The Healing Power of The Hook

Celebrating blues legend John Lee Hooker’s late period classic at 30

John Lee Hooker in 1989 / Art by Ron Hart

At the ripe old age of 72 years, nobody could have blamed blues legend John Lee Hooker if he had chosen to rest on his laurels in 1989.

Over a career that spanned four decades, Hooker experienced his share of creative and commercial successes, including a string of R&B chart hits like “Boogie Chillen,” “Crawlin’ King Snake,” and “I’m In the Mood” in the late 1940s and early ‘50s. He had toured Europe as part of the American Folk Blues Festival in the early ‘60s; performed with blues-rock bands like the Groundhogs and Canned Heat; and recorded with rockers like Steve Miller and Elvin Bishop. Inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1980, if he had done nothing else in his life, Hooker had cemented his legacy as one of the giants of blues music.

However, Hooker’s manager Mike Kappus had an idea for the next chapter of the bluesman’s career. A legendary agent and artist manager, Kappus had worked with talents like Mike Bloomfield, Robert Cray, George Thorogood, J.J. Cale, and many others, and would be inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame himself in 2014. For Hooker’s first album in three years and his debut for Chameleon Records, Kappus enlisted blues guitarist Roy Rogers – a former member of Hooker’s Coast to Coast band and a longtime Hooker collaborator – to produce an album of performances by the blues legend and young friends and admirers like Thorogood, Cray, Bonnie Raitt, Carlos Santana, and members of Los Lobos and Canned Heat.

John Lee Hooker The Healer, Chameleon 1989

The surprising result of Kappus’s inspiration was The Healer. Released in September 1989, The Healer was the right album at the right time to reinvigorate Hooker’s career and set the stage for the bluesman’s final years much as Muddy Waters’ Johnny Winter-produced late ‘70s albums had relit the fire of his lengthy career. Rogers played to the singer’s strengths, having Hooker reimagine older (literally antique) songs like “Sally Mae,” “Baby Lee,” and “I’m In the Mood,” mixing the familiar in with new material like the album’s title track, co-written by Hooker with Rogers and Santana. Rogers’ lengthy experience with Hooker’s eccentricities allowed the producer to match up the right song with the right studio guest star to embellish Hooker’s performances.  

Guitarist Carlos Santana – who would similarly revitalize his own career a decade later with 1999’s superstar-driven Supernatural – is first up to bat here, lending his exquisite playing to the album-opening title track. Weaving an exotic, Latin-tinged spell throughout the song’s soundtrack, Santana’s organic tones are a perfect complement to Hooker’s effects-laden vocals, which are almost buried in the mix. Hooker knew that they had something special; quoted in the album’s liner notes, the bluesman says “we were so hopped up getting a chance to record together that we did only one take. It could never be better. That was the one.”  

 

VIDEO: John Lee Hooker with Carlos Santana “The Healer”

Hooker’s duet with longtime admirer Bonnie Raitt on “I’m In the Mood” was the album’s money shot, another one take recording that captured lightning in a bottle. Raitt was riding her own wave of success at the time, her Nick of Time album – released earlier that year – on its way to multi-platinum sales and numerous accolades, earning the talented singer and guitarist a long-awaited commercial breakthrough. Raitt’s slinky slide-guitar playing and breathy vocals on “I’m In the Mood” are a perfect match for Hooker’s hypnotizing guitar drone and lusty voice. In turn, guitarist Robert Cray acquits himself nicely on the old Hooker hit “Baby Lee,” his subtle six-string contributions adding a modern sheen to the song’s traditionally-styled rhythms.  

Hooker’s old running buddies Canned Heat – down a couple of men with the premature deaths of band founders Bob “The Bear” Hite and Alan “Blind Owl” Wilson years previous – lend a certain gravitas to their sizzling performance on “Cuttin’ Out.” Original Canned Heat guitarist Henry Vestine and longtime bassist Larry Taylor lay down a smokin’ booger-rock rhythm atop of which ride Hooker’s mesmerizing vox and Charlie Musselwhite’s locomotive harmonica riffs. Rogers adds a bit of serpentine slide-guitar to turn the entire performance into a true juke-joint rave-up. 

