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John Lee Hooker - Burnin’: 60th Anniversary Edition


John Lee Hooker - Burnin’: 60th Anniversary Edition

Maybe they did or maybe they didn’t. Because you don’t always know you are making history at the time.


Regardless, the earth shook in the presence of an absolute classic spawned from a daring break from conventionality. There have been other experiments that may have initially ruffled some feathers: Charlie Parker with strings. Bob Dylan with electricity. Even Howlin’ Wolf with, gulp, wah-wah pedals.


But Hooker ’n’ horns?


To hear John Lee Hooker coaxing Henry Cosby’s tenor saxophone and Mike Terry’s heavyweight baritone to “Blow, blow, blow!” could have well sounded like blasphemy at the time. Because, of all people, here was Hooker, the pinnacle of primal lone-wolf blues—one man, one guitar, one stomping foot; maybe a minimal band at that to hold on for dear life trying to track his impulsive moves—now gilded with brass. And although there had been such sightings before, like the 1950s’ “Boogie Rambler” or “Big Fine Woman,” such alchemy appeared as isolated, oil-and-water occurrences.


But the whole of 1962’s Burnin’ has an undeniable symbiosis. The ‘Hot damn, Hooker’s got horns!’ kind of symbiosis. Where saxes are not glitzy objects, but muscled workhorses co-shouldering the burden of supreme grooves. Hear them sweep like lighthouse beacons through the thick gloom of “Blues Before Sunrise” or how Terry’s baritone bruiser, the heaviest axe of all,

bottoms out “Process” with every strafing run taken over Joe Hunter’s fluttering piano and Hooker’s uneasy guitar.


And then there is Side 1, Track 1.


It is the ice-breaker of all ice-breakers for the project: “Boom Boom.”


The flagship song off a flagship record immediately joined 1948’s “Boogie Chillen” and 1951’s “I'm in the Mood” as Hooker’s ticket to immortality. The stop-time motion that ramrods along the bona fide Billboard hit contrasts the hard gallop of “Let’s Make It”—which lobbies just as hard to, well, make it—and the slurping shuffle of “Thelma,” plus its wilder, orphaned alternate take. “Lost a Good Girl” swings grief like a pendulum. But then Hooker retreats to his dark room. Out come “A New Leaf” and “I Got a Letter,” ever so unhurriedly issuing their complaints atop ever-circling deep-blue pulses.


True to Hooker’s spur-of-the-moment creativity, Burnin’ took all of one singular day to lay down in a Chicago studio. October 6, 1961, to be precise. Still, everything about that Vee-Jay album shouted change. Its striking cover art: a pyre flaming against pitch-black void. Its molasses-thick band: The Funk Brothers, who were the heart of Motown’s rhythm section. Its simple but

eternal taglines: “how-how-how-how,” “hmm-hmm-hmm-hmm,” “boom-boom-boom-boom.”


This expanded 60th Anniversary Edition now doubles the experience. Just as the original notes (served up as a foldout poster recreating the original LP’s front and back jacket) are now joined by new ones, so does the original stereo mix get doubled by a newly cooked mono version of the album. The sound, warm and rich, covers like a blanket, whether spread out left and right over stereophonic panoramas or centered and concentrated into monaural vistas.


Burnin’ has stood the test of time as the exemplar that, when done right, upgrading John Lee Hooker out of barren, sonic desolation only enhances the hypnosis.


Label: Craft Recordings

Release Date: 2/24/2023

Reviewed by Dennis Rozanski




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