"He might have been the best ever if he didn't pass on so young." - Junior Wells
"Just lookin' at him play, he was magic to me." - Otis Rush
"There's no way a man can play a slide that clean." - B.B. King
These are just some of the accolades that Earl Zebedee Hooker, a highly-regarded Chicago blues guitarist and artist, has received over the years.
Hooker, who indeed was a cousin of John Lee's, was born on January 15, 1929, just outside Clarksdale, Mississippi. He and his family moved to Chicago shortly thereafter, as did many other African-Americans from the Southern United States in search of career and work opportunities. Hooker began teaching himself the guitar by the age of ten, and by his mid-teens, he was frequently playing the blues on the streets of Chicago, often with contemporaries such as Junior Wells and Bo Diddley. As the Chicago Blues sound began to evolve from its Delta/country blues origins and take shape in the late '40s, Hooker was particularly influenced by blues guitar virtuosos T-Bone Walker and Robert Nighthawk; in fact, he learned his techniques of playing slide guitar in standard guitar tuning (as opposed to the open tunings generally favoured by other slide players, including Muddy Waters and Bukka White) directly from Nighthawk.
In the 1950s, Hooker began recording professionally. He recorded several singles under his own name, but for the most part, he played as a guitarist with other singers and artists, as he was, by many accounts, not a particularly noteworthy blues singer himself. By the late 1950s, Hooker was part of the house band for Mel London's Chief record label group, playing guitar on sessions for many of Chief's artists, including Junior Wells, saxophonist A.C. Reed, and keyboardist Johnny "Big Moose" Walker, in addition to recording his own solo (often instrumental) recordings. One such instrumental recording, titled "Blue Guitar", arose out of a warm-up jam session, and came to the attention of Leonard Chess (of Chess Records, Chicago's then-leading independent blues/R&B label) when it was subsequently released as a single; with London's blessing, Chess had Muddy Waters overdub a vocal part over Hooker's instrumental single, and the result was "You Shook Me", one of Muddy Waters' enduring classic hits.
Hooker's career was frequently interrupted with bouts of tuberculosis, which he had likely contracted at an early age while living in sub-optimal conditions in Chicago. In the late '60s, he returned to the Chicago blues scene after another tuberculosis flare and ensuing hiatus. He played on sessions for other musicians, including cousin John Lee Hooker and Andrew "Big Voice" Odom, and recorded his own albums for Arhoolie Records, Blue Thumb Records, and ABC-Bluesway Records. Hooker even got to tour Eruope in 1969 as part of the American Folk Blues Festival (footage of which has been released professionally and likely can be found on YouTube as well), with the blues' increasing popularity among receptive European audiences. Unfortunately, Hooker passed away from tuberculosis in April of 1970 at the age of 41.
Hooker's signature sound generally consisted of a clear, ringing sound (usually from Gibson guitars, although he also played a Fender Stratocaster, a Danelectro double-neck guitar, and a Univox Les Paul copy gutar at different times of his career), with fluid and fast guitar lines alternating with smooth, melodic slide guitar. He was equally adept in a number of different blues styles, as evidenced by his involvement as a session guitarist with many different blues artists (from Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee to Big Moose Walker), and even genres as diverse as jazz and country (reportedly, he was able to hold down a country gig for several months!). Hooker was fairly progressive in his approach to the electric guitar, using the aforementioned double-neck guitars (which were quite the novelty upon their introduction in the late '50s) and incorporating effects and stompboxes (particularly the fuzz and wah-wah pedals) to give his guitar playing a unique, versatile, and even vocal-like quality. Hooker was an important influence on many other guitar players, including Buddy Guy, Ike Turner, and possibly even Jimi Hendrix!
On the January 16, 2016 edition of Señor Blues, we listened to three recordings featuring Earl Hooker's guitar wizardry:
- "You Shook Me" by Muddy Waters
- "How To Sing These Blues" by Sleepy John Estes (featuring Hooker on bass guitar)
- "Don't Wait For Me" by Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee
- "I'm Your Main Man" by Earl Hooker himself.
- Allmusic.com biography of Earl Hooker by Bill Dahl
- Allmusic.com review of Simply The Best by Cub Koda
- Guy, B., and D. Ritz. When I Left Home: My Story. 2012.
- Liner notes to The Moon is Rising (Arhoolie Records, 1998) and Simply The Best (MCA Records, 1999) by Earl Hooker.
- Obrecht, J. "Buddy Guy, Otis Rush: The Inside Story". Guitar Player, November 1994.
- Robble, A.M. "Junior Wells: Searching For The True Blues Feeling". Guitar Player, November 1994.