John Lee Hooker Buyer's Guide

John Lee Hooker playing guitar
John Lee Hooker
(Image: © Getty)

Less ‘primitive’ than downright primal, much of his music, with its seeming disregard for conventional song structure, sounded ‘older’ than blues recorded a quarter-century earlier. His guitar combined tough riffing and eerie, exotic modalisms; his deep, rich voice was incantatory and shamanic, and the unmistakable combination downright hypnotic.

His extraordinary late-blooming success followed almost two decades in the commercial wilderness: despite his 50s and 60s triumphs, he didn’t have a recording contract for most of the 70s and 80s. He more than made up for it, ending his life as archetypal bluesman, lionised as an iconic cultural treasure with a shelf full of Grammys, a bulging bank account and a planetful of devoted fans.

ESSENTIAL

The perfect introduction

Exhaustive four-CD overview of The Boogie Man’s oeuvre.

This exhaustive set also includes some raucous mid-60s Chess sessions and an epic live Jesse James (aka I’m Mad Again) cut with Muddy Waters’ band – including Muddy himself – playing in support, plus a tantalisingly brief excerpt from that brilliant Canned Heat collaboration. Its all-encompassing reach even extends as far as Hooker’s ‘superstar collaboration era’ launched with 1989’s The Healer.

If you want the same ground covered in more affordable bites, there’s also Rhino’s two-CD The Ultimate Collection 1948-1990 and PointBlank’s The Best Of Friends (which picks up where the Rhino set leaves off) but, despite a few startling omissions, this deluxe box set provides a better-than-decent map of the territory from which any number of further explorations into Hooker’s world can be launched, a prime filleting of a lifetime’s work.

The background behind him may change, but Hooker is always Hooker: simultaneously straightforwardly simple, and irreducibly mysterious and complex.

SUPERIOR

The releases that built his reputation

All the cuts from Hooker’s first stint with the legendary label.

Hooker hooks up with hippies for this scorching double set.

All-star collaboration between Hooker, Miles Davis and Taj Mahal delivers wonderful soundtrack to appalling movie.

GOOD

Worth a look

John Lee Hooker: the Boogie Man

John Lee Hooker: the Boogie Man
(Image: © Getty)

That’s My Story/The Folk Blues Of John Lee Hooker (Ace)

AVOID

Like the plague

Despite free chicken and beer, still feels like a rip-off.

John Lee Hooker and Joe Cocker backstage at Madison Square Garden, New York

John Lee Hooker and Joe Cocker backstage at Madison Square Garden, New York
(Image: © Getty)