Whiskey & Wimmen: John Lee Hooker’s Finest

New collection celebrates his 100th birthday

In an era overrun by tweets, texts and other fake connections, we need John Lee Hooker more than ever before.  We all crave something real, and there is nothing more real than John Lee Hooker.  Vee Jay/Concord-Bicycle Music has just released Whiskey & Whimmen, a 16-track collection that brings together many of the influential bluesman’s most important recordings.

To call Hooker “one of a kind” is sort of stating the obvious.  His music rarely conformed to the basic 4/4 conventions, his lyrics often didn’t rhyme, and his voice, an un-trained force of nature, came straight out of the Mississippi Delta.  Because of Concord’s varied connections, this disc pulls songs from several labels, the oldest being the sparse, acoustic groove of “No More Doggin,” originally cut for the Specialty label in 1954.  

During his late 50’s/early 60’s heyday, Hooker recorded primarily for the Chicago independent Vee Jay company. For his debut for that label, the raw blues of “Time is Marching,” he’s joined by Jimmy Reed on harmonica and Eddie Taylor on second guitar.  “Dimples” proved that with a little polish, Hooker’s music could definitely be danceable.  “Boom Boom” was Hooker’s most successful single, even cracking the pop charts, and getting covered by several British rock bands (including both the Yardbirds and the Animals).

Vee Jay also had Hooker recut several of his earliest recordings in a stripped-down form.  “Boogie Chillun,” “I’m in the Mood” and “Crawling King Snake” are spine-tingling good, featuring just Hooker on vocals, guitar and stomping foot percussion.  Honestly, these are barely discernible from the originals, cut for smaller labels a few years earlier.

In addition to choice Vee Jay cuts, the set also grabs “I Need Some Money” (a retooling of Barrett Strong’s Motown hit “Money”) that Hooker cut for the Riverside label, and the sexually charged “Grinder Man,” which Stax ended up issuing in 1969.  One of the strangest tracks is “Frisco Blues,” an answer to Tony Bennett’s “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” which features odd backing from Martha & the Vandellas.

The truly great thing about this collection is that it’s relatively short – only 16 tracks.  It doesn’t attempt to completely tell Hooker’s story (you’d need a whole lot more room to do that), but what it does do is whet your appetite for more.  Whiskey & Wimmen is a fantastic doorway into the otherworldly, yet very real music of John Lee Hooker.  —Tony Peters