Boogie Chillen'

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"Boogie Chillen'"
Single by John Lee Hooker
B-side "Sally May"
Released November 1948 (1948-11)[1]
Format 10" 78 rpm record
Recorded United Sound, Detroit, Michigan September 1948[2]
Genre Blues
Length 3:11
Label Modern single #627[1]
Writer(s) John Lee Hooker
Producer(s) Bernie Besman

"Boogie Chillen'" or "Boogie Chillun"[3] is a blues song written by John Lee Hooker and recorded in 1948. It was Hooker's debut record release and became a No. 1 Billboard R&B chart hit in 1949. The guitar figure from "Boogie Chillen'" has been called "the riff that launched a million songs",[4] inspiring many popular blues and rock songs. It is considered one of the genre's most important and influential recordings for the forthcoming rock 'n' roll.[5]


In 1943, when Hooker moved to Detroit, Michigan, for employment opportunities, he was attracted to the music clubs along Hastings Street in Black Bottom/Paradise Valley, the cultural center of the city's black community. His experience is recounted in the narrative to "Boogie Chillen'":

When I first come to town people, I was walkin' down Hastings Street
I heard everybody talkin' about, Henry's Swing Club
I decided I'd drop in there that night, and when I got there
I say 'Yes, people!', yes they was really havin' a ball!
Yes, I know...
Boogie Chillen'!

By 1948, Hooker came to the attention of Elmer Barbee, a local record shop owner, who arranged to have several demos recorded. Barbee or Hooker later presented them to Bernie Besman, who operated "the city's only truly professional record concern".[6] Although Hooker had played mostly with an ensemble at that time, Besman decided to record him solo. This "plac[ed] the aural focus even more squarely on the featured singer/guitarist",[7] in contrast to the prevailing jump blues style, which emphasized ensemble instrumentation. Recent hit singles by Muddy Waters and Lightnin' Hopkins had also featured this stripped-down, electrified Delta blues-inspired sound.


"Boogie Chillen'" is a "rocking dance piece ... its structure is utterly free-form, its basic beat is the jumping, polyrhythmic groove which he [Hooker] learned in the Delta".[8] The key feature of the song is the insistent guitar rhythmic figure centered around one chord, with "accents that fell fractionally ahead of the beat"[9] using hammer-on and pull-off techniques. In an interview with B.B. King, Hooker confirmed that he used an open G guitar tuning for the song.[10][11] Although it has been called a "boogie", it does not resemble the earlier boogie-woogie style, which was based on a left-hand piano ostinato or walking-bass line, such as the popular 1940s "Guitar Boogie".[12]

Hooker gave credit to his stepfather Will Moore: "My stepfather and myself, when I was a kid fifteen years old, he taught me to do that beat and I did it".[13] "The closest thing to it on records is 'Cottonfield Blues', recorded by Garfield Akers and Joe Callicott, two guitarists from the hill country of northern Mississippi, in 1929. Essentially, it was a backcountry, pre-blues sort of music—a droning, open-ended stomp without a fixed verse form that lent itself to building up to a cumulative, trancelike effect".[14] Hooker's vocal alternates between sung and spoken sections. The opening lyrics "My mama she didn't allow me to stay out all night long..." are borrowed from earlier blues songs.[15] The first and second takes included similar verses and the narrative about the club, but do not include the crucial mid-song hook "Boogie, chillen'!" before the guitar break, which gives the song its identity. Combined with Hooker's guitar, the result is "as overwhelmingly personal a piece as anything ever done in the blues".[16]

Recording and release[edit]

In September 1948, Besman arranged recording sessions for Hooker at United Sound studios in Detroit. Several songs were recorded with Hooker's vocals and amplified guitar. To make the sound fuller, a microphone was set up in a pallet that was placed under Hooker's foot. According to Besman's account, a primitive echo-chamber effect was created by feeding Hooker's foot-stomp rhythm into a speaker in a toilet bowl, which in turn was miked and returned to a speaker in the studio in front of Hooker's guitar, thus giving a "big" sound.[17] Three takes of a boogie-style number were recorded, the last providing the master for "Boogie Chillen'".

