John Lee Hooker Conjures Acoustic Fire on AAA Acoustic Sounds-Curated 60th Anniversary 180g 1LP Reissue of Burning Hell Via Craft Recordings

Original pressings of it from 1964 are scarce, as it was initially issued primarily in the UK. A 2009 super deluxe 45rpm 2LP reissue of it is a justifiably hot commodity on the secondary collector’s market (i.e., it’s expensive!). What’s a vinyl-loving fan of acoustic blues on a budget to do? Fortunately, Craft Recordings has come to the rescue, seeing fit to reissue John Lee Hooker’s legendary 1964 Riverside Records LP, Burning Hell as part of their new Bluesville series — and this reviewer is hella happy with what he’s been hearing of it!

Recorded in 1959 and first issued in 1964 on Riverside Records only in Europe — where it promptly became a popular release — Burning Hell was reportedly “coveted by blues and folk aficionados across the globe,” according to the official press materials from Craft Recordings. This certainly helps explain this recording’s relative scarcity in the United States. (More on that in a moment.)

Burning Hell is actually perched at the fiery tip of an iceberg of rare titles being rescued and revived from the archives of parent company Concord Music — owners of the catalogs of Fantasy, Milestone, Stax, Riverside, Prestige, and many other legendary record labels — that will be released under the Bluesville banner in the months ahead, and we’ll endeavor to review as many of them here on AP as we can.


Before I dig down into the nitty-gritties of how this reissue of Burning Hell sounds, it is worth sharing some insights from Craft Recordings’ official press materials explaining the significance of the new Bluesville series, as well as detail the inherent DNA that serves to ensure this will be an excellent reissue series at that: “Each handpicked Bluesville title will be released on vinyl in partnership with audiophile leader Acoustic Sounds. Founder of Acoustic Sounds, Chad Kassem says of the new series, ‘Craft Recordings owns some very important blues albums. I am honored and excited to work with them to ensure that their new Bluesville reissues will sound as good as possible.’”

The press release continues, “Delivering the highest-quality listening experience, [Bluesville series] albums will feature all-analog mastering by Grammy-nominated engineer Matthew Lutthans (The Mastering Lab) and will be pressed on 180-gram vinyl at QRP. Faithfully reproduced tip-on jackets round out every release, while obis [i.e., vertical obi strips, as seen on the cover below] will offer insightful reflections on the album by Grammy-winning producer, writer, and musician, Scott Billington. Billington states, ‘Bluesville represents over 75 years of blues history, from culture-shifting field recordings to dozens of pivotal blues hits. It is thrilling to be a part of the curation of this incredible legacy.’”


The SRP for the new AAA Burning Hell is a very reasonable $29.99. This long-overdue reissue marks the album’s first-ever worldwide reissue on a single vinyl LP —and it comes just in time to celebrate the 60th anniversary of its initial release.

This version of Burning Hell is a stereo recording, which is perhaps a bit unusual for an album solely comprised of solo acoustic guitar and vocals emanating from 1959. But it is interesting from an audiophile-listening perspective, as there is a nice, simple soundstage here, and the listener can really feel it come alive whenever Hooker moves around in the studio, just as if he was in live performance — which, effectively, was what he was doing here.

For example, on Hooker’s cover of Chester Burnett’s (as in, Howlin’ Wolf’s) classic “Smokestack Lightnin’” (Side 1, Track 6), it sounds at points like he is shifting his head, and probably body, around a bit, possibly leaning into the mike and his guitar as he might onstage. Because of how the mikes were placed, the vocals at times seem to pan back and forth across the speakers. Initially, I thought his vocals might have been recorded in front of a pair of mikes in stereo, with maybe a third aimed at the guitar. However, if the studio photo of Hooker that Craft Recordings included in their press kit supporting Burning Hell is accurate (as seen below), then the microphone for his guitar might well have been picking up his voice, and then balanced and EQ’d in final mixing/mastering for the album.


This is a subtle detail, but a good one to consider. It is easy to think of a “simple” recording like this one as idealized in monaural — but for the (likely) additional room presence, this stereo version of Burning Hell seems to deliver, and I find it very appealing. (Note: I qualify this with the parenthetical word “likely,” because I have not heard a mono version of this album.)

Listening closely to “Baby, Please Don’t Go” (Side 1, Track 3), Hooker’s vocals are mostly front and center, and the acoustic guitar largely appears in one channel — yet we can hear him keeping time with his foot below, which falls into the back of the soundstage, almost like a distant drummer.

As far as my satisfaction level with this new pressing of Burning Hell goes, I’m totally pleased. The deep black 180g vinyl is dead-quiet, which is essential for such a stripped-to-the-bone recording like this one, and the music just jumps out of the speakers. My LP copy was well-centered too, which is key in my book.

Special kudos go out to Craft Recordings for reproducing the period-accurate UK style Riverside Records labels as well, which makes it feel all the more authentic visually — not to mention aurally. Again, remember, this album was first released overseas.


