JOHN LEE HOOKER-DOCUMENTING THE SENSATION RECORDINGS 1948-52.

John Lee Hooker-Documenting The Sensation Recordings 1948-52.

Label: Ace Records.

In 1946, Detroit-based Bernard Besman joined forces with accountant John Kaplan and bought Pan American Record Distributing. Later that year, they also founded Sensation Records which they named after a local nightclub, the Sensation Lounge. The next step was to sign some of the best local musicians.

This was Bernard Besman responsibility as he in charge of A&R, while his business partner looked after the finances. Soon, the nascent label had signed Milt Jackson, Russell Jacquet, The Harmonicats, TJ Fowler and Todd Rhodes, and had recorded sessions by singers Connie Allen and LaVern Baker. By then, Sensation Records had signed a distribution deal with King Records. This was just the start.

Towards the end of 1948, Bernard Besman heard a demo by a local blues musician John Lee Hooker, and realising his potential ranged what was his first recording session. He was sent into the recording studio with engineer Joe Siracuse to record a solo version of Boogie Chillen’.

The only problem was the studio they used was very basic, and when they ran through the track Bernard Besman and Joe Siracuse realised that they John Lee Hooker had to produce a stronger sound. They had no amplifier so had to improvise. This involved putting a microphone onto the guitar, and then putting a speaker in a toilet bowl with a microphone underneath it. The theory was that the sound would bounce off the water, and create the echo effect Bernard Besman wanted. When John Lee Hooker played, the sound went back into the speaker where it was picked up along with the vocal. Meanwhile, they had played a board under the bluesman’s foot and placed a microphone under it to capture the sound of him tapping his foot. It was a case of make do and mend, but Boogie Chillen’ was successful.

After the recording session in September 1948, Bernard Besman realised that Boogie Chillen’ had potential and decided to lease  the song to a bigger label. He chose Modern Records to release and distribute Boogie Chillen’ This proved profitable for Sensation Records and Bernard Besman as received a cowriter’s credit for all the singles he released on the label. 

All of these singles feature on a new three CD set released by Ace Records, Documenting The Sensation Recordings 1948-52. The singles are only part of the story, as there’s alternate takes and extended versions. In total, there’s seventy-one tracks on the three discs. This includes five alternate takes and the original version of Boogie Chillen’, plus an alternate take of the B-Side Sally Mae. They’re part of the definitive overview of John Lee Hooker’s Sensation Records’ years.

When Boogie Chillen’ was released in November 1948, Sally Mae was on the B-Side. Listeners on hearing the single were struck by its primitive sound, the driving guitar that inspired so many musicians and a dark, ponderous sounding vocal from John Lee Hooker who is in a reflective mood on what was his debut single. It struck a never with record buyers, selling over a million copies and launching John Lee Hooker’s career. 

For the followup, Hobo Blues was chosen, and an alternate track is included in this compilation. So is the B-Side Hoogie Boogie. When the single was released in 1949, it reached number five in the US R&B charts and gave John Lee Hooker his second hit single.

Two became three later in 1949, when he released Crawling King Snake as a single, with Drifting From Door Oo Door on the B-Side. It reached number six in the US R&B charts. This John Lee Hooker classic and the flip-side both feature on the compilation.

Burnin’ Hell was also released in 1949 with Miss Sadie Mae on the B-Side. However, it was the one that got away for John Lee Hooker. Despite that both sides feature in the box set and just like Weeping Willow the B-Side of Whistlin’ and Moanin’ Blues from 1949, are a reminder of one of the great blues men as he embarks upon his recording career. 

As the fifties dawned, John Lee Hooker was about to enter a prolific period. One of the tracks he recorded in 1950 was Wednesday Evening which is a welcome addition to the box set. He also released a number of singles on Modern Records and Sensation Records during what was a roller caster of a year.

The single Howlin’ Wolf was released on Modern Records in 1950, but failed to trouble the charts. However, it features in the box set. So does Roll N’ Roll which wasn’t a commercial success. It featured Give Me Your Phone Number on the B-Side, and an alternate take is included on the compilation. For John Lee Hooker the lack of commercial success of the singles he released on Modern Records was disappointing

Other John Lee Hooker singles released during 1950 were released on Sensation Records.This included Let Your Daddy Ride with Goin’ On Highway #51 on the flip-side. Both feature on the box set along with the singles My Baby’s Got Somethin’ and five alternate takes of Boogie Chillen’ #2. John Lee Hooker would record various versions of Boogie Chillen’ over the next few years. It was an attempt to replicate the success of the original.