Even though Besman had his own record label, Sensation Records, he licensed "Boogie Chillen" to Los Angeles-based Modern Records.[2] On November 3, 1948, it was released nationally and entered the Billboard R&B chart in January 8, 1949.[18] It reached No. 1 on February 19, 1949[19] and reportedly sold "several hundred thousand"[20] to one million[21] copies.[22]

Early influence[edit]

Besides its commercial success, "Boogie Chillen'" had a big impact on blues and R&B musicians. B.B. King recalled Hooker's song when he was still a disc jockey at Memphis radio station WDIA:

[There was] hardly anybody around who was playing at that time didn't play 'Boogie Chillen.' That's just how heavy it was ... I, for one, and many others [musicians] who would go out and play—if you didn't play 'Boogie Chillen' at that time, people probably look at you and wonder what was wrong with you. It was such a big record ...[23]

The song has also been likened to "the R&B equivalent of punk rock", i.e., superficially simple enough not to intimidate beginners. It interested the eleven-year-old Bo Diddley: "I think the first record I paid attention to was John Lee Hooker's 'Boogie Chillen,' ... When I found John Lee Hooker on the radio, I said, 'If that guy can play, I know I can.' I mean John Lee's got a hell of a style".[23] In an interview, Buddy Guy described learning to play "Boogie Chillen'" at age thirteen: "that was the first thing I thought I learned how to play that I knew sounded right when someone would listen."[23] Guy later recorded a version with Junior Wells for their 1981 album Alone & Acoustic. Albert Collins also recalled that it was the first song he learned to play.[23]

The success of "Boogie Chillen'" brought numerous offers for John Lee Hooker to record for other record companies. Because he saw "almost no compensation" from the sales of his record, he readily accepted the opportunities to generate income.[24] This led to his recording using a variety of pseudonyms, including Texas Slim, Little Pork Chops, Delta John, Birmingham Sam, the Boogie Man, Johnny Williams, John Lee Booker, John Lee Cooker, etc. for such labels as King, Danceland, Regent, Savoy, Acorn, Prize, Staff, Gotham, Gone, Chess, Swing Time, and others.

Later Hooker versions[edit]

The demand for "Boogie Chillen'" remained high enough for Hooker to re-record the song several times. In 1950, he recorded a faster version with different lyrics as "Boogie Chillen' #2" for Bernie Besman's Sensation label (also issued by Regal). Modern Records released an edited version in 1952 titled "New Boogie Chillun". After Hooker began his association with Vee-Jay Records, he recorded "Boogie Chillun" in 1959, which closely follows the original single. Because of the similarity, the 1959 version is sometimes misidentified as the 1948 version and vice versa (at 2:36, the Vee-Jay version is about a half of a minute shorter than the original).[25]

The first two takes from the September 1948 Detroit recording session began appearing on various compilation albums in the 1970s, sometimes with the titles "John Lee's Original Boogie" and "Henry's Swing Club". Meanwhile, Modern and its associated labels including Kent and Crown reissued the song several times.

From the 1960s onwards, Hooker recorded several studio and live renditions of "Boogie Chillen'", including with guest musicians such as Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones. In 1970, he recorded a "memorable one"[26] with the blues-rock group Canned Heat. Titled "Boogie Chillen' No. 2", it appears on the album Hooker 'n Heat. It features Hooker's vocal and Canned Heat's signature boogie rock backing with extended guitar and harmonica solos. Despite being over eleven minutes long, it remains focused and driving and "full of the same swagger as the original".[27]

Recognition and legacy[edit]

In 1985, Hooker's 1948 recording of "Boogie Chillen'" was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame, who noted it was "the first down-home electric blues record to achieve No. 1 chart status and its success, together with that of the Hooker hits that followed, inspired record companies to search out the new electric generation of country bluesmen".[28] In 1999, it received a Grammy Hall of Fame Award[29] and is included in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame list of the "500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll".[30] "Boogie Chillen'" was added to the U.S. National Recording Registry in 2008, which noted that "the driving rhythm and confessional lyrics have guaranteed its place as an influential and enduring blues classic".[31]

"Boogie Chillen"" has inspired several songs, beginning in 1953, when Junior Parker recorded his interpretation titled "Feelin' Good". It became Parker's first hit for Sun Records and was subsequently recorded by James Cotton in 1967 and by Magic Sam as "I Feel So Good (I Wanna Boogie)" for his influential 1967 album West Side Soul. A version by Slim Harpo, titled "Boogie Chillun", appeared on his 1970 album Slim Harpo Knew the Blues using a similar arrangement to his 1966 hit "Shake Your Hips".

