Skip to Main Content
Earl Hooker, Blues Master

Earl Hooker, Blues Master

Sebastian Danchin
Copyright Date: 2001
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Earl Hooker, Blues Master
    Book Description:

    The life and early death of a South Side guitar genius, the greatest unheralded Chicago blues-maker

    Jimi Hendrix called Earl Hooker "the master of the wah-wah pedal." Buddy Guy slept with one of Hooker's slides beneath his pillow hoping to tap some of the elder bluesman's power. And B. B. King has said repeatedly that, for his money, Hooker was the best guitar player he ever met.

    Tragically, Earl Hooker died of tuberculosis in 1970 when he was on the verge of international success just as the Blues Revival of the late sixties and early seventies was reaching full volume.

    Second cousin to now-famous bluesman John Lee Hooker, Earl Hooker was born in Mississippi in 1929, and reared in black South Side Chicago where his parents settled in 1930. From the late 1940s on, he was recognized as the most creative electric blues guitarist of his generation. He was a "musician's musician," defining the art of blues slide guitar and playing in sessions and shows with blues greats Muddy Waters, Junior Wells, and B. B. King.

    A favorite of black club and neighborhood bar audiences in the Midwest, and a seasoned entertainer in the rural states of the Deep South, Hooker spent over twenty-five years of his short existence burning up U.S. highways, making brilliant appearances wherever he played.

    Until the last year of his life, Hooker had only a few singles on obscure labels to show for all the hard work. The situation changed in his last few months when his following expanded dramatically. Droves of young whites were seeking American blues tunes and causing a blues album boom. When he died, his star's rise was extinguished. Known primarily as a guitarist rather than a vocalist, Hooker did not leave a songbook for his biographer to mine. Only his peers remained to praise his talent and pass on his legend.

    "Earl Hooker's life may tell us a lot about the blues," biographer Sebastian Danchin says, "but it also tells us a great deal about his milieu. This book documents the culture of the ghetto through the example of a central character, someone who is to be regarded as a catalyst of the characteristic traits of his community."

    Like the tales of so many other unheralded talents among bluesmen,Earl Hooker, Blues Master, Hooker's life story, has all the elements of a great blues song -- late nights, long roads, poverty, trouble, and a soul-felt pining for what could have been.

    Sebastian Danchin is a freelance writer and record producer. He also creates programs for France's leading radio network, Radio-France, and is the blues editor for France's leading jazz magazine,Jazzman. His previous books, among others, includeLes Dieux du Blues(Paris: Editions Atlas, 1995) andBlues Boy: The Life and Music of B. B. King(University Press of Mississippi, 1998).

    eISBN: 978-1-62103-282-3
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
    S. D.
  4. Introduction
    (pp. xi-2)
    Sebastian Danchin

    As it clearly comes back to my mind, the scene could be taken from Frederick Wiseman’sPublic Housing,a fine documentary on everyday life on Chicago’s South Side: the building at 5127 South Prairie Avenue, two blocks west of Washington Park, once was the home of an affluent WASP family before this area—one of the most fashionable in the city at the end of the nineteenth century—progressively merged into Chicago’s Black Belt during the twenties. On this late September afternoon of 1978, walking past a glass door next to the mail boxes at the bottom of the stairs,...

  5. CHAPTER 1 The Early Years (1929–1946)
    (pp. 3-23)

    The life of Earl Hooker—like that of many mythical figures—is filled with the historical inconsistencies that both plague the historian and help build up true legends. In Hooker’s case, problems start early with the very date and location of his birth. Hooker himself claimed to various inquirers (including Arhoolie Records producer Chris Strachwitz, blues historian Paul Oliver, and nurse Wilma Hart at Chicago’s Municipal Sanitarium, where he died) that he was born in Clarksdale, Mississippi, on January 15, 1930, a statement that has never been challenged since. The guitarist’s grave marker, however, cites his year of birth as...

  6. CHAPTER 2 On the Road (1946–1953)
    (pp. 24-56)

    The immediate postwar years saw Earl Hooker setting off on his own more and more often, his erratic peregrinations bringing him back to Chicago and his mother’s apartment at 3139 South Park at regular intervals. As restless as he was, Hooker was not very particular about the route he took, but the road almost inevitably led him to the southern states, more especially to his native Delta, which he reached after playing his way down through southern Illinois and Missouri. Earl was always at home in the Delta, where he was familiar with the members of the local blues community....

  7. CHAPTER 3 The Memphis Scene (1953)
    (pp. 57-68)

    After their Rockin’ session at Henry Stone’s Miami studios, Earl Hooker and his men went back on the road, spending the next few weeks in the Tampa Bay area, working the busy club scene around Sarasota and Bradenton. By the late spring of 1953, with the end of the fruit harvest season in Florida, Hooker worked his way back to Chicago to visit Mama, stopping over in Cairo, where he introduced Little Sammy Davis to Pinetop Perkins. Hooker hired and fired band members with monotonous regularity, however, and the new outfit he put together this time included his old associate...

  8. CHAPTER 4 The Chicago Complex (1953–1956)
    (pp. 69-92)

    But for a handful of sidemen who put up with his eccentric behavior and who didn’t mind not sleeping in the same bed two nights running, Earl Hooker never kept his musicians over any extended period of time. At the same time, Hooker was very particular about his associates, and he was not one to keep mediocre musicians in his outfit, unhesitatingly firing the one who had hit the wrong note at the wrong time. As a result, few over the years—with the exception of Johnny Big Moose Walker—stayed more with Hooker than “Pinetop” Perkins.

    When Earl and...

