John Lee Hooker – Whiskey & Wimmen | Album Review

John Lee Hooker – Whiskey & Wimmen

Vee-Jay Records – 2017

16 tracks; 45 minutes

John Lee Hooker would have been 100 years old this year and so although the world hardly needs another compilation of his music, this is an appropriate time for this ‘greatest hits’ package and it does assemble many of his seminal recordings. Not surprisingly Vee-Jay dominates the track selection but there is space for a track each from Speciality and Stax. Predominantly recorded in Chicago, the collection also contains tracks recorded in NYC, Miami and Detroit. As ever with John Lee there is no regular band though Eddie Taylor plays guitar on four tracks and other names of note include Jimmy Reed and Joe Hunter.

The CD does not stick to a chronological order but plays the songs in a sensibly varied order. The oldest recording here is a 1954 cover of Rosco Gordon’s “No More Doggin’” which shows off John Lee’s guitar skills in a relaxed version recorded in a Detroit session that did not see the light of day until 1993 when Speciality released it. “Time Is Marching” comes from the following year with Jimmy Reed on harp and Eddie Taylor whose sinuous guitar features prominently on a 1956 version of “Dimples”, another tune often covered, perhaps most famously by the Allman Brothers. The lively “I Love You Honey” comes from 1958 and features some swinging piano from Joe Hunter while the following year finds John Lee solo on two more of his most famous songs, “Boogie Chillun’” and “Crawlin’ Kingsnake”.

As we move into the 1960’s John Lee was recording “Whiskey & Wimmen”, an LP only track that gives this collection its title, recounting how he has been brought down by the night life, accompanied by a loping rhythm. From the same session the similarly downbeat “No Shoes” made No. 21 in the R& B charts. John Lee also travelled to New York in 1960 where he recorded with a jazz rhythm section of Louis Hayes on drums and Sam Jones on bass on a relaxed take on Berry Gordy and Janie Bradford’s “Money” that sounds almost folky compared with the Beatles’ raucous version a few years later. The recording of “Boom Boom” here comes from 1961, its stop/start rhythms making it a natural to be covered widely and it became a staple of British bands in the 1960’s. “I’m Going Upstairs” is another LP only track but it is extremely rhythmic with John Lee and second guitarist William ‘Lefty’ Bates playing off each other well. Also recorded in 1961 (but only issued in 1969 by Stax) is an interesting duo performance of “Grinder Man” with Earl Hooker playing bass; it sounds like a very informal take but John’s vocals are first rate so it certainly merits inclusion here. 1962’s “Frisco Blues” is John Lee’s version of Tony Bennett’s “I Left My Heart In San Francisco”, performed as a slow blues featuring Hank Cosby on sax and Martha & The Vandellas on backing vocals. John Lee’s final sessions for Vee-Jay were in 1964 and are represented here by two cuts: he often covered Percy Mayfield’s “Memory Pain” in a version he called “It Serves Me Right To Suffer”; “Big Legs, Tight Skirt” clearly seem to have had a significant effect on John Lee in a hypnotic version.

Several of these songs would be re-worked by John Lee in the years to come, including performances by great names of rock and blues such as Carlos Santana and Bonnie Raitt but even though those later discs brought John Lee to a worldwide audience these Vee-Jay sides represent the essence of his talent, assembled here just in time for his centenary.

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