Friday, June 14, 2024

Hot Wax: John Lee Hooker's Burning Hell (1964/2024)

John Lee Hooker's Burning Hell
In 1959, blues legend John Lee Hooker was at a crossroads in his career. The music industry was evolving from a singles-oriented medium towards full-length albums and “The Hook” was in danger of being left behind. Hooker had enjoyed a string of seven R&B charting singles circa 1948-1958, including five Top 10 hits like “Boogie Chillen’,” “Crawlin’ King Snake,” “Huckle Up Baby,” and “I’m In the Mood” (which also rose to #30 on the mainstream singles chart). These songs wrote the lexicon of the artist’s rhythm & blues saturated boogie-blues sound that he would pursue for the next 40+ years.

Hooker’s first bona fide album release was 1959’s I’m John Lee Hooker. Released by Vee Jay Records, it was a collection of seven previously-released singles and five newly-recorded tracks (a parallel album release, Chess Records’ House of the Blues, was comprised entirely of singles). Around this time, Riverside Records owner Bill Grauer traveled to Detroit with the idea of recording a new John Lee Hooker album consisting entirely of Leadbelly songs. Riverside was essentially a jazz label, so recording a blues artist of Hooker’s stature was an out-of-the-box notion, especially once Grauer discovered that John Lee had no idea of who Huddie Leadbetter was, and was unfamiliar with his music. Grauer quickly regrouped and produced sessions with Hooker and his acoustic guitar at the familiar United Sound Systems in Detroit where the artist had recorded several previous hits.

The core of Grauer’s brainstorm had merit, as acoustic-based “folk blues” artists were beginning to rise in popularity at the time. Long lost Mississippi Delta and Hill Country bluesmen like Fred McDowell, Skip James, and John Hurt were being “rediscovered” and shoved into studios to re-record their “old songs” before hitting the coffee house circuit and folk festival trail. Even Chicago blues stalwarts like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Sonny Boy Williamson were re-branded as authentic, acoustic-toting “folk blues” singers. Grauer left Detroit with enough songs on tape for two albums, the first of which was released in 1959 as The Country Blues of John Lee Hooker (quickly re-titled as The Folk Blues of John Lee Hooker). The second album arising from those Detroit sessions was Burning Hell, which wasn’t released until 1964 and then only in the U.K. by Fontana; Burning Hell wasn’t reissued on CD until 1994, and it’s been long out-of-print in any format.

John Lee Hooker’s Burning Hell

The first release from the newly-resurrected Bluesville Records label (part of the Craft Recordings family), Hooker’s Burning Hell is an often-overlooked entry in his massive and decades-spanning catalog of music. With a tracklist largely comprised of roughly half Hooker originals and the other half choice covers, Burning Hell showcases Hooker’s deep, fluid vocals laid across several styles of acoustic blues. The title track is a spry, Piedmont-styled morality tale with scrappy guitarplay and strong vocals but “Graveyard Blues” is a dour, Delta-styled dirge with intricate guitar patterns and Hooker’s sonorous, almost droning vocals. Hooker isn’t the deftest of string-pullers, especially when compared to contemporaries like Lonnie Johnson, Eddie Kirkland, or even his cousin Earl Hooker, but his performance here is simply mesmerizing.

Hooker’s cover of the Big Joe Williams’ classic “Baby Please Don’t Go” is provided an emotionally-charged performance that relies on the singer’s pleading vocals more than on his boogie-stomp fretwork. Ditto for his reading of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightning” which substitutes soaring, almost falsetto vocals (well, as high as Hooker could go…) for The Wolf’s primal howl; combined with Hooker’s circular guitar strum, he creates a sort of melodic and enchanting tone poem. “You Live Your Life and I’ll Live Mine” is based on a standard blues scale with a few instrumental flourishes here and there as Hooker sings of his romantic woes while “Jackson, Tennessee” is afforded an up-tempo, loping guitar riff atop of which Hooker pounds out his Delta-dirty vox. Hooker’s jaunty “How Can You Do It?” is almost pop-styled with radio-friendly, intelligible vocals, an upbeat and melodic guitar line, and an undeniably sunny performance.

