10 Best John Lee Hooker Songs, King of the Boogie

Nicknamed the “King of the Boogie,” and sometimes simply referred to as “boogie man,” John Lee Hooker remains one of the blues’ most magnetic characters. With a career spanning the 1930s all the way into the turn of the 21st century, we are lucky that his work coincided with the recording revolution. Unlike early blues artists, there are plenty of Hooker tracks to spin on vinyl for days.

Hooker developed a whole new way to play the blues, pioneering his version of the “electric blues,” featuring him combining delta influences from his homestate of Mississippi, his signature boogie rhythm, and amped-up band recordings.

One of the few bluesmen with one foot in the era of Robert Johnson and the other in the era of Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, his contemporary releases in the ’90s proved he deserved an era all his own. For the best John Lee Hooker songs, read on and prepare to be positively electrified.

10. Whiskey And Wimmen’

Two of the blues’ biggest muses are on tap for this Hooker classic. ‘Whiskey and Wimmen” acts as a warning to others who may be caught up in the allure of “nightlife,” as the lyrics “Whiskey and wimmen almost wrecked my life” are reiterated throughout the verses. It’s a rolling standard that is often recognized as some of Hooker’s best, most quintessential blues work. Rock band Canned Heat was heavily influenced by his music, and in ’71 they teamed up with him to record the rocking single. The blues had a defining impact on the band’s career. Their name was even a tribute to one of the genre’s delta blues artists, Tommy Johnson, after his tune, ‘Canned Heat Blues.’


9. Crawlin’ Kingsnake

Long before he began scoring Grammy nominations for his work with fellow contemporary musicians, Hooker reached chart success very early on in his career. With the release of ‘Crawlin’ Kingsnake’ in 1949, it placed in the top 10 on R&B charts. Though the song dates back to the 1920s, Hooker’s version draws heavily from Tony Hollin’s recording, which he was inspired by. Before he brought it into mainstream conversation, the song acted as a token of oral history, handed down from generation to generation before modern recording equipment was invented. The folk-blues standard became a setlist anchor for Hooker after its release. Even into the ’90s, he played the single for festival performances.


8. I Need Some Money

A hit that has stood the test of time because everyone can relate to it at some point or another, ‘I Need Some Money,’ is quickly recognized by its opening lyrics, “The best things in life are free, but you can give it to the birds and bees. I need some money.” The composition has been recorded many times, with almost 200 on official record. Generation after generation, bands have scored hits with covers of the blues-rock classic. Hooker was the first to cover it, though. He borrowed it from its original writers, Berry Gordy and Janie Bradford way back in 1960. His deep, fluid vocals and one-note guitar fills give it an air of raw, explosive power. These elements are set against a soft, grooving backbeat, in the vein of Howlin’ Wolf’s ‘Smokestack Lightnin” (though that was recorded after this track). This duality gives Hooker’s memorable interpretation an eerie, beautiful tone.

Related: Hear Smokestack Lightnin’ on our list of the best Howlin’ Wolf songs.


7. Chill Out (Things Gonna Change)

In 1995, guitarist Carlos Santana once again paired up with John Lee Hooker, this time for their song ‘Chill Out’ featured on Hooker’s album by the same name. Right off the bat, Santana’s influence is heard in the track, with a syncopated percussive beat and silky smooth guitar melodies gently kicking things off. The moody single takes on a bit of a jam band vibe throughout, with Hooker trading off vocal runs and “talking blues” motifs with Santana’s pensive solos. The overall theme centers around better days ahead, despite much hardship endured. This record release was another huge success for John late in his career. The album proved that even in the ’90s, both the bluesman and the blues were still going strong. It climbed all the way to the third spot on the American blues charts.

Recommended: Our selection of essential Santana tracks.


6. The Healer

Released during the latter part of his musical career, ‘The Healer’ is the title track to one of the blues’ defining modern compilation albums. The 1989 release features Carlos Santana for this particular single, allowing Hooker to take command of the mic while his fellow guitar showman doles out blistering licks. The album as a whole sparked a blues renaissance of sorts in the ’90s, Hooker rightfully at the helm, with nearly 50 years in the business to back him up. This would turn out to be one of his last releases. But when examining his career as a whole, it was also one of his most important. Aside from setting the tone for where the blues genre would go for the next generation, it also was a huge monetary success for the artist. While his early days meant he scraped by with his recordings and performances, The Healer album meant the third act of his career would also be his most lucrative. Not a bad way to ride off into the sunset.


