CD of the Month

JOHN LEE HOOKER: Documenting The Sensation Recordings 1948 – 1952

AceJLHBox019 (73:00), (65:00), (67:00)

CD One: Sally Mae/ War Is Over (Goodbye California) (Extended Version)/ War Is Over (Goodbye California) (Alt Take)/ War Is Over (Goodbye California) (Extended Version)/ Boogie Chillen’/ Henry’s Swing Club/ Drifting From Door To Door/ Hobo Blues/ Numbers Blues (aka She Ain’t Good For Nothin’)/ Alberta/ Alberta (Alt Take)/ Howlin’ Wolf/ Crawlin’ King Snake/ Hoogie Boogie (Instrumental)/ Hastings Street Boogie (Extended Version)/ Build Myself A Cave (aka The World Is In A Tangle) (Take #1)/ Build Myself A Cave (Take #2)/ Build Myself A Cave (Take #3)/ Build Myself A Cave/ Graveyard Blues/ Momma Poppa Boogie/ Burnin’ Hell/ Sailing Blues (aka Drifting Blues)/ Black Cat Blues

CD Two: Weeping Willow Boogie/ Miss Sadie Mae/ Sail On Little Girl/ Alberta Part 2/ Wednesday Evening/ Canal Street Blues/ Huckle Up Baby/ Let Your Daddy Ride/ Goin’ On Highway #51/ My Baby’s Got Somethin’/ Boogie Chillen’ #2 (Take 1)/ Boogie Chillen’ #2 (Take 2)/ Boogie Chillen’ #2 (Take 4)/ Boogie Chillen’ #2/ Boogie Chillen’ #2 (aka 21 Boogie) (Extended Version)/ Roll ’N’ Roll (Alt Take)/ Rollin’ Blues/ Three Long Years Today/ Strike Blues (Extended Version)/ Do My Baby Think Of Me?/ Give Me Your Phone Number (Alt Take)/ The Story Of A Married Woman (Alt Take)/ Moon Is Rising (Alt Take)

CD Three: John L’s House Rent Boogie (aka House Rent Boogie)/ John L’s House Rent Boogie (Fragment) (Alt Incomplete Take)/ Queen Bee/ Grinder Man/ Walkin’ This Highway/ Women In My Life (aka Goin’ Away Baby)/ Tease Me Baby (aka Tease Me Over Baby)/ I Need Lovin’ (aka Tease Me Over Baby)/ How Can You Do It/ I’m In The Mood (Three Voice)/ I’m In The Mood (Humming Version) (Overdub)/ I’m In The Mood (With Harmonica Overdub)/ I’m In The Mood (Alt – One Voice)/ Turn Over A New Leaf/ It Hurts Me So/ It Hurts Me So (Alt Take)/ I Got Eyes For You/ I Got Eyes For You (Take 2 or Take 5)/ Key To The Highway/ I Got The Key (aka Key To The Highway)/ Bluebird Blues/ That’s All Right/ It’s Time For Lovin’ To Be Done/ That’s All Right Boogie (under dub RPM 367)

I don’t know just how many blues fans of my generation (born 1947) were turned on by hearing the Boogie Man’s early (late 1940s/early 1950s) recordings, but there must have been quite a few like me, who on hearing the odd side on a compilation LP were immediately hooked (sorry!). Over the fifty years plus since then, our thirst has been occasionally slaked by various album and CD releases, but it has taken until now for a comprehensive gathering to appear of those early sides that Hooker recorded in Detroit under the supervision of record man Bernie Besman, who then arranged for many of them to be released, either on the Bihari Brothers’ Modern imprint, or on the Sensation label that Besman co-owned with John Kaplan.

I say “many of them”, but out of the 71 tracks on this marvellous three-CD box set, an impressive nineteen sides see the light of day for the first time, which is just one of the many reasons why this release is an utterly essential purchase. Lovingly compiled by Ace Records CEO Roger Armstrong and by Ben Walker, the box set features exemplary sound mastering of what were sometimes less than pristine original acetates/tapes by Duncan Cowell, and a 44-page booklet containing a comprehensive discography, together with an introductory note by Peter Guralnick and a more detailed appreciation of Hooker’s guitar style by Dr. Wayne E Goins, a “Distinguished Professor of Music” at Kansas State University and the biographer of Chicago bluesman Jimmy Rogers.

