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May 132016
 

earl hookerApril 21, 1970 – Earl Zebedee Hooker was born on January 15, 1929 in rural Quitman County, Mississippi, outside of Clarksdale. In 1930, his parents moved the family to Chicago as part of the Great Migration of blacks out of the rural South in the early 20th century.

His family was musically inclined (John Lee Hooker was a cousin), and Earl heard music played at home at an early age. About age ten, he started playing the guitar. He was self-taught and picked up what he could from those around him. He developed proficiency on the guitar but showed no interest in singing. He had pronounced stuttering, which afflicted him all his life. Hooker contracted tuberculosis when he was young. The disease did not become critical until the mid-1950s, but it required periodic hospital visits beginning at an early age.

By 1942, when he was 13, Hooker was performing on Chicago street corners with childhood friends, including Bo Diddley. From the beginning, the blues was Hooker’s favorite music. In this period, country-influenced blues was giving way to swing-influenced and jump blues styles, which often featured the electric guitar. In 1942, the popular guitarist T-Bone Walker began a three-month stint at the Rhumboogie Club in Chicago. He had considerable impact on Hooker, with both his playing and his showmanship. Walker’s swing-influenced blues guitar, including “the jazzy way he would sometimes run the blues scales” and intricate chord work, appealed to Hooker. Walker’s stage dynamics, which included playing the guitar behind his neck and with his teeth, influenced Hooker’s own later stage act.

Around this time, Hooker became friends with Robert Nighthawk, one of the first guitarists in Chicago to play the electric guitar. Nighthawk taught Hooker slide guitar techniques, including various tunings and his highly articulated approach, and was a lasting influence on Hooker’s playing. Also around this time, Hooker met Junior Wells, another important figure in his career. The two were frequent street performers, and sometimes, to avoid foul weather (or truancy officers), they played in streetcars, riding from one line to another across Chicago.

Around 1946, Hooker traveled to Helena, Arkansas, where he performed with Robert Nighthawk. When he was not booked with Nighthawk, he performed with Sonny Boy Williamson II, sometimes on Williamson’s popular radio program King Biscuit Time, on station KFFA, in Helena. Hooker toured the South as a member of Nighthawk’s band for the next couple of years. This was his introduction to life as an itinerant blues musician (although he had earlier run away from home and spent time in the Mississippi Delta). In 1949, Hooker tried to establish himself in the music scene in Memphis, Tennessee, but was soon back on the road, fronting his own band. By the early 1950s he had returned to Chicago and was performing regularly in clubs. This set the pattern that he repeated for most of his life: extensive touring with various musicians interspersed with establishing himself in various cities before returning to the Chicago club scene. During this time, he formed a band with the blues drummer and vocalist Kansas City Red.

In 1952, Hooker began recording for several independent record companies. His early singles were often credited to the vocalist he recorded with, although some instrumentals (and his occasional vocal) were issued in Hooker’s name. Songs by Hooker and blues and R&B artists, including Johnny O’Neal, Little Sam Davis, Boyd Gilmore, Pinetop Perkins, the Dells, Arbee Stidham, Lorenzo Smith, and Harold Tidwell, were recorded by King, Rockin’, Sun, Argo, Vee-Jay, States, United, and C.J. (several of these recordings, including all of the Sun sessions, were unissued at the time). The harmonica player Little Arthur Duncan often accompanied Hooker during this period

Perhaps best known for his slide guitar playing, he was considered a “musician’s musician”, he performed with a very wide variety of blues artists such as Sonny Boy Williamson II, Junior Wells, and John Lee Hooker (his cousin) as well as fronting his own bands.

As a band leader, he recorded several singles and albums, in addition to recording with well-known artists. His “Blue Guitar”, a popular Chicago area slide-guitar instrumental single, was later overdubbed with vocals by Muddy Waters and became the popular “You Shook Me”.

His early singles were often credited to the vocalist he recorded with including Johnny O’Neal, Little Sam Davis, Boyd Gilmore, Pinetop Perkins, The Dells, Arbee Stidham, Lorenzo Smith, and Harold Tidwell

Earl died after a lifelong struggle with tuberculosis at age 41.