John Lee Hooker

Hall of Fame

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The German reissue label Past Perfect, an imprint of the International Music Company (TIM), is one of those low-ball outfits that simply shovel lots of public-domain material into a package and call it a box set. The label attempts to maintain a veneer of respectability by including a lengthy CD insert -- "incl. 40 page booklet" reads a legend on the cover. Well, that booklet is 40 pages long, and most of those pages are taken up by text in English, but the unsigned biographical essay on John Lee Hooker is heavily padded with long lists of song titles and digressions into the biographies of other blues musicians whose stories are tangential to Hooker's. Like the contents of the box set itself, the notes are more an example of quantity than quality. And as to those contents, there are 74 tracks that run a little over four hours (which means they could have fit on four CDs instead of being spread over five). The first four discs contain recordings that seem to come from the first four years of Hooker's recording career, 1948-1952, which would make sense, since those recordings were out of copyright in Europe by 2002 due to the continent's 50-year copyright limit. Hooker did a lot of recording in those days for a lot of tiny labels in Detroit, some of it licensed to Modern Records in Los Angeles. Although he had an exclusive contract, he was paid per session, and he simply would adopt a pseudonym and record for someone else. The resulting material varies considerably in sound quality, with some tracks exhibiting the pops and crackles that signal a mastering from an old record, some showing distortion from the primitive recording conditions, and some sounding fine. Little information is provided on the fifth disc, beyond the song titles and Hooker's sidemen, Lowell Fulson and S.P. Leary, both of whom get their names misspelled. This disc actually contains the early-'70s Hooker session for his I Feel Good! LP, originally released by Jewel Records. Here the sound quality is much better; the tracks are even in stereo. This box provides a lot of early Hooker, and if it can be acquired at a low price, it may be worthwhile for fans. But it should not be purchased under the mistaken impression that it constitutes a comprehensive overview of Hooker's career.