Earl-Hooker

There are few more accomplished guitar players in the history of the Blues than Earl Hooker. Renowned as a slide player, his clear, eloquent single-string runs didn’t bludgeon the listener, and his use of standard tunings meant he could quickly slip back into using the frets.

He mastered new gizmos like the wah-wah pedal and the double-necked guitar with ease and good taste, and his instrumental compositions showed an bright, inventive mind.

If it wasn’t for a life-long battle with TB that ended his career early, he would have been one of the biggest names in the Blues.

Earl Zebedee Hooker was born in rural Mississippi but the family moved to Chicago when he was young. Growing up on the South-side in the 30s, Earl was surrounded by the Blues, and when his cousin John Leecame to town as an up-and-coming player and they heard about T-Bone Walker playing at the Rhumboogie Club, the die was cast. Earl would play his guitar around Maxwell Street with his schoolmate Ellas McDaniel, who would later find fame as Bo Diddley, but Earl did not sing owing to a speech impediment and problems with TB. Earl sought out Robert Nighthawk as a man to emulate, and Robert showed him some tunings and techniques for playing slide-guitar, becoming the teenager’s mentor.  Junior Wells arrived in Chicago in 1946 and struck up a friendship with Earl. They played for tips in the streets and there are tales of them playing on streetcars when the weather was rough.

Earl decided to follow his mentor on one of his rambling trips to the Mississippi Delta, and through Robert he met Rice ‘Sonny Boy II’ Miller and played on his King Biscuit Time radio show. Earl spent some time touring the Delta juke-joints with Robert and ‘Sonny Boy’, honing his fine slide technique as well as perfecting his ‘second guitar’ skills. In 1949, Earl based himself in Memphis as a member of Ike Turner‘s band. Earl made his first records in Memphis for the Rockin’, King and Sun labels, cutting a version of ‘The Hucklebuck’ and playing on ‘Pinetop’s Boogie’, the track that launched Pinetop Perkins. The combination of Pinetop’s rolling piano and Earl’s rich slide-guitar meshed very well and the two men worked together on many occasions over the years.

If this sounds like Muddy Waters’ ‘You Shook Me’, then there’s a reason for that!

Back in Chicago in the mid-50s, Earl’s sweet-toned slide playing got him a lot of work as a side-man, and he recorded for several of the smaller labels as a leader. After a spell in hospital with TB, Earl had a hit in 1956 with the instrumental, ‘Frog Hop’ and was finally persuaded to sing on ‘Black Angel Blues’. When Earl signed for the Chief label in 1959, he became a member of the house-band, playing on all Junior Wells’ hits for them, as well as tracks by Magic SamAC Reed‘Big Moose’ Walker and Jackie Brenston. Earl cut many instrumentals at Chief, including ‘Blues in D Natural’ and the wonderful ‘ Blue Guitar’. Leonard Chess leased the tapes of this track and had Muddy Waters dub Willie Dixon‘s lyric on top of it to produce ‘You Shook Me’. This clever trick was repeated several times, notably when Muddy sang ‘You Need Love’ over Earl’s instrumental.

Recommended Album

There are several great compilations of Earl’s work, but for a great Blues album, it’s hard to beat….

TWO BUGS AND A ROACH

The Chief label folded in 1964 and Earl joined the Cuca label, where he cut some tracks with steel guitar player Freddie Roulette and they began touring more widely. A major TB attack in 1967 put Earl in hospital for a year but he came out fighting, forming a band with Roulette, Pinetop Perkins, Carey Bell on harp and singer Andrew Odom. The band cut a brilliant album ‘Two Bugs and a Roach’ for Arhoolie, featuring the instrumental ‘Off the Hook’. In 1969, Earl toured with Junior Wells then cut an album in LA with Ike Turner. While he was on the coast, Earl played with Albert Collins and Jimi Hendrix before joining his cousin John Lee for more California gigs. They cut an album together, ‘If You Miss ‘im, I Got ‘im!’ for Bluesway and Earl also made a solo album for them, ‘You Don’t Have to Worry’, as well as guesting on several other Bluesway albums.

Earl Hooker

Returning to Chicago, Earl played the Blues Festival there before heading for Europe on the Festival circuit, where he played 20 gigs in 23 days. He managed a few more gigs when he got home, some with Junior Wells, but in December he was hospitalised again with TB. He never recovered and died at the age of 41.

‘Earl’s Boogie’, performed on his last tour of Europe;