we all make errors of judgment, but we all have the capacity to learn, and goddamn, learning is one mean bitch.
Even though I sometimes resist some of John Lee Hooker’s messages, I have to give the guy credit for his honesty, a quality shared by all the truly great blues artists. The blues is the safe space where a person can share their innermost thoughts and feelings, no matter how ugly, no matter how socially unacceptable. Only in the blues could Robert Johnson have expressed a desire such as “I’m goin’ to beat my woman ’til I get satisfied.” While the term “politically correct” has the positive connotation of attempting to communicate in a way that shows respect for other human beings, political correctness can be easily transformed into a form of repression, and repression only ensures that when the feelings do come out—as they must—they will come out in the form of poisonous resentment.
John Lee Hooker let it all come out, and that’s the real message of the blues. It got to come out, people!