Charles Shaar Murray – Boogie Man – The Adventures of John Lee Hooker

Charles Shaar Murray

John Lee Hooker’s “Boogie Chillen” may well have been the first million-selling blues hit when it came out in 1948. It was a song unlike anything most folk had ever heard: the chanted odyssey of a young boy losing his innocence to the blues, all riding on a one-chord boogie vamp. The symbolism underlining that song – the country boy coming to the big city – summed up the experience of many an African-American, and it’s little wonder that “Boogie Chillen” made Hooker a star.

Boogie Man is the Hook’s story. It’s all here, from his birth near Clarksdale, Mississippi, to his early recordings in Detroit, on to his current status as a Delta Blues superstar, an anomaly if ever there was one.

The story is told by Charles Shaar Murray, an English journalist who wrote what is easily the single best book of rock and roll criticism/history, Crosstown Traffic: Jimi Hendrix and the Rock’n’Roll Revolution. His examination of Hendrix was incisive and enlightening. There’s nothing else like it.

Boogie Man is a fun read, as well. Murray can write, period. He’s at his best describing the bizarre world of a modern-day bluesman on tour, painting a picture of Hooker surrounded by groupies, hangers-on, and the big-money world of today’s pop music. His story of Hooker’s roots in Mississippi is also beautifully rendered.

With no offense to either Hooker or Murray, ultimately Hooker’s story is just not as interesting as, say, Hendrix’s. This book stretches on for 500 pages, riding a one-chord boogie until it’s worn out. The story would have been better served by being simple and short and to the point, just like a Hooker song.

Still, if you’re a fan of the Hook or of blues in general, this is a modern-day Odyssey you can’t miss.

This review originally appeared in VG‘s Mar. ’01 issue.