I recently reviewed a John Lee Hooker import disc in these pages, and spoke of how individual an artist he was. Like all bluesmen, he had his influences, but came out sounding just as he wanted to. With his recent passing, it's pretty easy to figure that there will a multitude of available titles, and new sets hitting the market in honor of his contributions to blues and its illegitimate child, rock 'n' roll. This brand new release is something to marvel at; it's an attractively packaged box set with a lift-off top, which exposes the ten individual CD's and a 40 page booklet inside. When all is said and done with the counting, it logs in at 149 tracks, and over seven-and-a-half hours of solid blues. The discs are in rough chronology, which allows the listener evaluation over the years covered in this set. While not even close to complete when looking at Hooker's incredible recording accomplishments, the CD's here provide a wealth of music, and while the box boasts 'state of the art digital remastering' throughout, some the earlier titles recorded for Bernie Besman aren't going to get any cleaner until pristine copies of those 78's appear, or the masters are found; both doubtful chances, at best.
There are many rare titles here, including brilliant pieces like "Leavin' Chicago," "Wednesday Evening Blues," and "Poor Slim," plus 13 more on the 1st disc. Two versions of "Do The Boogie" show up on the second CD, and both vary the approach. The classic "609 Boogie" is here, plus another fine baker's dozen. "Wayne County Ramblin' Man," a tune unfamiliar to many Hooker-philes, is featured alongside other gems like "Graveyard Blues," "Huckle Up Baby," and the storming "Burning Hell," with Eddie Burns adding stalwart harmonica, and disc 4 hits hard with more monsters, including "Howlin' Wolf," "Playing The Races," and "Let Your Daddy Ride." John Lee Hooker's best-known cut perhaps; "House Rent Boogie," originally recorded at Besman's Detroit studios, went on to sell many thousands of copies, and ultimately influenced legions of blues followers and rockers alike. The version which starts off the 5th disc was recorded in Philadelphia in 1951, but differs little from the better-known version most are familiar with. The stark and barren "Catfish" rustles along with Hooker's driving guitar well out front, and "Grinder Man" closes out finding Hooker telling of his prowess outside of the recording studios.
"Four Women In My Life" on the 6th disc, is more widely recognized as "Goin' Away Baby," a title waxed by many, including Chicago heavyweight, Jimmy Rogers. "Just Me And My Telephone," from a 1951 Windy City date, is tight with Hooker's voice in top form and more riveting guitar work. Disc 7 features a lonesome take on the old standard "Worried Life Blues," plus "Walkin' The Boogie" and "Blues For Big Town." Part 8 of the set begins with "Too Much Boogie," if ever there was such a case, and also includes the ragged, but so damn right, "Wobbling Baby," from the Chart label. Hooker's time at Vee Jay is the main focus on disc 9 with "Boom Boom," "I'm So Excited," and "Onions" alongside the Latin groove of "Keep Your Hands To Yourself." The cream of the entire package may be the final CD as it finds Hooker joined by Lowell Fulson's guitar and S.P. Leary's drumbeats. "Call It The Night," is loosely based on the old Pinetop boogie theme and has some stellar work by Leary, while Fulson sounds sloppily on target. "Looking Back Over My Day," is played so far behind the beat it seems to stand almost completely still, and "Roll And Tumble" bristles with energy.
All in all, the music here is insistent and honest, as most of John Lee Hooker's early work was. There are a few drawbacks to the set though; while packaging is nicely done, the 40 page booklet was poorly written and edited, which makes reading a little more than difficult, and many of the tracks have little in the way of session details for those wishing to dig deeper into the history of this major blues artist. Information on almost all of Hooker's recordings are readily available, and easily could have been found with little more than a few books. What's most important is the music, and in that department, this set is a winner. One thing to keep in mind is exactly how much Hooker you want in your collection. While there's a ton here, overlap is near impossible to steer away from as some of the tracks are found on other sets. It's not easy to digest this all at one sitting either; as the time it takes may require an entire day with only brief pit stops and eating breaks. John Lee Hooker's "Portrait" box set may prove a little difficult to locate, but searching it out is worth the rather paltry sum it seems to be going for. A copy on eBay was waiting on a minimum bid of $40.00, and for 10 CD's with decent playing time on each, that's a small investment indeed. More information may be available by contacting: firstname.lastname@example.org or visiting the website at: www.timcompany.com
This review is copyright © 2001 by Craig Ruskey, and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved. Copy, duplication or download prohibited without written permission. For permission to use this review please send an E-mail to Ray Stiles.