This Blues Legend changed all music that came after him. Listen to what makes his rural pre-war Blues style so unique and get a behind-the-scenes peek at how DJs think about getting dancers up and grooving. Or drinking.


An Original Blues Man

John Lee Hooker is a name that’s instantly recognizable around the globe. And if his name escapes you, his songs will be familiar: One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer and Boom Boom and the early Boogie Chillen’ are just a few of his hits off more than 500(!) albums.

Called the King of Boogie he really should have been the King of Cool, as his style was brash but contained, in-your-face but enticing, and even in fame he seemed to just simply do him. An iconic figure for inspiring dancers.

The instigators

This post follows two DJs sitting down long-distance and chatting about the legend: Tracy (of Sitting at the foot of the Blues) and yours truly (Jered) swap stories ranging from which John Lee Hooker dancers love most to what makes a “Whisky song”.

Drop into the conversation and listen to more music below:

Ray Charles vs John Lee Hooker

Tracy: Do you remember way back when I asked you for advice on DJing at a swing event with a blues room?

Jered: I do, it’s a common DJ challenge figuring out how to play for cross-over crowds.

T: And do you remember what you told me?

J: I say so many things… [laughs] More importantly, what did you take away from it?

Ray Charles album coverT: I’ll tell you! You said that if I was losing the dancer floor I should play my best John Lee Hooker or Ray Charles!

J: That’s honestly good advice for any crowd! [laughs]

T: I know!

J: How did the advice work out?

T: I’m not sure I ever ‘lost’ them but I definitely played both artists. Of the two, I definitely play more John Lee Hooker

J: John Lee Hooker is such a steady artist, with a steady feel to all his music, it’s easy to know the right time to drop a song in — and you can play nearly anything he’s done.

Ray was much more eclectic, and the right Ray song for a situation takes a bit more dance-floor management to lead them into the style of the song you’re about to play.

It’s like how I use my coffee machine every day, and love it every time [laughs]. But with a Swiss Army knife, you have more selective timing on when to whip that bad boy out… Hooker is the musical coffee, he gets people up every time. But Ray will get you in-to and out-of some surprising situations!

Favorite Songs for DJing

J: What Hooker songs do you find you gravitate to most?

T: I like his quieter, more introspective ones with a hypnotic feel, like Serves You Right To Suffer or I’m Bad Like Jesse James.

But my first favourite was Annie Mae. It has piano, which is unusual for him, and it might’ve been Pinetop (Perkins) although I haven’t been able to discover who was playing.

There’s another song I love which I first heard played by Ross Woods, and that’s Tupelo; it’s about a flood, and it’s so quiet, more of a moan really.

J: Nah, Pinetop isn’t usually that “soft” on the keys. Charles Brown, I think?

T: Could be. My current favourite is Country Boy, which is his Bad Boy with the lyrics changed. And so compelling; it brings everyone to the floor.

J: Is that the one that goes [attempts to imitate guitar sounds, badly]

T: …I think so… It has an acoustic intro, it’s slow and steady, and it’s just him. At least, I can’t hear a second instrument.

J: Funny you say ‘slow and steady,’ because Slow and Easy is one of my favorite minimalist Hooker tunes of all-time! I think there’s more foot-tapping than guitar playing in that song; he just lets moans and vibrato carry the 3 minutes of music.

T: [nods] It has a similar feel to Tupelo, but the foot-taps create more urgency.

Translating music into dance

J: Yeah I feel it (Slow and Easy) gives the dancer more options — ‘do you wanna hang back and fill in the space (providing contrast to the foot rhythm), or do you wanna drive through certain points (providing contrast to the mellow guitar)?’

Do you like Hooker’s live version of Tupelo, then? It’s a very different song, with its driving drums, harmonica, second guitar

T: Yeah that live version is completely different! One of the things I enjoy is his way of interpreting and presenting his own music in different ways.

J: Totally! And when he works with other artists he doesn’t force them to do it just one way — he seems to really collaborate so that even the “same” song sounds like a whole new song when he switches who’s playing with him.

Which I think is the spirit of Blues that we work on as dancers — how to be your truest self while collaborating with someone who also has their own version of themselves.

T: His music is great for that! I was thinking that his rhythms give a steady pulse for newer dancers to follow as well as more interesting rhythms for experienced dancers to pick up on. In the acoustic version of Tupelo, he layers his vocals between the soft tones of his guitar creating a gentle ‘call and response’ without forcing it.

J: True. His music leaves so much room, it’s really shame to dance “on rhythm” — which frankly, changes constantly throughout his solo stuff — because you’d be limiting the potential in your dance!

Partner up!

T: When he works with other artists he subtly influences the whole feel of the music, while allowing their unique style to shine through. Are you familiar with his album of duets called Best Friends?

J: Not by that title, no. What stands out about it to you?

T: Every single song is a solid groove! This is Hip with Ry Cooder is one of my all time favourite “start the party” songs. I’m in the Mood with Bonnie Raitt is a classic. Baby Lee with Robert Cray is a deceptively simple Blues Rhumba that is guaranteed to fill the floor put a smile on everyone’s face.

J: So if you had to pick one artist that brought out the best in Hooker, and he brought out the best in them, who would you pick?

T: Bonnie Raitt. Their In The Mood sends shivers down my spine each time I hear it. Hooker is the structure, the steady rhythm for Bonnie’s lead guitar. He starts on the vocals — it’s his song after all, then he invites her to sing — and when she starts singing he echoes and layers his own vocals alongside of her. He ends the song, and she hums and moans.

Each of them brings their unique sound, neither of them dominate and they complement each other. Like a partner dance. Lead and follow. Call and response. Rhythm and groove.

I read somewhere that Raitt said working with Hooker changed the way she thought about men in their 70s and 80s, and in the video they are definitely flirting!

On Blues and alcohol

J: So, by your love of ‘moaning’ in songs, could one assume you’re a fan of his Whistlin’ and Moaning Blues which is literally a song of him just….moaning and whistling?

T: Not heard it. Do you like it?

Whisky Blues GuitarJ: It’s what I’d call a prime “Whisky song” — grab yourself a glass of whisky, close your eyes, and just roll with the way he creates wave after wave in the song…

T: I love the way you align music with drinking

.[both laugh].

J: Certain types of music go with certain drinks, alcoholic or not. That’s all I’m sayin’…

T: I never think of music that way. With me it’s always emotional.
For example, I’m in the Mood is sexy but also kind of wistful.
Tupelo is mournful but also has recognition and hope.
This is Hip is “we’re fooling around and we think we’re cool but not taking ourselves too seriously.”

J: So… cocktail, beer, pepsi.

.[both laugh].

“The Hook”

In summary, it was an amusing chat that lead to this Spotify playlist put together by Tracy:

John Lee Hooker and guitar, Hastings Street in Detroit, late 1940s

John Lee Hooker & guitar on Hastings Street in Detroit, late 1940s

Definitely add “The Hook” to your collection, or if you already include him, check out some of the songs above to see if they might end up among your new favorites!

Tracy blogs at Sitting at the foot of the Blues
Jered’s DJ bio & DJ workshops

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Jered
Jered
Jered's unhealthily obsessed with dance, travel, and seeking the perfect coffee roast to power him through it all
18+ years later, he's still at it, and still discovering more to get excited about