I like that Burning Hell isn’t very compressed-sounding nor doctored up with much EQ, so be prepared to hear a bit of original analog tape hiss in quiet moments, such as is the case on “Blues for My Baby” (Side 2, Track 4). This is not a problem, mind you. The tapes sound like they are in very good condition, so I’m not hearing any dropouts or serious degradation of the high end. This is a clean, warm, and crisp — but not too crisp — recording, at its root.

If I have any nits, I only wish I had a time machine so I could go back to ask the original engineers to capture a bit more of the woody feel of Hooker’s acoustic guitar, which can sound a little boxy (if you will) at times. There are many possible reasons for this (types of microphones used, placement, original EQ applied live to tape, etc.), but I suspect this is ultimately one of those “it is what it is” scenarios that probably can’t really be improved upon.


As far as its dollar-for-dollar value goes, you really can’t lose on this Burning Hell reissue. And, frankly, finding original pressings of albums of this vintage in any sort of good condition is probably a pretty serious needle-in-a-haystack proposition at best, in mono or stereo. Consider that, at the time of this posting, there were exactly zero original copies listed as available here in America on Discogs. Given the album’s aforementioned UK/European roots, this, of course, makes sense.

Scouring Discogs a bit further, we find only three original 1964 UK pressings available, ranging in price from the U.S. equivalent of $75 on up to $160. Also, that earlier-noted Analogue Productions 2LP 45rpm edition is now selling for upwards of $200! Additionally, please note that there are some questionable-looking grey market editions listed there as well, so you’d be wise to avoid those.

Musically speaking, Burning Hell is a fine release that keeps your attention start to finish — not an easy task for a solo acoustic release. I can feel why this album became so revered among blues fans and John Lee Hooker aficionados alike. As far our Music rating for Burning Hell goes, this one is an easy 10. For Sound, we give it a respectable 9, despite the occasional, somewhat boxy sound of the guitar that, remember, is a minor nit at best.

Ultimately, Burning Hell is a very upfront and arresting recording that sounds great, once you get used to its distinctive sonic profile. For $29.99, we here at AP feel it’s better to get closer to the original source tapes with this new Craft Recordings AAA reissue of John Lee Hooker’s Burning Hell. In short, it’s a sweet unplugged smoker.

Mark Smotroff is an avid vinyl collector who has also worked in marketing communications for decades. He has reviewed music for, among others, and you can see more of his impressive C.V. at LinkedIn.

Music Direct Buy It Now



180g 1LP (Riverside Records/Craft Recordings)

Side 1
1. Burning Hell
2. Graveyard Blues
3. Baby Please Don’t Go
4. Jackson ,Tennessee
5. You Live Your Life And I’ll Live Mine
6. Smokestack Lightnin’

Side 2
1. How Can You Do It?
2. I Don’t Want No Woman If Her Hair Ain’t No Longer Than Mine
3. I Rolled And Turned And Cried The Whole Night Long
4. Blues For My Baby
5. Key To The Highway
6. Natchez Fire


Glotz's picture

But... I will have to listen to the streams in depth first and really ask myself- is it worth it on vinyl? I'd say yes from this at the price but I am becoming more and more mistrustful of LP pressings, warps, concentricity and noise. Your review does lend some faith here, but I am now officially 'Jaded'.

For example, Neil Young and Crazy Horse 'Early Daze' lp suffers from warps and concentricity issues, and some tick noise. Unacceptable for $30+ and Neil is becoming my No. 1 evil eye target with his bullshit QC and his usually way high prices from his Greedy Hands (usually way more into the high 40's for double Lp's). Furthermore the album doesn't approach the SQ that the high res stream has (or I'm sure the FLAC has- that I will steal online shortly).

I am super sick of the state of LP pressings, outside of Analog Productions. I know Craft doesn't deserve my bile here. Pressing issues are still the biggest problem with vinyl playback not gear or limitations from technology. Robert Harley stated as much recently in TAS and I wholeheartedly agree.

Glotz's picture

Regarding 'Early Daze'- SQ is legit; profuse amounts of static electricity was the culprit, despite my huge efforts to remove it last night. It did equate to bright vocals and slightly edgy sound.

Craft has a fine rep- A 9/10 from AP is good enough for me. The album is pretty important regarding Hooker albums. Burnin' is good, this is better.

frankhertz's picture

I just purchased a new copy of this recently but It looks different. It has heavy red vinyl, the label is VeeJay, number is CR00544, Date 2022, has Manufactered and Distributed by Concord on the label, and has a Craft Recordings inner sleeve. It was purchased from a very reputable dealer and it sounds just fine to me.
What do I have?

Mealticket's picture

You have the record Burnin'. The Op is about the JLH album Burning Hell.

frankhertz's picture

Sorry,senior's moment. The cover looked similar and I did not check properly. Thanks for the correction.

Tom L's picture

that the two completely different JLH records have such similar covers.

MoBoMC's picture

The GOAT... I listen to that all the time during yacht repair work or on the road.