(Re)Discover the passion of the blues


Mr Lucky — John Lee Hooker
That's My Story
— John Lee Hooker
Damn Right, I Got The Blues
— Buddy Guy
There Is Always One More Time
— B.B. King
Reviewed by Norm Dixon

Racism, poverty, unemployment, alienation — these are the essence of the blues experience. More than a means for blacks to express and overcome the despair created by a racist society, the blues are a defiant statement that they are going to stand their ground against it. The blues have defied many premature pronouncements of their impending death because US society still offers little more than disappointment for the African American population.

If any proof is needed that the blues are not about turn up their toes, three of the most influential veterans have recently released new albums. John Lee Hooker, Buddy Guy and B.B. King have between them probably influenced more contemporary musicians and helped shape more of today's music than any other trio. It is a contribution that has largely gone uncredited, and perhaps these new albums will go some way towards rectifying this.

One of the great ironies in the history of the blues is that it was not until a generation of young British bands in the early '60s enthusiastically embraced the up-tempo blues of urban USA that young white audiences in that country became aware of the greatness of the likes of John Lee Hooker, B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed and Howlin' Wolf.

The bands that were later to define the music of the '60s and beyond — like the obscure quartet from Liverpool known as the Quarrymen, the Yardbirds, the Rolling Stones, Fleetwood Mac and even Deep Purple — were born learning from and emulating the great urban blues and r&b players.

The centrality of the electric guitar in modern rock music, and especially through the psychedelia period of the '60s, was directly inspired by the urban blues. The top rock guitarists who followed — such as Richard Clapton, Jeff Beck, Ritchie Blackmore, Keith Ritchards — all learnt their art by faithfully reproducing from hard to get imported discs the sounds and styles of the boogie greats like Hooker and the West Side Chicago sound best represented by B.B. King and Buddy Guy, with its single string lead work that has become an indispensable component of the rock guitarist's vocabulary.

In 1989, a sprightly 69-year-old guitar player collected his first Grammy Award for his album The Healer. John Lee Hooker has played the blues since at least 1934, when he left his home town of Clarksdale, Mississippi. He is a living link between the traditional rural acoustic blues of Robert Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Huddie Ledbetter and the driving electric urban boogie blues he helped to define.

Hooker joined millions of other blacks on their exodus to the northern industrial centres seeking work, eventually settling in Detroit in 1941. He recorded his classic > there in 1948, selling an incredible 1 million copies, and then scored a string of hits, with "Boom Boom" being his most famous.

John Lee Hooker's Mr Lucky follows a similar formula to the top-selling Healer album, with a host of high profile "guests". The difference is that, where The Healer was sanitised and compromised to gain commercial radio airplay, Mr Lucky gets back to the blues as they should be. The guests are not merely a marketing gimmick to get some ignorant DJ to spin the record, but there to play and play well.

Hooker growls his way through many of his standards plus some new numbers with the able assistance of Albert Collins' stabbing guitar solos, the rollicking stride piano of Johnnie Johnson (a long-time sidekick of Chuck Berry), the inimitable Ry Cooder and Keith Richards and the Robert Cray Band. Van Morrison helps out with a haunting rendition of "I Cover The Waterfront", and John Hammond provides some classic slide guitar and harmonica.

After hearing his latest, you should investigate his earlier works. Luckily his classic 1960 album, That's My Story, has been re-released. It is a perfect introduction to Hooker's more traditional solo performances. It's rougher and rawer, and some would say more appealing, than his latest high-tech productions.

Buddy Guy's Damn Right, I've Got The Blues is in my view the best of the releases reviewed here. Where John Lee Hooker growls menacingly, Buddy Guy shouts in sheer pain and pure joy. Eric Clapton has described him as the best guitar player alive, and it is said that Jimi Hendrix once cancelled a gig just to hear him. Listening to this album, I can understand why.

Guy, born in 1936 in Louisiana, worked with the great Muddy Waters for many years and went on to help create the West Side school of Chicago blues. Despite the tremendous impact he has had in music circles, his recordings, with the exception of Stone Crazy in 1981, have been uneven and unrepresentative.

Damn Right changes all that. As in Mr Lucky, guests abound — including Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton and Mark Knopfler — but they cannot overshadow Guy's blistering guitar, his wounded voices and the marvellously fat brass sounds of the legendary Memphis Horns.

Guy draws deeply from the well of African American music. Not only are the Chicago blues well represented, but he does brilliant versions of Wilson Pickett's soul classic, "Mustang Sally"; Big Jay McNeely's '50s tear-jerker, "There is Something On Your Mind"; and the great Louie Jordan's 1947 slow r&b masterpiece, "Early In The Morning". The final track, "Rememberin' Stevie", is an instrumental tribute to the late Texan blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan (John Lee Hooker's album is also dedicated to Vaughan).

B.B. King, like Hooker, was born on the Mississippi delta, the birthplace of the blues, in 1925. With his guitar and $2.50, he left home in Indianola and hitchhiked north to Memphis to stay with cousin Bukka White, a renowned blues player of the time. Cousin Bukka he knew, and by 1952 B.B. had already had two songs hit number one in the r&b charts. Over the years they just kept coming. Since 1956, B.B. estimates he has played an average of 300 shows every year.

B.B. King is one of the few blues players who is a household name — and deservedly so. As if to reinforce his "made it" status, his latest album, There Is Always One More Time, hasn't a high-profile "guest star" in sight. The album is a typically smooth and restrained affair. Compared to John Lee Hooker and Buddy Guy, B.B. is a crooner. And while his blues are less raucous and more melodic, they are no less impassioned. Here are blues to wind down with, for relaxing late at night after the party's over, music to have that last drink by.