John Lee Hooker (1917-2001) may have been one of the most accessible bluesmen to the rock audience. Born in Clarksdale, Mississippi, and based for much of his life in Detroit before relocating to Los Angeles, he created a style exemplified by “Boogie Chillen,” a 1948 recording with a steady-rolling guitar rhythm that the world has come to know as the “boogie.” Even though that session was recorded solo with just Hooker and his electric guitar, if you add a full band to that sound, the result comes dead close to rock ‘n’ roll.
Hooker knew this, and had several different surges of popularity with the rock crowd. The first was in 1962, when “Boom Boom” became a minor hit on Top 40 stations, reaching No. 60 on the Billboard pop charts. The second was during the blues revival of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, through a series of albums on the ABC label (plus the seminal “Hooker ‘N Heat” long-player, a collaboration with the band Canned Heat). The third time was with his 1989 album “The Healer,” which features guest appearances from Canned Heat, Carlos Santana, Bonnie Raitt, Charlie Musselwhite and Los Lobos.
These videos from the Montreux Jazz Festival portray Hooker at two different periods of his career. The 1983 show captures him between phases. The 1990 set shows him as a latter-day Grammy winner, easing into his twilight years as a blues elder statesman.
At the time of the earlier video, blues was starting to make a resurgence of its own, with younger acts like the Fabulous Thunderbirds — as well as older artists like Lonnie Brooks and Albert Collins — on the scene. John Lee Hooker was around to capitalize. He was featured in “The Blues Brothers,” the blockbuster 1980 movie starring John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd. (Hooker even mentions the film when introducing the enduring “Boom Boom.”) And while he hadn’t released a new LP in four years, he was still a huge draw on the blues circuit.
For a man who spends a good portion of this set sitting in a chair, Hooker exudes remarkable stage presence. He starts with the brooding “It Serves You Right to Suffer,” as if staking out his territory before hitting a higher gear. The performance has a lot more variety than you might think; Hooker didn’t do a lot of cover versions on record, with most of his songs either being originals or “adapted” from the public domain. But in this show he puts his stamp on “I Didn’t Know” (by Howlin’ Wolf), “Hi-Heel Sneakers” (Tommy Tucker) and “Worried Life Blues” (Big Maceo Merriweather).
It’s a free-for-all with the boogie in full effect.
Though he had no new product in stores, one song performed here, “Jealous,” would wind up being the title track of his next album in 1986. Another one of his slow blues songs drops random lines from two Bobby Bland numbers — “Rockin’ in the Same Old Boat” and “I’ll Take Care of You.” The crowd goes crazy during the marathon boogie jam at the end, with guest turns from guitarist Luther Allison and harmonica player Sugar Blue. Hooker relinquishes his guitar to duck walk across the stage. It’s a free-for-all with the boogie in full effect.
By the time of the 1990 performance, Hooker’s status had been raised yet again. During the intervening years, he returned to recording and released two albums, “Jealous” and “The Healer,” with the latter making it to No. 62 on the Billboard album charts and winning a Grammy for Traditional Blues Recording. At the show, organist Deacon Jones anoints the “boogie king” with a new title: “The Healer of All the World.”
While the ‘83 crowd is lively enough, “The Healer” likely contributed to an even more energetic atmosphere at the ‘90 set. Now into his 70s, Hooker no longer strolls on stage brandishing whiskey. The number of slower songs increases, and he interacts more with the audience. There’s a sax player named “Dr. Funkenstein” who gets significant solo space, and the only guest spot is from the late Vala Cupp, a blues singer who often opened Hooker’s shows. Though a low-key vibe prevails, Hooker revels in his new role as one of the last genuine bluesmen left standing (or sitting).
Both of these videos, taken together, add up to a rocking good time. Hooker is sometimes viewed by detractors as a one-trick pony with his endless boogies, but these concerts demonstrate that Hooker could mix it up when he wanted to, which was often. As he once told Living Blues magazine in the late ‘70s, he did indeed like to vary the menu every once in a while, but it was just his luck that the audience wanted to boogie. Hooker didn’t fail on either count.