COUSIN HOOKER

Earl Hooker was an unsung hero of electric blues guitar. Born near Clarksdale, Mississippi, in 1930, Earl (middle name Zebedee) moved to Chicago with his family but left home at an early age to go play music. And play he certainly did, adding his Robert Nighthawk influenced slide playing to recordings by Sonny Boy Williamson, Junior Wells and Muddy Waters, among others.

It was hard life, being a jobbing session muso, especially when your health wasn’t good. Earl Hooker suffered from tuberculosis, the disease that ultimately killed him at the age of forty-one in 1970.

Like a lot of blues and jazz musicians, his recordings are scattered across numerous small, long-gone record labels, meaning that a CD compilation is a great way to access the music of this elegant blues guitarist.

The Vinyl Connection collection is fortunate to have two Arhoolie originals of Earl Hooker. The one I’m featuring here was recorded in 1969 with drummer Bobby Johnson and two white musicians, Geno Skaggs on bass and Steve Miller on keyboards.

This is not, however, the Steve Miller you’re thinking of—the silver-voiced singer-guitarist who loved the blues and achieved FM radio fame with a string of 70s hits. This is the Steve Miller who played piano and organ with Elvin Bishop.

Earl Hooker

The album opens with a classic piece of Chicago blues, ‘The moon is rising’. Earl sings, and is joined on harmonica for this song (and one other) by Louis Myers. Then we have a jaunty instrumental that boogies along splendidly under the leader’s whistling slide before Earl steps towards the mic again to wave an admonishing finger at his wayward woman in ‘Conversion blues’. Presumably he is exhorting her to convert to fidelity and while history does not record the success or otherwise of his entreaties, one’s thing is certain, the guitar playing is heavenly. The side closes out with a bluegrass tinged guitar rag called, um, ‘Guitar rag’ which evokes ‘When the Saints go marching in’ in a second-cousin-twice-removed kind of way and showcases Earl’s considerable picking skills.

The title track is another upbeat instrumental. Miller’s organ comping is terrific under Hooker’s sharp-as-a-flick-knife guitar. In fact the interplay between Hooker and Steve is perhaps the outstanding feature of this LP—it really is exciting.

While the different vocalists add variety (Miller sings two songs, Scaggs one), there is no doubting that this is Earl’s record. His guitar is all over it: lead breaks, rhythm, picking, slide. No lesser legend than BB King commented that, on slide guitar, “he was the best”. High praise indeed.

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Did John Lee Hooker, Earl’s older cousin, dig Hooker and Steve? Perhaps he thought, “What a great sound. That white dude on organ cooks. I gotta get him on my next record.” Maybe John Lee had someone to arrange a call to Mr Miller. Maybe he met Geno Skaggs at Earl’s funeral in April 1970. Because Steve (and Geno) did appear on a John Lee Hooker album, 1971’s classic Endless Boogie (recorded late 1970). It just wasn’t the same Steve Miller.

Endless boogie

Scrounged this photo from the web, having shed my original vinyl when I bought the CD. Sigh.

Endless Boogie. The title says it all, really. Four sides of churning, simmering electric blues. It grooves thrillingly and interminably through eleven songs either burning slowly or staggering into a mid-paced jog towards boogie heaven. Like he did in the same productive year with Canned Heat, John Lee utilises experienced white blues rockers of impeccable pedigree, including Geno Skaggs from Earl’s album and the Derek and the Dominos rhythm section of Carl Radle and Jim Gordon. And of course, the Joker himself, Mr Steve ‘Fly like an eagle’ Miller.

Opening cut “(I got) A Good ‘Un” is a gold-plated example of John Lee’s early seventies groove. It’s also an exemplar of the master’s command of a pithy lyric.

My baby

She’s a good ‘un

My good baby

‘S a natural-born good one

She don’ stand

To run around with me

She’s a good ‘un

The remaining two verses present minor variations on this same observation, with an added declaration from the titular good one that she loves John Lee. Who can blame her? On ‘I don’t need no steam heat’, domiciliary warmth is provided by the singer’s baby, presumably a renewable source.

But it’s not all lovey-dovey. ‘Sittin’ in my dark room’ has an abandoned sad sack retreating to his bedroom to cry. In the dark, which always makes it sadder I think.