Before we dive into CD One, it is well past time to declare an interest, as they say in Parliament, in that I supplied some 78s and 45s to Ace for label shots. OK, onto the music and the sessions are presented in chronological order, so we begin with Hooker’s seminal 3rd September 1948 recordings that produced – among other titles – ‘Boogie Chillen’’, ‘Sally Mae’ and ‘Hobo Blues’. The discography suggests that as many as ten titles (masters B7003 through B7012) were recorded at this one date, but this is contradicted in Charles Shaar Murray’s not entirely reliable biography of Hooker, in which a standard four track session is posited. The exact truth may never be known.

We begin the first CD with the alternative take of ‘Sally Mae’, a fine blues that has always been overshadowed by being the other side of ‘Boogie Chillen’’ on Hooker’s first Modern 78 (627), although to be fair to the Biharis, they did make ‘Sally Mae’ the A side, which is strange, given their grasp of what would sell in the black marketplace! There then follows three versions of ‘War Is Over’, also known variously as ‘Goodbye California’ or ‘See See Baby’ – all of these three versions are new to disc and are musically similar, albeit with lyrical differences. Next up is ‘Boogie Chillen’’, the version issued on Modern, swiftly followed by its first cousin (as Charles Murray categorises it), ‘Henry’s Swing Club’ which was actually the second take of the song, preceding take three that became ‘Boogie Chillen’’. It may be verging on the heretical to say so, but I prefer take two to take three. We then get two issued sides, ‘Drifting From Door To Door’ (where Hooker does his best to confuse discographers with the opening line, ‘When my first wife left me’!) and ‘Hobo Blues’. ‘Numbers Blues’ follows, with the suspicion of a lyrical debt to Lightnin’ Hopkins, and then we have two takes of ‘Alberta’, the alternative take being new to disc. The extended September 1948 session is completed by two originally issued tracks, ‘Howlin’ Wolf’ and ‘Crawlin’ King Snake’, an R&B Top Ten hit, derived from a Tony Hollins song.

Modern 627 was released in November 1948 and the influence of ‘Boogie Chillen’ is clear. Besman got Hooker back in the studio in February 1949 and boogies predominated. Starting with the predominantly instrumental ‘Hoogie Boogie’ (Modern’s follow-up release to ‘Boogie Chillen’’), the CD segues effortlessly into ‘Hastings Street Boogie’, an extended version of a side that originally surfaced on a long-deleted Specialty album. These two are real foot stompers. There are then four takes of ‘Build Myself A Cave’, takes two and three being previously unissued (take three being the pick) and take four being a spliced-together amalgam of takes two and three. The second Besman session is completed by ‘Graveyard Blues’ and yet another boogie, ‘Momma Poppa Boogie’. The first of these two had already been recorded in Joe Von Battle’s record shop back room and subsequently sold to Chance Records (a version I prefer), so its resurrection might be seen as Besman getting his own back for Hooker’s out-of-contract propensities!

CD One closes with three sides cut in the Spring of 1949, where John Lee is accompanied by Eddie Burns on harmonica. ‘Burnin’ Hell’ is described by Charles Shaar Murray as “a devastating repudiation of Christian notions of the afterlife”, although I very much doubt that Hooker saw it precisely like that. More tea, vicar? Both ‘Sailing Blues’ and ‘Black Cat Blues’ appeared on another Specialty LP that is no longer with us; the latter side also features the rather shadowy John T. Smith on second guitar.

On to CD Two and the Besman sessions just didn’t let up. All of the first ten tracks have been issued previously, but that does not mean that they are anything other than excellent. The first four sides come from a summer of 1949 session, beginning with ‘Weeping Willow Boogie’, issued as the ‘B’ side of Modern 688, Hooker’s third release on Modern. ‘Miss Sadie Mae’, issued on Sensation 21, was a title that Hooker was to recut for Vee-Jay almost fifteen years later, albeit with major lyric differences. Both ‘Sail On Little Girl’ and ‘Alberta’ Part 2 appeared on an old Specialty album and it’s nice to see them here. Strangely, Hooker then waited six months for Besman to record him again, in the last days of the year. Again, all five sides were released, this time almost immediately on either Modern or Sensation 78s. ‘Wednesday Evening’ was a particular Hooker favourite to which he returned several times during his long career and in ‘Canal Street Blues’, Hooker imagines himself “down in New Orleans”. ‘Huckle Up Baby’ (Paul Williams’ ‘Hucklebuck’ was still fresh in the record-buying public’s mind) was a minor hit, reaching number fifteen on the chart, and ‘Let Your Daddy Ride’ finds Hooker paired with pianist James Watkins, who struggles to keep close to Hooker’s variable sense of time. The stand-out from this session is Goin’ On Highway 51’, which for the geographically curious runs all the way up from Louisiana to the Wisconsin/Michigan state line.