Later in 1950, Sensation Records released Huckle Up Baby as a single with Canal Street Blues on the B-Side. However, the single stalled at fifteen on the US R&B charts. Both tracks featured on the three CD set and this single marked the end of era. It was the last John Lee Hooker released on Sensation Records who closed their doors in late 1950. Despite that, Bernard Besman continued to record John Lee Hooker.

The pair struck gold when John Lee Hooker released I’m In The Mood in 1951, with How Can You Do It on the B-Side. The single reached thirty in the US Billboard 100 and topped the US R&B charts. The original version of In The Mood is joined by four alternate takes including one where a harmonica was overdubbed. They show different sides to this familiar blues, while the flip-side How Can You Do It is a hidden gem that features a vocal full of disbelief and despair. John Lee Hooker had the ability to breath meaning and emotion into a song, and was well on his way to becoming one of the most successful blues players.

He was a prolific artist and for the next couple of years, spent a lot of time recording with Bernard Besman. In 1951, they recorded Women in My Life, Tease Me Baby and Turn Over A New Leaf which featured on the 1962 compilation John Lee Hooker Sings The Blues. Then in 1952, they recorded  Bluebird Blues, That’s All Right and It’s Time for Lovin’ To Be Done. Other tracks recorded in 1952 would feature on a compilation released in 1962. However, that was all in the future.

When Ride ‘Til I Die was released on Modern Records in May 1953 It’s Stormin’ and Rainin’ was on the B-Side. Despite the quality of the single once again, commercial success eluded John Lee Hooker. 

In 1963, The Great John Lee Hooker was released and would introduce many aspiring musicians to one of the great bluesmen. The album featured It Hurts Me So, Key to the Highway and I Got Eyes for You. There’s also an alternate take on Documenting The Sensation Recordings 1948-52. It lay unreleased until 2001, the year that John Lee Hooker passed away. Blues music had lost one of its greats.

By the seventies, blues music was no longer as popular as it once was. It had been overtaken in the popularity stakes by soul, rock and pop. That was despite many rock musicians championing the blues and trying to introduce the music to a wider audience. However, many critics felt the music was no longer as relevant as it had once been. Given all this, it was no surprise that many bluesmen were struggling to make a living. John Lee Hooker continued to tour and released albums. This included a new compilation in 1970.

When Alone was released in 1970, its featured Alberta, Graveyard Blues, Momma Poppa Boogie, Sailing Blues and Black Cat Blues. They were joined by Rollin’ Blues, Three Long Years Today, Do My Baby Think of Me, Walkin’ This Highway and I Need Lovin’. For many record buyers this Speciality Records’ compilation introduced them to John Lee Hooker’s music.

The following year, 1971, Speciality Records released another compilation, Goin’ Down Highway 51. It featured tracks of the quality of Henry’s Swing Club, Sail on Little Girl, Alberta Part 2, Queen Bee and  Grinder Man. They helped to introduce the veteran bluesman’s music to a new audience. That’s that is the case with the Documenting The Sensation Recordings 1948-52 box set.

With access to the Sensation Records master tapes the compilers were able to choose from singles, B-Sides, album tracks, alternate takes and unreleased tracks which feature on the three discs. 

On disc one there’s an alternate take of War Is Over (Goodbye California) and two extended versions. There’s also three alternate takes of Alberta and Build Myself a Cave. These tracks show the songs evolving and gradually taking shape.

Then on disc two there’s another trio of unreleased tracks. This includes an extended version of Strike Blues and alternate takes of The Story of a Married Woman and Moon Is Rising. The sound quality is remarkably good given they were recorded between 1948 and 1952 on quite primitive equipment.

The third disc features four more unreleased tracks. This includes the opening track John L’s House Rent Boogie and an alternative incomplete take. There’s also an alternate take of It Hurts Me So and an under dub of That’s All Right Boogie. These are interesting additions and part of the most comprehensive overview of John Lee Hooker’s Sensation Record years.

 For fans for the late John Lee Hooker, Documenting The Sensation Recordings 1948-52 is an opportunity to hear some of his earliest recordings including a numbers of singles. His hits and misses rub shoulders with B-Sides, album tracks, alternate takes and fourteen unreleased tracks. They’re welcome additions to this lovingly curated box set which is a cut above many similar releases. The big difference with Documenting The Sensation Recordings 1948-52 is the sound quality and liner notes which are part of what’’s a fitting homage to one of the giants of the blues, John Lee Hooker.

John Lee Hooker-Documenting The Sensation Recordings 1948-52.

 

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