Born: January 15, 1930 | Died: April, 1970 Primary Instrument: Guitar, slide
Earl Hooker played and lived the blues. He played in a Delta style taken largely from Robert Nighthawk with a touch of T-Bone Walker, but he did it with a flair and flamboyance unmatched by any of his contemporaries. He was part of the Chicago scene but his style was not simply a Chicago sound, as he had a fondness for Country and Western and a leaning towards jazz. He experimented with any new technology he could afford (or steal). He used the slide not to play block chords but to race up and down a single string while his fingers as fast as any in the business produced dazzling melodic patterns, and when slide and wah-wah were used simultaneously he really made the guitar talk. No one could touch him for precision or control.
Earl Hooker was born in Clarksdale in 1930 which made him about 15 years junior to Muddy Waters (who was also from Clarksdale), and 12 years younger than John Lee Hooker. Earl was John Lee Hooker's first cousin, but that is where the similarity ended between these two.
Earl moved to Chicago at the age of one, and as a youngster and teenager, no doubt was exposed to the fertile blues scene there. Music came naturally as his parents were both playing musicians. He started playing guitar about 1945 after meeting Robert Nighthawk. Nighthawk had already cut records under the name of Robert Lee McCoy for the Bluebird label, and had been an accompanist for John Lee (Sonny Boy) Williamson on some of his sides for Bluebird.
While Nighthawk became the main influence on Hooker's playing, Earl learned from other guitarists and became adept in several genres aside from the blues, like country & western, jazz, and popular music that would soon become rock and roll. While still a teenager, Earl left Chicago and became a road-rambler. He returned to the south to play in Ike Turner's band which might account for Hooker making some of his early recordings for Sam Phillip's Sun Records company, since Turner was a talent scout for several of the independent labels. Earl's earliest sides in 1952, were instrumentals, made for the King label (re- issued once on a King LP of mostly John Lee Hooker sides) and were recorded in Florida right in the club where he was playing a job. Earl was to spend much of his life on the move, criss-crossing the U.S.A. (and once to Europe), playing clubs and joints, and making trips to studios in Bradenton, Miami, Memphis, Chicago, Wisconsin, Los-Angeles, and London.
The scarcity of recorded work during the middle and late 1950's suggests that Hooker was on the road, and could not secure a long-term recording contract. Of the companies he recorded for, most did not stay in business long enough to earn him much income (or recognition).
During the early 60's, Earl returned to Chicago to record some of his finest work for Chess, Chief and Age. This was the time of Blue Guitar, Tanya, Blues in D Natural, and Universal Rock. Earl was also a sideman on some of Jr. Wells' great sides for Chief, and played on sessions for Muddy Waters, A.C. Reed, Ricky Allen, and Lillian Offitt. Offitt's wailing Will My Man be Home Tonight featured one of Earl's searing guitar riffs that became a trademark for him in subsequent recordings. In 1971, Otis Rush paid tribute to Earl by featuring this riff on his own instrumental named I Wonder Why from his Right Place, Wrong Time sessions. It is Earl Hooker who plays the slide guitar that accompanies Muddy Waters on You Shook Me no small deed considering Muddy was one of the great slide guitarists of the blues.
Earl was always self-sufficient and he never had a day job. He made his living full-time playing music, and at one time tried his hand at jazz, and even country. He always returned to the blues however, and we as fans can be grateful that he put down so much outstanding material for the recording machines. It was during the late 1960's that Hooker began to get some overdue recognition. Chris Strachwitz, the owner of Arhoolie records, asked Buddy Guy to recommend guitar players from Chicago whom he could record for his fledgling label. Buddy promptly gave Chris Earl's address in Chicago. In 1968 Strachwitz went to Chicago to meet Earl and subsequently recorded some of Hooker's best work, starting with “Two Bugs and a Roach.”
In 1969, Earl took a band to California and made additional sides for Arhoolie. Here, Earl got to stretch out beyond the 3-minute length of chart-market single recordings, and cut some great loose improvisations of material heavily based in the blues. Some of the Arhoolie sides feature well-known Chicago sidemen like Louis and Dave Myers, Carey Bell, Andrew Odom (vocals), and Eddie Taylor, and in the company of these players, Earl made great music.
In late 1969, Earl travelled to Europe to play in the American Folk Blues Festival, along with Magic Sam, Carey Bell, Clifton Chenier and others. By this time, he was quite ill with advancing tuberculosis, and after returning to the USA, was admitted to a Chicago sanitarium where he passed away in April 1970. He was just 41.