Revisions: John Lee Hooker – The Waterfront

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I was introduced to the blues years ago in an unusual manner– through the film The Blues Brothers. Though it was more focused on rhythm and blues than traditional blues, it featured a performance by John Lee Hooker playing “Boom Boom”, a record that showcases Hooker’s talent as a guttural, growling blues-man.

One of the more fascinating things about John Lee Hooker is not only his age (he was believed to have been born around 1912) but how much he can do with so little.  He’s not a virtuoso at the guitar or the harp, and he’s loathe to be a sideman. Hooker’s idiosyncratic guitar lines fit their own time, and many a band couldn’t bend to them.

That’s not to say there aren’t a few examples of Hooker and a band really coming together. On It Serves You Right to Suffer (Impulse Records, 1965), John Lee brings a crack team of session musicians through a barn-storming version of Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want)”, and on his follow-up record The Real Folk Blues (Chess Records, 1966) opener Let’s Go Out Tonight” shows that Hooker was as capable as any of his Chicago Blues peers at bringing some energy into an electric performance.

Still, John Lee Hooker is most powerful on his own, and that’s what brings me to “The Waterfront”.

“The Waterfront” began its life as a 1933 jazz standard called “I Cover The Waterfront” composed by Johnny Green with lyrics written by Edward Heyman based on a 1932 Max Miller novel entitled I Cover The Waterfront. Billie Holiday does a great version of the original, as does the Lester Young Trio (with Nat King Cole and Buddy Rich).

But there are covers, and then their are covers, where the imitation is no longer just flattery.  John Lee Hooker does just that, with little more than a guitar, a foot, and his voice.

At this point I’d like to point out that there’s a difference between a vocalist and a singer, at least in my mind. A vocalist is someone who possesses the pure talent, someone whose voice just shines through. The best vocalists are singers in the vein of Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, where they are able to use that talent to bring emotion into the song. John Lee Hooker doesn’t exactly have the talent of a vocalist, but he is a fantastic singer, especially here.

He doesn’t exactly stick to the original lyrics, ad-libbing here and there, but the way his voice trembles brings more wistfulness and weariness and tension than the originals before it. The performance is spell-binding, and one of those singular moments where you’re with the musician in the room and lucky to be along for the ride.

John Lee Hooker – The Waterfront

Bonus:

John Lee Hooker – Let’s Go Out Tonight

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