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Earl Hooker – A Guitar Player’s Guitarist

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There are many great guitar players in the Blues Genre. Some well known, some underrated (Son Seals, Jimmy Dawkins), some overrated (Buddy Guy, B.B. King) and others (Bee Houston, Left Hand Frank, Guitar Gable) who are nothing more than footnotes to even the most dedicated collectors of blues obscurities.

Then there are the guitar players guitarists. The mention of whose name starts even the most self assured and technically advanced musician to speak of in reverent of tones. Lownan Pauling, leader and guitarist of The Five Royales is one of these gentlemen. He is the only guitar player that I have ever heard the not-exactly-humble Ike Turner rave about. Mr. Steve Cropper, an acknowledged but still highly underrated guitarist (he has to be seen live to fully appreciate his mastery of the six string beast) also name checks Lowman, as does J.C Fogerty, no slouch himself. Others in this vein are Wayne Bennett, Billy Butler, Jimmy Nolen, Mickey Baker, Roy Gaines & Wild Jimmy Spruill (whose stingin’solo on the Wilbert Harrison 1959 smash hit “Kansas City” is one the best known and most copied blues solos ever recorded) whose main contributions to music are hidden behind the artists whose recordings they’ve graced.

The hugely diverse and competitive Chicago blues scene is filled with guitarists such as this. Guys who can walk into a club and whoever may happen to be on bandstand at the time will usually defer to and just hand the gig over to them. This is called “headhunting.” This practice and form of friendly and sometimes not-so-friendly competition goes on to this very day. It also makes for some great unexpected shows and jam sessions. Last summer I saw the legendary, in Chi Town, blues guitarist Johnny Dollar do this to an unsuspecting white blues band at a small corner bar on the West Side of Chicago just off Roosevelt Rd.

This band had somehow managed to book a gig at an all black blues club and it was not playing too well with the crowd of regulars. This band wasn’t that awful and probably would’ve gone over fine at a more gentrified bar full of college kids, but to a crowd that lives the blues daily and were raised on Howling Wolf, Magic Sam and Billy Boy Arnold they just came across as, well, weak & watered down.

Long story short: Johnny sat in, then he had some friends who conveniently just happened to play bass and drums take over the bands gear and they proceeded to rock the house for the next couple hours, much to the crowd’s delight and the visiting band as well I suspect, who got taken to school that night which they will never forget, I’m sure. Johnny was gracious enough to invite the band leader up on stage with him to play a couple instrumental tunes (“San-Ho-Zay,” “Chitlins Con Carne”) seeing as how J.D. was using one of his guitars and his bands gear as well. LOL!

Anyway, Earl Hooker was the Headhunter king in Chicago while he was alive and gigging. He could and would, play damn near anything in his sets from straight up Hillbilly to tasteful Jazz tunes. But his main forte was the blues. The blues, the whole blues and nothin’ but the blues. And at this he could not be beat.

Born Earl Zebedee Hooker in Clarksdale, Miss. in 1930 (an exact date unknown, I came across 5! different days of birth in 1930 and so decided to skip it) Earl was in case you’re wondering, a first cousin to John Lee Hooker. Any similarities between the two beyond that are pure coincidence. EH moved with his family to Chicago during the great exodus out of the Miss. Delta during the depression. As many blues singers have noted though, they had no idea the country was even IN a depression until they left the delta. That’s how bad things were down there!

Being raised on Blues, Earl learned directly from seeing and hearing such first generation Chicago greats as Tampa Red, Big Bill Broonzy & Robert Nighthawk whose fluid, smooth and complex slide playing took Earl by storm, having an enormous influence on him. Earls mastery of the slide guitar was such that he was asked by Muddy Waters himself to play slide on Muddy’s ” You Shook Me,” a tune later mangled by Led Zeppelin on their first LP. This was really quite the compliment as Muddy was one of the best slide guitar players EVER when he felt like it, though Muddy played less and less guitar as his fame and popularity rose from the early 50’s into the 60’s.

Returning back down south in the early 50’s Earl worked with Ike Turner’s Kings Of Rhythm Band abd cut some sides for Sun Records. One such side being an over the top take on “Steel Guitar Rag” showing Earl’s affinity for country and western to great effect. With his appropriately named “Roadmasters” band, Earl nicknamed “Zeb” by his friends, spent the better part of the decade constantly touring only recording sporadically for many one off singles of his own.

The early part of the 60’s saw Earl back in Chicago for the time being cutting his own chiefly instrumental singles such as an ethereal take on Joe Liggins 1952 R&B hit “Tanya” (an exotic sounding cut in the vein of “Harlem Nocturne”) and “Blue Guitar,” “Universal Rock,” and others. This busy point in his life also found him gigging with & doing studio work with Jr. Wells, Muddy Waters, A.C. Reed & blues chanteuse Lillian Offitt. Unfortunately, Earl had contracted tuberculosis at early age and this sidelined him several times as he was building up momentum in his professional carrer and personal life.