Back recording with Besman in April 1950, the majority of this session is taken up with various takes of ‘Boogie Chillen’ #2’, but we begin with ‘My Baby’s Got Something’, released as Sensation 33, with a rather messy guitar part ending the song. ‘Boogie Chillen’ #2’ runs to five different takes, presumably on the basis that you can’t have too much of a good thing, but to be fair, it never palls or threatens to be boring. Hooker returned to ‘Boogie Chillen’ #2’ on the ‘Hooker ‘N’ (Canned) Heat’ LP at the beginning of the 1970s (although what Hooker and the Heat actually played was a lot closer to the original ‘Boogie Chillen’’!). Among the five takes of ‘Boogie Chillen’ #2’ is the version actually released at the time as Sensation 34. 

After that surfeit of boogie, we shift to ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll’, which is an alternative take to the version issued on Modern 767 and which is a none-too-subtle reworking of ‘Rollin’ and Tumblin’’, as indeed is the following track, ‘Rollin’ Blues’. ‘Three Long Years Today’ and ‘Strike Blues’ both appeared on deleted Specialty LPs and it’s good to have them available again, with ‘Strike Blues’ being an extended version of the Specialty LP cut. CD Two finishes with Hooker’s late summer 1950 session and three of the four tracks are first-timers. The odd man out is ‘Do My Baby Think Of Me’, which appeared on Specialty LP 2125 and which Ace assigns to the late summer, although the ‘Blues Discography’ has it being part of the earlier April 1950 session. ‘Give Me Your Phone Number’ is an alternative take to that released on Modern 767 and ‘The Story Of A Married Woman’ and ‘Moon Is Rising’ are both alternatives to the sides that were issued on United Artists in the early 1970s.

OK, we are now on to the third and final CD and it has to be said that the quality of the music takes an occasional small dip, for reasons that I will explain. We begin with the Besman-supervised session of November 1950 and ‘John L’s House Rent Boogie’, an alternative take of the side released as Modern 814 and a song that presumably resulted from an actual experience – “I didn’t have no rent and out the door I went” – which Hooker also recorded for Idessa Malone’s Staff label in the same month.

This is followed by a seventy-second fragment of the same song, unreleased until now. ‘Queen Bee’ is the flip side of Modern 814 and was re-released on an old ‘no-fi’ Crown LP. Session mates ‘Grinder Man’ and ‘Walkin’ This Highway’ have both previously appeared on Ace CDs, but are no less welcome for that. 

On to the Hook’s April 1951 session and the familiar ‘Women In My Life’ (“I ain’t got but four women in my life, that’s my mother and my sister, my sweetheart and my wife”), where the box set discography fails to include Eddie Kirkland on second guitar. ‘Tease Me Baby’ was the flip of ‘Women In My Life’ and ‘I Need Lovin’’ a first cousin to ‘Tease Me Baby’. The penultimate Besman session in August 1951 features Eddie Kirkland throughout. ‘How Can You Do It’ was one side of Modern 835 and quite possibly the first John Lee Hooker Modern 45. The other side, ‘I’m In The Mood’, comes in four distinct versions, including a three-voice overdub, a version with harmonica dubbed in (who is the harp player?) and the presumably one voice original take. Unlike the five takes of ‘Boogie Chillen’ #2’, I find the four takes of ‘I’m In The Mood’ to be a touch wearing, but I do accept that I am probably in the minority. The session-ender is ‘Turn Over A New Leaf’, a beautifully contemplative blues, which throws up a minor question mark, in that Hooker sings “this is 19 and 52, baby” – why, when he recorded it in 1951?

