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Whiskey & Wimmen

Alone or with a band, the blues legend made music that continues to resonate

John Lee Hooker_Whiskey & WimmenExploring the myriad John Lee Hooker collections that have been released since his death in 2001 is the music equivalent of going through a corn maze: It’s easy to get confused and frustrated and hard to resist calling out for help or throwing in the towel.

The recent arrival of Whiskey & Wimmen: John Lee Hooker’s Finest via the Concord Music Group’s Vee-Jay imprint actually simplifies the search for an ideal single-disc comp, especially for those new to the blues legend’s work. The album, released in advance of Hooker’s 100th birthday this summer, includes a harvest of his studio recordings made during the mid-1950s through the mid-1960s, along with enlightening liner notes by veteran journalist Bill Dahl and basic details about the recording sessions.

Leading off the 16-track collection is “Boom Boom,” Hooker’s first and only Billboard Hot 100 entry. (He fared much better on the magazine’s R&B chart, placing nine songs from 1949 to 1962.) “Boom Boom” features lively support from members of the revered Motown Records studio collective known as the Funk Brothers, and as the Whiskey & Wimmen credits show, this wasn’t the only time Hooker looked to Motown for an assist. In 1960, Hooker stripped down Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want)” — the first major hit for Berry Gordy’s multi-imprint empire — ditched the signature riff, tweaked the title and added some lyrics, resulting in “I Need Some Money.” Then there’s the more polished “Frisco Blues,” a Hooker original with sweet backing vocals courtesy of The Andantes, best known for their support on signature hits by Marvin Gaye, The Four Tops and others.

As for other notable supporting musicians, fellow blues great Jimmy Reed flashes his harmonica virtuosity throughout “Time Is Marching.” Just as moving, though, are the songs where Hooker is by himself — just his earthy voice, primitive guitar and rhythm-tapping foot. In 1959’s “Boogie Chillun’,” one of two Hooker-only tracks on Whiskey & Wimmen, he sings, “I heard Papa tell Mama, ‘Let that boy boogie-woogie. It’s in him, and it got to come out.’ ” Hooker’s brand of boogie served him well throughout his life and led to Grammy Awards, TV performances and commercials as well as acclaimed collaborations with rock ’n’ roll royalty much later in his career. Long before all of that happened, these recordings helped establish his distinct identity and one-of-a-kind sound.

— By Chris M. Junior

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