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Celebrating veteran voices of the blues

The Best of Friends
The Best of Friends
By John Lee Hooker

Pointblank / Virgin Records: 1998

Love You Most of All: More Songs From Venice Beach
Love You Most of All: More Songs From Venice Beach
By Ted Hawkins

Evidence Music: 1998

Goin' Down the Road Feelin' Bad
Goin' Down the Road Feelin' Bad
By John Cephas and Phil Wiggins

Evidence Music: 1998

These reviews first appeared in the November 28, 1998 edition of the American Reporter.

John Lee Hooker was just another forgotten giant of the blues, playing honky tonks and barrelhouse gin joints in his autumn years. Heck, even his riveting performance of "Boom Boom" from "The Blues Brothers" film didn't make it onto the soundtrack.

But in 1989, Bonnie Raitt and other admirers of Hooker convinced the honchos at Chameleon Records to pair the bluesman with rock stars. The resulting release, "The Healer," put Hooker back in the public eye where he belonged and he's been headlining concerts and festivals ever since.

Four other duet-based CDs have followed, letting Hooker play with everyone from Raitt and Cray to Carlos Santana, Canned Heat to Los Lobos, Van Morrison, Jimmie Vaughan, Keith Richards and Johnny Winter.

Now, Virgin's Pointblank blues label has released a "best of" CD, taking cuts from the five duets albums and adding a couple of new tracks (including one with Eric Clapton).

It's a nice collection, especially if you don't have the coin to go out and buy all five discs. You'll get most of the big-name collaborations here, a baker's dozen of nice cuts.

Hooker is no longer a young man – at this year's San Diego Street Scene, he mostly sang, leaving the guitar work to his backing band. It's unlikely he'll record too many more albums, and few of them will feature his own distinctive guitar playing. Thus, the new tracks here are that much more special.

     ~ ~ ~

Like Sinatra or Lady Day, the late Ted Hawkins had one of those rare voices you recognize within a note or two. High yet gruff and with a bit of tremolo, Hawkins could evoke more pain, more pleasure than just about any singer you'll ever hear.

Never polished, Hawkins' few recordings reflected his years of playing for tips along Venice Beach in Southern California, accompanied only by his acoustic guitar. Even when "discovered" by Geffen Records toward the end of his life, his singing retained its charming and evocative rough edges.

When he died four years ago at the too-young age of 58, he left behind only a handful of albums – the mentioned Geffen release, a couple on Rounder, a European import – and some unreleased tapes.

Evidence Music has now released a second disc of unreleased recordings, a companion to the earlier "Songs From Venice Beach." Like the earlier disc, and unlike his others albums, "Love You Most of All" is drawn almost entirely from his Venice Beach repertoire, the covers of popular songs he would sing for the tourists. While his own, original compositions were generally straight-ahead blues, when trying to make a living Hawkins played whatever the folks wanted to hear.

No matter what he was singing, though, Hawkins could get inside the song, turn it around and make it his own. The songs are always recognizable, but the arrangements are never the expected. Whether John Denver's "Country Roads" or Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" or Simon and Garfunkle's "59th Street Bridge Song," Hawkins' version is always distinct.

A special treat here is that the final five cuts are from another session Hawkins cut of his own material, three of which have never been released before. As with all his songs, each is a tight little story about life's vicissitudes with plenty of irony and pathos.

     ~ ~ ~

Cephas & Wiggins are among the few bluesmen still playing the Piedmont style from the Carolinas and Virginia. It's an intricate, uptempo music – all acoustic, very traditional and yet just as modern and fresh-sounding as any Top 40 dance band.

Pairing "Bowling Green" John Cephas' acoustic guitar and "Harmonica" Phil Wiggins' harp, the duo is as close to the pure magic of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee as we still have available. Unlike other guitar-harmonica duos like Roy Rogers and Norton Buffalo or Tom Ball and Kenny Sultan, Cephas and Wiggins remain true to the blues in their music. No rock riffs or transient appeals to fickle yuppie crowds, Cephas and Wiggins stick to the blues.

"Goin' Down the Road Feelin' Bad" is a reissue of 18-year-old recordings made for a series of German compilations. At the time, Cephas and Wiggins were just starting out together – but you wouldn't know it from their confident, tight covers of 14 traditional tunes. Like Terry and McGhee, Cephas and Wiggins combine for vocal harmonies the Everlys would envy, and they trade solos on guitar and harp with virtuosic talent and a pure joy of making music.

In addition to the great tunes on this CD, Brett J. Bonner's liner notes provide an outstanding history and distillation of the Piedmont style of blues – perfect reading material while listening.