Right, the final session was in May 1952 and here we hit the one nadir in an otherwise wonderful compilation with ‘It Hurts Me So’. We get both the issued version on Modern 876, plus an alternative take, but both are ruined by Besman’s atrocious one-note interventions on an organ, which somebody should have seen fit to either consign to the scrapheap, or more uncharitably, to stuff up Bernie’s posterior. Two takes of ‘I’ve Got Eyes For You’ (a title that Hooker was to revisit in his (much) later collaboration with Canned Heat) are followed by two takes of ‘Key To The Highway’ and the John Lee Williamson ‘Bluebird Blues’. Given Eddie Kirkland’s contributions to CD Three, it is fitting that we end with both sides of his wonderful single that was issued as RPM 367. But that’s not all she wrote, folks! The final track is a hitherto unlisted and exciting ‘underdub’ version of ‘That’s All Right’. Here endeth the Besman collaborations. By mid-1952, Besman was sick and needed a warmer climate in which to recover, moving from Detroit to California. Neither Besman nor Hooker particularly grieved over the separation. 

Leaving ‘It Hurts Me So’ aside, this is a five-star box set that shows the formation of an artist who was to become one of the giants of the post-war blues. If you really want to cavil, then the inclusion of so many blank acetate pictures in the booklet don’t really add too much and the two essays by Peter Guralnick and Wayne Goins may provoke some comment – do we really need yet another instalment of the ‘is this the first rock ‘n’ roll record debate? – but both for lovers of the early post-war Detroit blues and for those who admire Hooker’s oeuvre, this is an essential buy. Grab it now!

Chris Bentley

Note: The graphic at the start of this review is the cover of the Ace box set, which features the label of their recent  7”  78rpm disc. The original release of ‘Boogie Chillen’ was issued by Modern which is featured in this review. Label shots courtesy of Chris Bentley and the B&R Archive.

ALABAMA MIKE: Hip You To My Blues

Big Tone Records 246 (48:00)

Black Cadillac/ I’m Selfish/ California Blues/ Frustrate My Life/ 20% Alcohol/ Diabetic Man/ Cut That Out/ How You Want Your Rollin Done?/ V-8 Ford Blues/ Hip You To My Blues/ Stop Accusing That Woman/ I’m In Love With A Woman/ Hello Central/ Keep My Grave Clean/ I Feel So Good

It was a surprise to learn about a new release by Alabama Mike (real name Michael A. Benjamin) on Big Jon Atkinson’s new label. Alabama Mike’s earlier recordings, such as those with The Andy T Band in 2017’s ‘Double Strike,’ often displayed a gospel-rooted vocal style in the manner of Little Johnnie Taylor. 

This new release finds him in a down-home blues vein with a dose of Lightnin’ Hopkins flavour along with some tracks that evoke early ’50s Chicago style. This recording reflects Alabama Mike’s long-burning desire to ‘do a record in the classic style of early electric blues pioneers….’ 

The backing musicians on this set of retro blues include Kim Wilson on harmonica, Big Jon Atkinson and Danny Michel on guitar, Troy Sandow and Kedar Roy on bass, Joe Lempkowski on harmonica, June Core and Malachi Johnson on drums, Robert Welsh on keyboards, on retro-sounding performances.

Alabama Mike certain invests his vocals with intensity and soul. The Lightnin’ Hopkins influence can best be heard on the opening ‘Black Cadillac’ (with Atkinson on guitar) as well as the revival of Hopkins’ ‘Hello Central’ with Danny Michel on guitar, Kim Wilson on harmonica and Marty Dodson on drums lending the performance a swamp blues flavour. Danny Michel also channels Hopkins guitar on the swampy ‘California Blues,’ with choice Joe Lempkowski harmonica accompaniment.

A reworking of John Lee ‘Sonny Boy’ Williamson’s ‘Cut That Out’ sounds like a down-home version of Junior Wells 1950’s recording. Kim Wilson is on harmonica, Atkinson on guitar and Dodson on drums. Welsh provides the greasy organ on ‘Diabetic Man’ with Wilson on the harp. On ‘How You Want Your Rollin Done,’ Atkinson plays some excellent T-Bone Walker-styled guitar. On Big Bill Broonzy’s ‘I Feel So Good,’ Alabama Mike delivers a strong vocal in the manner of Muddy Waters with J.B. Hutto styled slide guitar in the backing. ‘Keep My Grave Clean’ is an ingenious band reworking of what was Blind Lemon Jefferson’s most famous recording, while the cover of J.B. Hutto’s ‘Too Much Alcohol’ sticks close to the arrangement of Hutto’s Delmark recording.

A moody rendition of Willie Love’s ‘V-8 Ford’ with Atkinson and Welsh closes a release of notable down-home blues performances. There are a couple of times the backing may be a tad skeletal, but Alabama Mike’s singing and the idiomatic support result in a most entertaining blues album.

Ron Weinstock

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