Saturday, 5 October 2013

John Lee Hooker's "Boogie Chillen" - the riff that launched a thousand songs

There's a nagging, inistent quality to John Lee Hooker's 1949 recording of "Boogie Chillen" that seems to presage both the tough, electrified Chess R&B that was to follow, while the upbeatness of the tone and the fact that the singer is masquerading as a music-obsessed teenager whose parents can't stop him from going out clubbing point to teen-oriented rock 'n' roll that was also just around the corner. Like Muddy Waters' slower, more brooding "Rollin' Stone", released a year later, the music - heavily based on a single chord - is drone-like: although neither record features a drum, the beat is far more important than the melody on both tracks.

Hooker recorded many versions of his song - and there were plenty of covers by other artists - but the one I grew up listening to was this sensationally rhythmic, stinging, electrified VeeJay version, recorded in 1959: 

By the time Hooker recorded that version, the beat had already become a staple of rhythm 'n' blues. In 1953 Little Junior Parker released a thinly-disguised variant on Sun, entitled "Feelin' Good":

Here's the great Lousiana bluesman Slim Harpo with the stupendous "Shake Your Hips" -later memorably covered by the Stones on Exile on Main Street - in 1965:

Ooh, that's good! Canned Heat picked up the beat for 1968's Top Ten UK hit - and the song that eventually opened the Woodstock movie - "On The Road Again":

Groovy! 1969 saw the release of an unlikely but magical world-wide hippy hit that would forever brand the ur-riff into white kids' collective consciousness: 

Far out, man! In 1973, beardy Texas blues-rockers ZZ Top recorded "La Grange", a song about a local brothel, complete with a fairly convincing vocal impersonation of Hooker. (The "Boogie Chillen" copyright-holder sued, but the court ruled that the 34-year old riff was in the public domain.)

Since then, the riff has been used again and again. Here are two notable examples from the Noughties:

Who would have thought that the solo acoustic groove created by a young, unknown, Mississippi-born bluesman for his very first recording would still be echoing around the world in dozens of versions 64 years later. Rock 'n' roll! Bloody hell!

I'll leave you with one of the rawest and most exciting versions of Hooker's classic ever committed to tape, by the great R.L. Burnside:


  1. Hooker is a kind of odd case. He has a Hill Country sensibility (he was an idol of R L Burnside) but he's from the Delta. Supposedly he learned the style from a Louisiana uncle.

    He's also brilliant and this is his best effort...Lights Out.

    1. Sorry, e.f. - I hit the "publish" button too soon - find plenty more stuff added to what you saw. Burnside's fabulous version is right at the end.

    2. He made that record with Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. The Blues Explosion was often dismissed as "post-modern" blues but, in actuality they had a lot more in common with the Blues as it was still being played (especially in North Mississippi). They weren't the Eric Clapton Blues Explosion the classic rock types and the American Studies crowd didn't care for it.


      That is a fun record (see tojo Told Hitler).

  2. Hi,

    This is excellent!! What was the last song, which has been removed?


    1. Thank you, Sean! It was the version by R.L. Burnside from "A Ass Pocket of Whiskey" - I've put up the only version I can find on YouTube (it sounds like it cuts out early, but there's only a second or two missing at the end).

  3. Thanks for the quick response. I'm going to use this blog in a high-school course I'm teaching on the history of Rock-N-Roll!

    1. I'm honoured! Hope the course goes well.

  4. And Mr Terwilliger, if you decide to expand the course to include most other forms of music, you will find plenty of material elsewhere on his blog. The really irritating thing about the Blogmeister is that he knows an enormous amount about the genre and is a brilliant writer, unlike most music journalists. Maybe you can persuade him to write a book. Mind you, if you are thinking about a module on the work of Prefab Sprout, I am probably a better bet.