Not to be outdone, the members of Los Lobos provide “Think Twice Before You Go” with a rowdy Tex-Mex reading that relies on David Hildago’s accordion, Cesar Rosas’ guitar, and Steve Berlin’s bleating sax to fuel the song’s lively tempo. It’s such a great performance that one wishes that John Lee had recorded an entire album with Los Lobos, a la Hooker ‘N Heat, just to see what they’d come up with. George Thorogood, probably the truest acolyte of Hooker’s boogie-blues aesthetic to appear on The Healer, proves his mettle by providing his idol with a steady, rockin’ six-string foundation beneath Hooker’s vocals on “Sallie Mae,” the guitarist adding just a few unique flourishes alongside Hooker’s own circular string-bending. 

“That’s Alright” is a showcase for harmonica wizard Charlie Musselwhite, at the time still building his legend, making his bones first in Memphis and Chicago during the 1960s and ‘70s before moving to the San Francisco Bay area. With Rogers providing nuanced lead guitar, and Hooker his traditional rhythmic strum, Musslewhite’s brilliant and emotional harmonica licks provide color behind Hooker’s dark-hued vocals. The last three songs on The Healer are largely Hooker solo jams, the singer pulling out his National Steel guitar for the old-school, Delta-dirty “Rockin’ Chair.” The song sticks out like a sore thumb here due to its sparse instrumentation but Hooker’s vocals are powerful and he’s allowed to explore his instrument like nowhere else on the album. 

John Lee Hooker “The Healer” single artwork

Hooker is joined on “My Dream” by the Canned Heat rhythm team of bassist Larry Taylor and drummer Fito de la Parra, the slow ballad an outlier that doesn’t really work, taking Hooker out of his comfort zone as a singer. The equally-languid “No Substitute,” which showcases Hooker and his 12-string guitar, is an odd way to end the album, and might have played better if it had been sequenced behind, say, the spry “Sallie Mae.” Regardless, eight of the ten songs on The Healer are keepers, a few of them even inching their way towards “classic” status over the past 30 years. That’s an impressive batting average for any artist and, although subsequent similar albums from the blues legend would see diminishing commercial returns, they found an enthusiastic and loyal audience that would carry Hooker’s legacy deep into this century.            

Reviews of the album were decidedly mixed at the time. Rolling Stone magazine’s Janie Matthews, calling The Healer “brilliant, 100-proof blues,” wrote in her review that “producer-guitarist Roy Rogers of the Delta Rhythm Kings faithfully captures the intimate banter and live-in-the-barroom, Fender-tube-amp quality of authentic blues. But the spirit that animates this album is the ageless voice of John Lee Hooker and his boogie-man blues. He has conjured up a renewed world blues with the canniness of the hoodoo healers and root doctors who first gave birth to the Delta blues.” By contrast, All Music Guide’s Thom Owens wrote that the album’s “long guest list is what makes the album a fairly unengaging listen,” concluding that The Healer is “a pleasant listen, but never quite an engaging one.”

With tongue placed firmly in cheek, the “Dean of American Rock Critics” Robert Christgau wrote of the album in his “Consumer Guide” column, “pushing 130 now, Hook will still walk anybody into the studio for cash up front. Though the pickings have been getting leaner, here anybody includes Carlos Santana, George Thorogood, Bonnie Raitt, Robert Cray, Canned Heat, and Los Lobos, most of whom commit crimes against his ageless essence that tone up the product considerably. And for the purist market, the product ends with four solo stomps.”

In spite of critical indifference, The Healer garnered Hooker his highest-charting album since 1971’s Hooker ‘N Heat, peaking at #62 and earning the blues legend his first Grammy™ Award for “I’m In the Mood.” The superstar-laden album would also create the blueprint for subsequent Hooker releases like 1991’s Mr. Lucky, 1995’s Chill Out, and 1997’s Don’t Look Back, which would earn the blues legend three additional Grammy™ Awards, induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and a Grammy™ Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000. 

More importantly, the success afforded The Healer allowed Hooker to live out the last decade of his life in relative financial comfort, the album launching an impressive final act for the hardscrabble bluesman’s lengthy and storied career.   

 

AUDIO: John Lee Hooker The Healer (full album)

Rev. Keith A. Gordon

RockandRollGlobe contributor Rev. Gordon is an award-winning music critic with 40+ years experience writing for publications like Blues Music magazine and Blurt. Follow him on Twitter @reverendgordon.

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