5. Boogie Chillun

An evergreen Hooker track, ‘Boogie Chillun’ is practically synonymous with the blues musician. Its never-before-heard rhythm also birthed a new wave of the blues, a subgenre sometimes referred to as “electric delta.” To understand the genesis of this track, we have to travel all the way back to John’s childhood in Mississippi. His father was the first to show him a version of the “boogie woogie” rhythm he’d go on to perfect and introduce to the blues. ‘Boogie Chillun’ is unsurprisingly a perfect example of this new sound. First recorded all the way back in 1949, showcasing just his voice and guitar work was enough. The single became a hit among aspiring rock stars. Bands like ZZ Top utilized this boogie-blues rhythm, especially for hits like ‘La Grange.’ In the last years of his career, he blew the crowd away with a showcase performance of the blues-rock classic alongside The Rolling Stones and fellow blues great Eric Clapton. It is a wonderful reality that Hooker’s career happened during a time when most of it could be recorded. Listening to the different versions of ‘Boogie Chillun’ over the decades exemplifies how large Hooker’s scope truly was, even just in regards to this one song.


4. Dimples

One of Hooker’s most popular tracks to date, ‘Dimples’ is a prime example of why this bluesman received the nickname “King of the Boogie.” He swung notes and manipulated rhythms like no other before him, making his singles like this signature dance number. Sexy, powerful, and polished all rolled into one, you can see why tracks like ‘Dimples’ are still so beloved to this day. The song struts even more with the addition of harmonica wailing in tandem with the guitar and the clean, easy beat. The expertly executed accompaniment was done so by the prowess of Jimmy Reed’s band, another prominent blues artist of the day. One of Hooker’s recordings from the 1950s era, it even placed on British charts back in the day, making it, as critics called it, a “genuine classic.”


3. I’m In The Mood (feat. Bonnie Raitt)

Hooker’s modernized style of playing can’t be understated. His career spanned much of the 1900s, beginning all the way back in the 1930s when the invention of the electric guitar was still in its infancy. Though many of his early recordings are stripped-down powerhouses featuring just his voice and a 6-string, as he aged through the evolving system of the blues, he pioneered the subgenre of the “electrified delta blues.” ‘I’m In The Mood’ is a perfect example of this. The gritty, slow-churning rhythm is straight out of Mississippi, but the big band recording and polished electric guitar licks add a Chicago blues element that is impossible to ignore. Over a sexy shuffle pattern, for this particular recording, John Lee Hooker and slide queen Bonnie Raitt duet, harmonizing and trading vocal runs with each other. The critically-acclaimed single even won a Grammy award for Best Traditional Blues Performance.

Recommended: Our pick of Bonnie Raitt’s most popular songs.


2. One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer

This blues shuffle has been around so long it’s changed hands many times, with contemporary listeners often mistaking this track as a George Thorogood original. However, the track dates all the way back to the 1940s, and isn’t even a Hooker original either. It started as a groovy party tune written by Amos Milburn and Rudy Toombs. In the mid-’60s, Hooker decided to record it himself, and his version came so naturally that critics argued it was actually his all along. Some referred to his remarkable ability to reinterpret tracks into completely new pieces as ‘Hookerization.” Most notably, he added a narrative aspect to the song. In between choruses, he weaved a story together featuring him chatting up an overworked bartender while drinking over his woman who’s just left him. One of the blues genre’s most played tracks, it’s a balanced mix between classic blues shuffle and danceable boogie.


1. Boom Boom

Chances are, even if you don’t know who wrote the song, you know the words to John Lee Hooker’s ‘Boom Boom,’ and turn up the volume when it starts to play. One of the blues’ most popular singles ever, it’s got a timeless feel. Its opening guitar lick and perfectly timed drum hits give a mythic feel to the creation. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when he first wrote it. He often edited originals over decades, recording updated versions that gave previously released tracks a whole new sound. The general consensus, though, is that the ’60s recording is the go-to rendition that kicked off the tune’s entry into “blues standard status.” Hooker wrote it from a comedic perspective. There was one standing gig he had that he was often late to, and every time he’d arrive tardy, the bartender would jokingly say, “Boom, boom. You’re late again.” But once an official recording was released, the single caught on like wildfire, and it became his signature track. He pulled out all the stops for the piece. From his gospel-tinged delta vocal mastery to his boogie woogie genius, the essence of John Lee Hooker – one of the world’s greatest musicians and one of the blues’ most important figures – is found in this epic, rocking composition.

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About Ged Richardson

Ged Richardson is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of ZingInstruments.com. He has been featured in Entrepreneur, PremierGuitar, Hallmark, Wanderlust, CreativeLive, and other major publications. As an avid music fan, he spends his time researching and writing about new and old music, as well as testing and reviewing music-related products. He's played guitar in various bands, from rock to gypsy jazz. Be sure to check out his YouTube channel, where he geeks out about his favorite bands.

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