Loneliness is also the focus of ‘A sheep out on the foam’ wherein some very tasty electric piano from Cliff Coulter accompanies John Lee’s slow-blues musing about ocean-going quadrupedal ruminant mammals and whether his baby will take him back one more time.

I don’t know how you feel about preachy blues, but ‘Kick hit 4 hit kix U’ presents itself as a lament for Jimi and Janis while warning foolish youngsters to stay away from drugs.

Dope addicts, dope addicts

You got to watch yourself

You one of these days, one of these days

You might pass on

Stop shootin’ no needle

And stop swallowin’ that LSD

Stop shootin’ no needles

And stop swallowin’ those pills

That needle’s too heavy

Your heart can’t take it none

Hey hey 

Hey hey.

One of my favourites is the lightly rocking ‘The Shout’, featuring acoustic guitar and clocking in at a neat three-and-a-half minutes. It’s a palate-cleansing salad between platters of roast-boogie richness.

Fittingly, the album ends with ‘Endless Boogie, Parts 27 and 28’ wherein everyone gets to jam with John in an exuberant, rollicking finale. If you love boogie, this album delivers 1 coulomb per second of electric goodness.

So turn up the amp and groove to John Lee or cousin Earl. First class bluesmen, both.

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20 comments

  1. I always wanted a cousin Earl. I have now a search on my hands.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Try hanging out at the crossroads, Neil.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Should I fall to my knees or attempt to flag a ride?

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Heh he. You gotta choose, bro. That’s the deal.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Two Bugs And A Roach.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Plus one bourbon, one scotch, and one beer.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Why haven’t I ever heard Earl before!? This is exciting new sounds for my ears! I have a digital copy of Endless Boogie… some of that Hooker’s stuff is exceptional.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Purists favour early John Lee, but I just love Endless Boogie, partially for its relentless boogie-ing!
      Don’t know how much Earl is on-line, J, but worth a bit of a search for someone strongly connected to roots music. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I found The Genius Of Earl Hooker, The Leading Brand (Hooker & Jody Williams?) and The Essential Earl Hooker, so I’m hoping there’ll be plenty in there to dig.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Nice detective work, J!

          Liked by 1 person

  4. Well I now know what a coulomb is and will celebrate with John Lee Hooker’s Mr Lucky, my only Hooker cd, if can find it. However I might have lent him to No. 2 son who is away this weekend, so when Z is out in the morning I’ll see what the www has to offer.
    Thanks Bruce.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Got him! Mis-filed between Blossom Dearie and Peggy Lee would you believe. A rouge tenant of the old random access method of filing.

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      1. RAM makes strange bedfellows, it would seem. Though I doubt John Lee would have objected to being the filling in that particular sandwich.

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  5. Anyone given the middle name of Zebedee was bound to be a fine blues man, no?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. As bound as a pact made at the crossroads at midnight.

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  6. There’s an NHL linesman named Steve Miller – a player search for the surname ‘Hooker’ came up empty alas. I was hoping to see another (somewhat less musical) Miller/Hooker collaboration!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Good one. Bruce is a “blues guy” Love those old labels like ‘Arhoolie.
    Some cool recent acquisitions. What’s with the ‘Crumb’ record? CBs eyes are a little week to pick up some of the others

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  8. Brilliant stuff Bruce, I covet a copy of ‘Endless Boogie’ so much, partly for this and also because one of my favourites stole the name.

    I had no idea Earl Hooker existed at all and I love the idea of his flickknife guitar. Robert Hooker plays (drums from memory) on JLH ‘Never Get Out of These Blues Alive’ – another cousin? a son (I assumed)? definitely kin, anyway.

    How fascinating about both Steve Millers? because ‘Never Get Out’ uses the Midnight Toker to good effect.

    I really enjoyed this one.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Cheers Joe. I do enjoy it when I can bounce of another bloggers post (actually, it has mostly been yours!) and kind of extend the trip a bit. I love the Steve Millers story too!
      Will have to research Robert Hooker – though cousins figure quite a lot in blues genealogy and are quite often linked, er, loosely.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Blues sounds a bit like a small Welsh rural market town.

        Liked by 1 person

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