BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

When John Lee Hooker died recently and I wanted to read more about him, I simply turned to CRUISE THROUGH THE BLUES by Barry Hansen, published by Backbeat Books in cooperation with Rhino Records, whose latest release is New Millenium Blues Party, a compilation CD of key blues musicians, past and present.

Hansen, a musicologist and blues specialist better known as radio's Dr. Demento, has put together a 208-page book that traces the origins of the blues and the men and women who made that music famous. The narrative takes the reader back to the Deep South in the early 1900s and follows the blues trail, from the Delta to vaudeville to Chicago to international fame.

Hooker is just one of the dozens of illustrious musicians profiled in the book. Here is what Hansen says about him: "No one has ever sung or played blues that cut deeper than John Lee Hooker's best. His deep, dark voice and pungent guitar style are instantly recognizable. Even his lesser recordings, like the guest star-glutted affairs released in the 1990s, leave an unforgettable impression."

Hansen also capsulizes Hooker's background. Born in Mississippi in 1915, he went from Memphis and Cincinnati to Detroit, where he was recorded on a small local label which in 1948 leased his work to L.A.'s Modern Label. "Out of nowhere, he had the hottest R&B record in the country," Hansen says. "Small bands were making most of the R&B noise then, but here was one man, one guitar, doing it all. And it wasn't even an electric guitar, but a standard acoustic run through a special echo chamber...It sounded cranked, but there was a crisper top end than the amps of those days could manage. The beat was irrestible, and the voice hit home."

Hooker also recorded under other names: Texas Slim, Johnny Williams, The Boogie Man, Birmingham Sam & His Magic Guitar, John Lee Booker and John Lee. He later recorded for Riverside and played both acoustic and electric guitar in gigs on both sides of the Atlantic. In 1970 he recorded a double LP with Canned Heat, Hooker 'n Heat, which "remains one of blues' more successful cross-generational projects."

With its foreword by B.B. King and comprehensive overview of the history of the blues, CRUISE THROUGH THE BLUES is a gem of a book.