John Lee Hooker melded the raw intimacy of acoustic Delta blues with the kinetic thrust of urban postwar electric blues as well as any musician who ever lived. With his stark, single-chord "boogie" guitar lines and his dark, deep-toned, talk-sung vocals, he created a sound that was immediately recognizable. And while he was very influential, particularly among English rockers from the 1960s, his improvisational acumen and portentous intensity proved almost impossible to duplicate.
Hooker, who died in 2001 at age 83, was a prolific artist who recorded under a variety of pseudonyms during a career that spanned more than a half-century. So his legacy is susceptible to a confusing slew of posthumous compilations and resurrections of obscure but inferior material. Fortunately the John Lee Hooker Estate, managed by his daughter Zakiya, is providing some semblance of quality control.
In recent weeks, the estate has helped foster two noteworthy additions to Hooker's vast catalogue. "Jack O' Diamonds," a revelatory CD that uncovers a long-lost set of tunes recorded in 1949 in a dining room in Detroit, should thrill die-hard blues fans, while "Come and See About Me," a DVD containing 18 video performances from 1960 to 1994, instantly becomes the definitive primer for Hooker neophytes.
The first video is perhaps the highlight of the DVD. Hooker and one of his more august disciples, Van Morrison, are perched together on a dock, playing "Baby Please Don't Go" in 1992 against a backdrop of woods and water. A notoriously moody perfectionist who is known primarily for his vocals, Morrison is clearly honored to be blowing harmonica in accompaniment of his mentor, and their acute interplay is a marvelously fluid blend of gusto and nuance.
If the other pairings with special guests -- Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones, Carlos Santana, Bonnie Raitt and others -- don't fare as well, it's because Hooker can deliver everything the listener needs on his own. That's apparent from the consistently sublime video tracks on which he performs solo.
"It Serves Me Right to Suffer," from 1969, offers the double bonus of Hooker's emotional, wounded vocals and close-ups of his supple fingers staking out the rhythm. "I'm Bad Like Jesse James" (1986) uses a repetitive five-note guitar phrase and plain-spoken, violent lyrics to build an aura of inexorable menace and unresolved tension. And on "Tupelo Blues" (1993), there's a reflective glaze in Hooker's eyes as he plucks and sings out a narrative about a tropical storm that flooded the Mississippi town, not far from where he grew up.
The story behind "Jack O' Diamonds," meanwhile, is almost as compelling as the CD itself.
Its songs were recorded in the home of an animator and blues fan named Gene Deitch, just as Hooker was surging to stardom on the strength of his first single, "Boogie Chillen." Hooker, then playing the Detroit clubs, agreed to come out to the suburbs to play at one of Deitch's Friday night blues gatherings.
Nearly 50 years later, another blues fan with knowledge of the event prevailed upon Deitch, then living in Prague, to track down the two tapes that contained that evening's performance. Miraculously, both tapes were not only unearthed but found to be in good condition. A record was made and given limited overseas release in 1999 as "The Unknown John Lee Hooker" on the small British label Flyright, with the proceeds going to Hooker. After some legal wrangling, the Hooker estate is now making the digitally remastered recording more broadly available as "Jack O' Diamonds" on the Eagle label.
With an audio quality better than many studio recordings from the period, we hear Hooker's vocals not yet fully burnished by his signature dusky tone, and how the efficiently dramatic, Delta-blues guitar style he learned from his stepfather was occasionally more effusive than his later work. (The percussive foot stomping was already a crucial component of his rhythm.)
The revelation is in the track list. Nascent, relatively obscure originals like "Two White Horses" and "Water Boy" could easily have become classics. And inspired renditions of "Old Blind Barnabas" and "Moses Smote the Water" remind us that Hooker once sang gospel with the Fairfield Four. Hooker also turns the too-often-benign standard "I Wonder" into a heart-wrenching ode to love gone awry.
For fans of Hooker's acoustic solo work, the posthumous rediscovery of "Jack O' Diamonds" feels like a godsend in more ways than one.