John Lee Hooker photo by Lawrence Shustak, courtesy of Riverside Records Archives
John Lee Hooker photo by Lawrence Shustak, courtesy of Riverside Records Archives

On the other hand, the odd bodkins Lightnin’ Hopkins cover “I Don’t Want No Woman If Her Hair Ain’t No Longer Than Mine” is an awkward talking blues with meandering guitar licks and disjointed vocals. Hooker’s “Blues For My Baby” pursues a similar theme, but with better results, his powerful vocal performance matched by bog-standard boogie-blues git licks with the occasional (and delightful) instrumental detour. Bluesmen and rock stars alike have covered Big Bill Broonzy’s “Key To the Highway” for decades but, for my money, Hooker’s reading is one of the best, with yearning vocals and a jazzy acoustic soundtrack. His reading of the Willie Dixon-penned “Natchez Fire” provides the song – originally recorded as “Natchez Burnin’” in 1956 by Howlin’ Wolf – with an eerie chill as his haunting vocals and arcane guitar playing mourn the true-life tragedy that took 200 lives at the Rhythm Club in Natchez, Mississippi in 1940.   

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Looking at its history and provenance, Burning Hell is an odd choice to kick off the new era of Bluesville Records. Perhaps it was chosen because Hooker is a well-known artist among casual blues fans, as Burning Hell was never released previously by Bluesville. When Riverside impresario Bill Grauer passed away in 1963, the label’s catalog passed through the hands of ABC Records before being bought by Fantasy Records in 1972. Fantasy, in turn, was bought by Concord Records in 2004, forming the Concord Music Group. Bluesville Records was a subsidiary of the esteemed Prestige Records jazz label that also became part of CMG via its purchase by Fantasy in 1971…and that’s how you get a 1964 John Lee Hooker album on Riverside Records seeing reissue by Bluesville Records some 60 years later. *

There were a number of other choices for an inaugural Bluesville reissue, including long-forgotten but worthy flapjacks from Lightnin’ Hopkins, Lonnie Johnson, Scrapper Blackwell, Sonny Terry, Snooks Eaglin, and Pink Anderson (who inspired Pink Floyd’s band name). The minor cavil of its dubious status in the Bluesville label universe aside, this version of Burning Hell is nevertheless a godsend for hardcore blues fans and collectors. The packaging is hearty, with a thick cardboard sleeve, glossy laminated cover, and a padded, archival quality inner sleeve to cradle the vinyl. Little has been changed with the graphics, which are perfectly garish for the era, and the back cover includes Alan Bates’ insightful original liner notes. Cut from the original master tapes and pressed on black 180-gram vinyl, this Bluesville edition is the first time that this long-lost album has been released domestically on record.

In the end, however, it’s the music that counts, and Burning Hell showcases a different side of John Lee, his flirtation with “folk blues” opening new doors for his career as he entered the decade of the 1960s as a grizzled veteran. No less than six “folk”-oriented Hooker albums would be released just prior to, and shortly after Burning Hell for labels like Vee-Jay, Crown Records, Chess, and Kent Records, many of them constructed from vintage 1950s-era recordings. Hooker hit the summer folk festival circuit with aplomb, which helped carry him through the difficult ABC Records years to The Healer and his successful final chapter. With its raw vocals and wiry fretwork, Burning Hell isn’t the crown jewel of the massive John Lee Hooker catalog, but it represents a significant turning point in his career and is well worth rediscovery by both fans of the artist and blues fanatics alike. (Bluesville Records, reissued June 7th, 2024)

* For more on the Bluesville Records story, check out my interview with producer Scott Billington on the Rock and Roll Globe website!  

Many thanx to Charles Shaar Murray, and his wonderful John Lee Hooker biography Boogie Man, for info on the artist’s Riverside recordings...

Buy the LP from Amazon: John Lee Hooker’s Burning Hell

Also on That Devil Music:
John Lee Hooker’s The Healer review
John Lee Hooker’s The Modern, Chess & Veejay Singles Collection 1949-62 review

Charles Shaar Murray's Boogie Man

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