As is so often the case with bluesmen, Earl’s long due recognition eluded him until late in his career. He cut a couple of outstanding LP’s for the Arhoolie label, an excellent one for Blue Thumb with Ike Turner and his band backing him and an LP for ABC which is my personal favorite of his 60’s sides. The ABC album shows off his complete mastery of the wah-wah pedal. The wah is a device not often used by blues players but which in Earl’s hands and combined with his slidework was used to devastaing effect: so much so that it is said Jimi Hendrix, a big fan of Earl’s, was completely blown away and he and Earl cross-influenced each other on its use. The large part of E.H’s recorded solo output was instrumental as he was self-admittedly not much of a vocalist. He was happy to use vocalists with his own bands and some of tastiest work can be found as sideman backing other blues singers and players.

Earl Hooker passed from this world in April of 1970 after almost 3 decades on the road, worn down from constant touring, drinking & the ravages of tuberculosis. Although he may be physically removed from this realm, his influence lives on the likes of Johnny Winter, Ronnie Earl and the recording of “Boot Hill” by Stevie Ray Vaughn. His Arhoolie recordings, which contain some fine sides, are easy to be had, and his various recordings for Sun, King, and Chief Records have been on various re-releases under different titles for several years now on CD as well as vinyl for you die hards. Essential listening for any and all fans of the blues and you rockers could likely and happily pick up some tips here as well.

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  • adrian rendell

    Actually, the bit about Muddy Waters is not quite right. Earl Hooker actually recorded an instrumental which was released in that format but then someone at Chess Records thought it would be a good idea for Muddy Waters to overdub some vocals. This was what was done and the record was re-released under Muddy’s name.

  • Lisa Lauenti

    Yeah, the record was originally released under Earl Hooker’s name as “Blue Guitar” having been recorded in May 1961. Muddy’s vocals were overdubbed on June 27th 1962 and the new version was released as “You Shook me” under his name. Because this formula was so succesful, Chess repeated it with the songs “you need love” and “Little Brown Bird” but ther is no evidence,at least as far as the undersigned is aware, that Muddy and Earl recorded on the same sessions nor, indeed, that Earl had any further involvement whatsoever after he cut the original recordings from which Muddy’s versions were derived.

  • Adrian Rendell

    Sorry, slight typographical error in my last message. It’s “Lisa Laurenti”

  • Bas Jean (Paris Blues Web )

    Earl Hooker was my favorite blues guitariste. A master of nuance and soulful feeling. A boss of the wahwah, swing blues, country blues, and a great slide player. But I am surprised that little is said about the great players that he directly influenced, and taught. Four years ago, Earl Hooker’s original lap steel player was in Paris (the great Freddie Roulette) and the young San Francisco guitariste trained by Earl’s band from childhood, Ray Bronner. The Show was at Lionel Hampton Club. John Lee Hooker gave an interview to a French fanzine (about 20 years ago) mentioning Roulette and Bronner as the best examples of Earl’s style of playing. They still play together, and have recorded Earl’s music, with some critical recognition by other musicians. I heard it once, and liked it very much. The band name (I think?) is the Daphne Blue Band. But when I was in New York, I could not find a shop with the CD. If someone can find it, please make a post to me.

  • raggedy

    I am new to the Blues, and I loved “Blue Guitar” by Earl Hooker the first time I’ve heard it. Now I am looking for a good starter CD of his for my Blues collection. But — I get mad as hell, when I see that most CD’s offered have not even one sound clip available. This is downright ridiculous! Before I buy I’d like to be able to hear what I’m going to pay for.

  • lookah

    emusic.com has some of his albums and allows previews…

    http://www.emusic.com/artist/Earl-Hooker-MP3-Download/10559402.html

  • http://www.emusic.com/artist/Earl-Hooker-MP3-Download/10559402.html lookah

    emusic.com has previews…

  • Bianca

    Earl Hooker was my grandfather, I wish I would have had the chance to meet him

  • Bianca

    If any reads this knows how to get in contact with any of his family please let me know. I will check this site.

  • Reginald

    Yes, I knew Earl Hooker well. His Son lives in Atlanta but was originally from chicago. His son ANDRE is my 1st cousin. He looks exactly like earl
    and when Earl died from Tuberculosis, he left Andre all of his Instruments and other musical things from earls band.

    I can get in touch with him , anytime

  • Vincent P.

    In my family, i am one of eight grand children of Earl Hooker. My mothers name is Tambra, who was born in Chicago in 1960 and is the daughter of Earl Hooker. My grandmother is Barbara and was dating him around 1958. I would be very happy to further communicate with any of Earls offspring. You can reach me at vincepowell23@gmail.com or look me up on facebook at vincepowell23@hotmail.com

  • Bianca

    Omg I hope what im reading is true!!!!!!!! Reginald how can I get in contact with you????????????? and Vincent P. Im going to email you right now!!!!