That’s My Story: JOHN LEE HOOKER Sings the Blues
Accompanying himself on guitar (also accompanied by Sam Jones, bass; Louis Hayes, drums – except on Side 1, #2 and 4; and Side 2, #6)
NYC; February 9, 1960
1. I Need Some Money (2:25)
2. Come On and See About Me (3:06)
3. I’m Wanderin’(5:12)
4. Democrat Man (3:27)
5. I Want to Talk About You (3:02)
6. Gonna Use My Rod (4:20)
1. Wednesday Evenin’ Blues (3:34)
2. No More Doggin’ (2:42)
3. One of These Days (4:05)
4. I Believe I’ll Go Back Home (3:42)
5. You’re Leavin’ Me, Baby (3:48)
6. That’s My Story (5:34)
“Everybody wants to know my story . . .” sings JOHNY LEE HOOKER on the final selection of this album, the number from which this collection of deep-down blues takes its name. Actually, the song That’s My Story is largely a factual-geographical rundown on the cities Hooker has lived and worked in (starting with his first job at “the New Daisy picture show” in Memphis, Tennessee). That is a part of his story, but certainly not all of it. The real, full story is in the blues he sings and plays – therefore, this entire LP is filled with the story that John Lee Hooker has to tell us.
And it is also certain that the blues tell a story that just about everybody wants to know. The great country blues tradition that began with nameless wanderers, and first reached a wide public through the records of early singers like Blind Lemon Jefferson, has produced some of the most fundamental, nakedly emotional and deeply moving of all American music. So it should not be surprising that his music has always retained its power to hold and to stir listeners. Even through many years when the old blues seemed to have gone out of fashion, this great tradition would not die. And, as if to prove its immortality, there now appears to be a considerable resurgence; for one thing, the ‘soul music’ that is a direct spiritual descendant of country blues has become a dominant element in much of instrumental modern jazz; for another, a singer like Hooker can now finally sing the honest blues the way he really feels them.
Until very recently, John Lee had little opportunity to record material of this type. Ever since his recording career got under way in the 1940s, he has functioned largely in the strange, musically hybrid area known as “rhythm-and-blues.” But let’s face it, in the past decade or so that area has been the only place even faintly like home where a singer of the blues could earn his way. And the fact that Hooker has achieved more than a little success as a r. & b. performer is probably primarily a tribute to the ability of the real blues spirit to fight its way through souped-up rhythmic monotony and inane lyrics.
For there can be no doubt that Hooker, born in the deep South and for many years a wanderer and a rambler, is firmly a part of the great blues tradition, an important link in a remarkable chain, an heir of such men as Blind Lemon. The music that he first heard as a boy growing up on a farm outside of Clarksdale, Mississippi, has always been a vital part of his life.
In 1959 came his first full-scale chance to record his kind of blues; as the notes to his first Riverside album (The Country Blues of John Lee Hooker) put it, he was “specifically and deliberately turning to something as close as possible to the blues of the earlier, rambling years.” The result was an LP that captured both public and critics. “A successful rhythm-and-blues-performer . . . returns to the basic blues,” rejoiced Nat Hentoff; while Tony Geiske of The Washington Post noted in awed terms that this was “the truth,” with the power to “sift the vitals” of its listeners. Ralph Gleason, writing in Down Beat, called Hooker “one of the very best examples today of the rural tradition,” adding that “it is delightful to be able to hear (such) a full-voiced blues singer.”
In the present album, Hooker continues his presentation of “the truth.” But this is not just more of the same. There are certain specific differences here, involving the fact that (to dissect a Gleason phrase), while Hooker certainly is in “the rural tradition,” he is not a singer of thirty or more years ago, but of “today.” His experiences in the world of r. & b., for one thing, have definitely been part of John Lee’s story and some of the best elements of that field have been indelibly fused into his style – such as the savagely compelling beat you can hear on such selections of I Need Some Money and No More Doggin’. (On the other hand, it should be pointed out that the basic blues – which Hooker was in a sense ‘resurrecting’ for himself in the precious album – have more recently become much more of a conscious part of his current music. In conversation before making this album, John Lee noted that he had been “thinking about the old blues a lot since then” and, it turns out, he has even been moving a lot closer to such material as this in his r. & b. club work.)
There is also the matter of the added accompaniment. On the precious album, John Lee’s own guitar was his only backing: the use of bass and drums on most numbers this time was not to produce heavier rhythmic effect (as it might be on an r. & b. date), but rather to free Hooker from the burden of carrying the full rhythm load – much as bass and drums are almost invariably used today to support jazz piano soloists, who once played strictly alone. Furthermore, the men selected for this job are current jazz musicians – although they are also thoroughly blues-drenched, both Sam Jones and Lou Hayes being members of the rhythm section of the very deep-rooted group led by Cannonball Adderley. The point is undoubtedly that Hooker’s blues are – in “soul” if not in format – quite closely aware of and in tune with the spirit of at least one major area of today’s jazz.
Much of the material Hooker sings and plays here is, of course, in the time-honored blues tradition: there are songs of fulfilled love (I Want to Talk About You) and of departed lovers (Wednesday Evenin’), of harshly sardonic realism (I Need Some Money) and of wistful longing (I Believe I’ll Go Back Home). Gonna Use My Rod is a ‘talking blues’ in a familiar enough vein: the singer is warning his best friend to “leave my wife alone.” Others, though, are more off the beaten path. One of These Days and Come On And See About Me are actually of gospel-song origin, although treated with a blues feeling; the latter is particularly effective in its merging of plaintiveness with a sharp note of impatience. Democrat Man is nothing less than up-to-date social-political commentary, far more outspoken than blues of the old tradition would have dared to be, although topical material was often an important part of the early blues repertoire.
What it all adds up to is that John Lee is an individual: an emotion-stirring singer and powerful blues guitarist, firmly rooted in a great tradition, but very much a man of today. That’s his story, and it is surely also a way of making it clear that the blues are as new as they are old, and will probably always be that way.
Hooker’s previous Riverside album is –
The Country Blues of JOHN LEE HOOKER (RLP 12-838)
Early blues recordings of the ‘20s, which make for interesting comparison with Hooker’s work of almost four decades later,
can be found on such Riverside LPs as –
BLIND LEMON JEFFERSON (RLP 12-125)
MA RAYNEY: Classic Blues (RLP 12-108)
THE GREAT BLUES SINGERS: Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Chippie Hill, etc. (RLP 12-121)
(The present recording is also available in Monaural form on RLP 12-231.)
Produced and notes written by ORRIN KEEPNEWS
Cover designed and produced by PAUL BACON-KEN BRAREN-HARRIS LEWINE
Cover and back-liner photographs by LAWRENCE N. SHUSTAK
Recording Engineer: JACK HIGGINS (Reeves Sound Studios)
Riverside-Reeves SPECTROSONIC High Fidelity Engineering
RIVERSIDE RECORDS are produced by BILL GRAUER PRODUCTIONS, Inc.
235 West 46th Street New York 36, N.Y.