  9. CHAPTER 5 Zeb Hooker (1956–1960)
    (pp. 93-118)

    As soon as he felt well enough to resume his wandering life, Earl Hooker left Chicago after several weeks of forced rest spent at home with his mother. At first he refused to listen to his attending physician, and despite his mother’s recriminations he rapidly set up a new band, packed all the necessary equipment into his car, and headed for the Delta again. Whenever he visited the South, Hooker played the rough juke joints and cafés that provide live entertainment for the various rural communities located on both sides of the Mississippi River south of the St. Louis area....

  10. CHAPTER 6 The London Years (1960–1963)
    (pp. 119-146)

    On the fringe of his own productions for Bea & Baby and C.J. in 1959 and 1960, Hooker also took part, as an accompanist to others, in various sessions set up by another local independent label-owner and music publisher named Mel London. London initially launched his Chief record company in 1957, and among other Chicago blues artists, he included in his roster Hooker’s friend Junior Wells. At the age of twenty-five, Wells was one of London’s favorite bluesmen, with a handful of artistically mature recordings to his credit, including two early Chief singles recorded shortly after Junior’s current record company, Leonard...

  11. CHAPTER 7 Guitars, Cars, and Women
    (pp. 147-160)

    As extroverted as he was on the bandstand, Earl Hooker was more of an introvert at home, where he focused his attention almost exclusively on his art. It is no secret that life on the road can be tiresome, but professional entertainers generally find time to rest and enjoy life in their off hours; this was not the case with Earl, who spent most of his spare time practicing on his instrument, cutting down sleeping hours to a strict minimum as if he drew his tremendous amount of energy directly from his music rather than from scarce periods of rest....

  12. CHAPTER 8 A Man of Many Styles
    (pp. 161-179)

    The circle of Hooker’s admirers was not limited to his fellow musicians. The fascination he exerted on his entourage was shared by the club and neighborhood bar audiences he entertained with a zest not equaled by many. In addition to his instrumental virtuosity, Earl always found a way to hold the attention of his public, probably as a way to make the world revolve around his own person. From the late forties, his performances were marked by his use of spectacular tricks, such as playing behind his back or between his legs, picking his guitar strings with his feet or...

  13. CHAPTER 9 Club Gigs and Road Trips
    (pp. 180-210)

    Earl Hooker’s reputation grew from 1960, and his professional lifestyle changed as he became more in demand in the studio. His presence on regional R&B hit records and the growing number of singles issued under his name brought him more and better club gigs in Chicago and other urban centers in Illinois, Indiana, and Iowa. During most of the fifties, Hooker’s main support in his hometown had come from West Side tavern owners; quite naturally, he still made regular appearances there in the sixties, even though his mother’s apartment was located in the heart of the South Side at 3921...

  14. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  15. CHAPTER 10 Hooker and Cuca (1964–1967)
    (pp. 211-236)

    The disbanding of the tight and widely acclaimed Mel London recording unit led by Earl Hooker in the late winter 1964 sent Earl looking for a new back-up group. Quite typically, the successive bands he set up then consisted of newcomers chosen at random in the course of out-of-town trips, with a sprinkling of reliable players. While A. C. Reed and Earnest Johnson stopped traveling with Hooker on a regular basis, keyboard man Big Moose Walker refused to abandon his leader in the storm. Another regular organist during the sixties was one of Earl’s cousins on his mother’s side. Edmond...

  16. CHAPTER 11 Two Bugs and a Roach (1967–1968)
    (pp. 237-262)

    Bringing an end to the three-year period that followed the climax Hooker reached with Mel London, illness brutally interrupted Earl’s career when he was rushed into the Illinois State TB Hospital with a particularly severe attack of tuberculosis in September 1967. This dark episode left Hooker with hardly any room for choice, for the medical staff warned him that he could either keep on with his work and meet a rapid death or accept forced rest in the TB ward until full recovery, and with reluctance, Earl submitted to his doctors’ advice. Adding to this setback, his long stay in...

  17. CHAPTER 12 Nineteen Sixty-Nine
    (pp. 263-300)

    Nineteen sixty-nine, the final year of Hooker’s career, was both active and successful: after twenty-five years of dues paying, Hooker saw at last the acknowledgment of his genius outside the restricted boundaries of the blues underworld. For one thing, recognition enabled Earl to take part in no less than ten album recording sessions in less than six months, while he was at last able to perform for European audiences in the fall. The development of a growing consciousness for Afro-American popular music among the younger white generation in the United States and in Europe came as a major help for...

  18. CHAPTER 13 Goin’ Down Slow (1969–1970)
    (pp. 301-322)

    At the end of his last Bluesway date, Hooker flew back to Chicago, where the last few days of September found him busy preparing for his forthcoming European tour. The event was placed under the responsibility of Arhoolie’s Chris Strachwitz, who co-produced it with German promoters Horst Lippmann and Fritz Rau. Since this was Hooker’s first trip overseas, a passport was needed, but getting one proved difficult, since no birth certificate had been filed with the relevant Mississippi authorities back in 1929. In order to establish his age and place of birth, Earl asked his mother and several relatives in...

  19. Epilogue
    (pp. 323-326)

    Around the time of Earl Hooker’s death, the blues went through some hard times. In the ghettos, young African Americans were drawn to the catchy social consciousness of soul music, while young Whites adhered to the pseudo-protest message of rock; in both cases, the public failed to see the debt these styles owed to the blues, and they discarded the blues. But for a handful of black ghetto club patrons and hard-core white fans, the blues might not have survived. Yet, thanks to a small number of publications and dedicated record companies, blues amateurs were able to cling together. With...

  20. Notes
    (pp. 327-334)
  21. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 335-344)
  22. Discography
    (pp. 345-368)
  23. Index
    (pp. 369-389)