You might imagine that the guitarist who was reckoned to be the best around by the likes of B.B. King, Buddy Guy, and Albert King would be at least as well-known as them. You might think that a pioneer in the use of the wah-wah pedal, and who was acknowledged as its master by Jimi Hendrix, would be held in high popular esteem. It should be taken for granted that someone who changed the technique of bottleneck guitar and, as a dubious bonus, laid down the early inspiration for Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” would merit a mention in any standard rock history. Some might even expect him to be a household name. Yet, outside of his peers and the dedicated army of blues collectors, Earl Hooker is hardly remembered. Even the fact that his cousin, John Lee Hooker, is the most high-profile of the surviving bluesmen has not helped his standing. Sebastian Danchin’s biography aims both to rectify that and to offer an explanation for this strange collective amnesia.
Earl Hooker was the epitome of the working blues musician. Poverty, ill-health, endless one-night bookings, and little critical or financial reward characterised his life. He was born to rural squalor in the Mississippi delta in 1929, grew up in urban deprivation in Chicago, developed a severe stammer, never learned to read or write, suffered from TB most of his adult life and died in 1970 just as some sort of recognition was coming his way. In the midst of all of this he established himself as Chicago’s premier guitarist in a career of constant gigging and far too few recordings. This is a tale of art, barely recognised, blossoming in the face of hardship and suffering. This is the blues.
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. As B.B. King said of him, in a fine piece of blue-collar musical criticism, “To me he is the greatest. He always knew what he was doing. For instance take a truck driver you tell him to park next to the curb and he knows exactly where to put the rig. That’s how Earl Hooker played…”
Hooker’s lack of acclaim depends on many factors, his bad luck and casual approach to the recording industry and his preference for the itinerant life particularly. Also he was primarily an instrumentalist in a genre where the vocalist is central. His reputation by and large depended on his live performances, and since these were usually in out-of-the-way bars in out-of-the-way places the wider world missed out. Danchin has set himself the formidable task of tracing the career of a man who worked at the fringe of American society, who was always on the move, except when ill-health forced him into hospitals, and who left not a single recorded interview.
That he succeeds in building up a remarkably detailed portrait of a life and a career is testimony to a painstaking piece of “oral history.” Drawing on innumerable interviews with those who knew and worked with Hooker, an entire career is traced in all its vagabond glory. Rich in detail and intrinsically interesting, this book’s great achievement is to return the blues to its proper setting the clubs and communities of the African-American working class of the recent but disappearing past. A labour of love and a book for the cognoscenti, it is also a great exercise in historical sociology. Danchin has no great theory to expound yet there is more to learn from this volume than from many “official” accounts of African-American life in the turbulent post-war years. The odd swipe at rock music and a certain socially blind blues follower show that the author has a few targets in his sights. He scores heavily.
Twenty years of interviews and research lie behind this text. Nobody who came into professional contact with the wayward guitarist has been ignored. The plethora of names will overwhelm those who are unfamiliar with the general blues world, but the same thoroughness will be welcomed by those who are. The cast of characters is large but there are enough juicy anecdotes and insightful quotes to keep the more casual reader entertained. No music fan, even the most expert, will come away without learning something new.
A particular delight is that a legion of small label owners and underpaid side-men are given a recognition here that they are rarely accorded. If Hooker is the main forgotten man here rescued then there is a supporting cast of deserving figures whose stories also are unearthed. The likes of Andrew Odom, Big Moose Walker, and Mel London are minor players in blues history but important ones in Hooker’s career. Their inclusion adds a breadth of context which allows the maverick genius of Hooker’s musicianship to occupy the centre of a large and complex stage. Different perspectives offer a full picture of Hooker and also of the social and economic environment that he inhabited.
That environment was harsh and left Hooker with a legacy of illness and a mistrustful personality. Hooker was a difficult man with demons aplenty. He was a freelance musician, suspicious of the long-term contract and with little understanding of the importance of recording his music. Money down for a live gig was easier to see than promises of future prosperity. That live fee was kept to himself with a tenacity that made him one of the least reliable bandleaders of an unreliable bunch and accounts for the large changeover in personnel (and hence the large cast size in this book). Hooker was, in short, a thief and a hustler. The author neither glosses over his many flaws nor fails to expose their origins which were in the poverty and insecurity of the social milieu.
That social milieu is as much a character as Hooker himself and is presented in all its harshness, poetry, and humanity. Working people at weekends listening to one of their own, whether it was the seasonal crop pickers in Florida or the steel workers in the Northern towns, form the foundation stone of this work, just as they did the music. They loved Hooker he was the king of the roadside joint and the small club. Chicago was Hooker’s home but his career was really in places like Cairo, Waterloo, Gary, and countless one-horse towns in the Southern states. This is where he honed his talent, added new material, found what worked, and mixed showmanship with precise artistry.
Hooker recorded sporadically throughout his career but mostly in the last two years of his life the music pressed then represented nearly 30 years on the road. Each nuance of these recordings is teased out by Danchin, himself a blues musician. It is odd how well the music comes alive even on the page, but ideally you will need to listen to some of the material as you read. Then you are in for a treat. Hooker’s style is both economic and flashy a mixture that we appreciate more because of some perceptive character analysis built upon solid musical criticism.
Following the narrative does require some preliminary knowledge and interest in the area but that is hardly a problem. The writing style is a little wayward at times, and the author has a bizarre fondness for misusing the phrase “on the contrary.” Such a quibble is extremely minor in the face of such a magnificent and in-depth project. As a blues book it is exemplary, as a psychological portrait of doomed talent it is moving, and as a slice of cultural history it is novel and informative. Not only Hooker’s work but the work of any number of rhythm’n'blues performers will resonate a little more tellingly because of it. Blues is now most likely to be heard far away from its original context this book gets us as close to that context as mere words are ever likely to. In rescuing Hooker from obscurity, Danchin has shed a great deal of light on a whole community and has done it with care and respect. That is no mean feat.