In 1967, Canned Heat borrowed elements of "Boogie Chillen'" for their jam song "Fried Hockey Boogie" from the Boogie with Canned Heat album.[4] The song also uses the "basic E/G/A blues chord pattern"[32] that is found in Canned Heat's Top 40 hit "On the Road Again", which in turn is also used in "Boogie Chillen' No. 2" with Hooker. Other songs that borrow from "Boogie Chillen'" or "Boogie Chillen' No. 2", either directly or indirectly, include the radio hits "Spirit in the Sky" by Norman Greenbaum (1970) and "La Grange" by ZZ Top (1973).[4] Additionally, several rock musicians have either performed or recorded the song, such as the Gories, Led Zeppelin, Van Morrison and Linda Gail Lewis, George Thorogood, and the White Stripes.

Copyright issues[edit]

In 1991, Bernie Besman, as La Cienega Music, brought legal action against ZZ Top for copyright infringement for their song "La Grange". After winding its way through the American legal system (including an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court), the case led the U.S. Congress to amend the Copyright Act.[33] ZZ Top settled out of court in 1997,[34] but Hooker again gained no financial reward from his song — Besman had obtained Hooker's rights to the song years earlier. "Nonetheless, his [John Lee Hooker's 1948] spontaneous performance in a recording studio had led to a substantial change in U.S. intellectual property law".[33]


  1. ^ a b The Very Best of John Lee Hooker (Liner notes). John Lee Hooker. Rhino Entertainment. 1990. R2 71915. 
  2. ^ a b Mandel 2005, pp. 138–139.
  3. ^ Both spellings have appeared on Hooker's original singles; they are a phonetical approximation of Hooker's pronunciation of "children".
  4. ^ a b c Koda, Cub. "Boogie Chillen' — Song review". Allmusic. Rovi Corp. Retrieved June 18, 2013. 
  5. ^ Dawson, Propes 1992
  6. ^ Sax 1991, p. 1.
  7. ^ Murray 2002, p. 118.
  8. ^ Murray 2002, p. 127.
  9. ^ Palmer 1981, p. 243.
  10. ^ Kostelanetz, King 2005, p. 100.
  11. ^ Hooker usually used a capo, raising the pitch to B (1948), A (1959), or A (1970).
  12. ^ Besman later claimed that he suggested that Hooker record a boogie and played a few bars on the piano; Hooker denied that he ever heard Besman play piano or remembered a piano player in the studio. Murray 2002, p. 127.
  13. ^ Murrary 2002, pp. 137–138.
  14. ^ Palmer 1981, p. 243–244.
  15. ^ Herzhaft 1992, p. 440.
  16. ^ Murray 2002, p. 128.
  17. ^ Murray 2002, pp.121–122.
  18. ^ Whitburn 1988, p. 194.
  19. ^ Whitburn 1988, p. 597.
  20. ^ Fancourt 1988, p. 1.
  21. ^ Shadwick 2001, p. 303.
  22. ^ Besman called these figures "a crock of shit", but admitted "everybody in the record business was crooked". Murray 2002, p. 135.
  23. ^ a b c d Murray 2002, p. 133–135
  24. ^ English 2007, p. 52.
  25. ^ "John Lee Hooker — Boogie Chillun". Discogs. Retrieved June 18, 2013. 
  26. ^ Herzhaft 1992, p. 440
  27. ^ Planer, Lindsay. "Hooker 'n Heat (Infinite Boogie) — Album review". Allmusic. Rovi Corp. Retrieved June 18, 2013. 
  28. ^ O'Neal, Jim (1985). "Classic of Blues Recording — Singles or Album Tracks". Blues Hall of Fame — 1985 Inductees. The Blues Foundation. Retrieved June 18, 2013. 
  29. ^ "Grammy Hall of Fame Awards". Grammy Awards. The Recording Academy. 1999. Retrieved June 18, 2013. 
  30. ^ "500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll". Exhibit Highlights. Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. 1995. Archived from the original on 1995. Retrieved June 18, 2013. 
  31. ^ "The National Recording Registry 2008 — Press Release". National Recording Preservation Board. Library of Congress. 2008. Retrieved June 19, 2013. 
  32. ^ Transposed to key of A: A/C/D.
  33. ^ a b Gioia 2008, p. 251.
  34. ^ English 2007, p. 53.