Review: John Lee Hooker’s ‘The Healer’ Still Cures Our Ills on a Reissue of his 1989 Comeback

John Lee Hooker
The Healer
(Craft Recordings)
4 1/2 out of 5 stars

Videos by American Songwriter

It’s that voice. There’s no mistaking it.

John Lee Hooker didn’t really sing. Rather he moaned, howled, groaned, muttered, and mumbled as if he were wading through some deep Southern swamp at night.

In a career that lasted over 50 years, the Mississippi-born Hooker shifted from an achingly slow, crawling kingsnake creep to the traditional thumping blues that provided his nickname as King of the Boogie.  Along the way he influenced countless rock and roll and electric blues bands, from Canned Heat (who resurrected his career when they recorded Hooker ‘n Heat in 1971) to ZZ Top and George Thorogood, to namecheck just a few.

He also recorded a dizzying amount of albums and singles, many of questionable quality and sometimes under aliases, for a confusing amalgamation of labels. But in 1989, at the age of 72, he had again fallen out of favor and found his career floundering. Most musicians would have retired, but thanks to guitarist/producer Roy Rogers, Hooker experienced another revitalization for a new audience.

Rogers corralled younger roots rockers such as Bonnie Raitt, Robert Cray, Los Lobos, a rejiggered Canned Heat, and others to guest on The Healer in 1989. The album found Hooker occasionally pushing outside his once strict boundaries, specifically on the Latin-inflected title track, featuring Carlos Santana and his band. Many of its songs were re-recordings of tracks Hooker released decades earlier. Regardless, the presence of Thorogood’s stinging guitar on a stripped down “Sally Mae,” Cray bringing his soulful self on “Baby Lee” and especially a Grammy-winning duet with a sultry Bonnie Raitt squeezing out a torrid slide solo on “In the Mood” surely energized Hooker to raise his game. Charlie Musselwhite brings the swamp on an oozingly emotional “That’s Alright,” a track that consolidates every aspect of the singer’s deep, dark, ominous blues in just over four terse and tense minutes.

Not to be out-gunned by his visitors though, the legend goes it alone and unplugged on a spirited “Rockin’ Chair” and the closing “No Substitute,” capturing Hooker’s notorious foot-tapping the beat in lieu of drums.

The Healer, soon available on vinyl and now reissued for CD after being out of print for over a decade, was the beginning of the iconic musician’s final batch of well-recorded and distributed albums. Most, like Mr. Lucky (with Keith Richards, Ry Cooder, Johnny Winter, and Albert Collins) in 1991, featured guests who paid tribute to Hooker with heartfelt, beautifully crafted performances. They honored his celebrated career in an appropriately classy and proud fashion.

A healer until the end.

Photo courtesy Craft Recordings

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