Earl Hooker was known in Chicago as a musicians musician--his guitar playing impressed people like B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Otis Rush and his second cousin, John Lee Hooker. Though he never achieved much fame on his own, he was a regular session musician, valued for tasty/funky fills and his unique wah-wah pedal driven slide guitar. He also could play in several styles and was known to take the occasional CW gig now and then.
His recording career began with 4 instrumental tracks cut for King label in 1952--a single was issued, all 4 later turned up on an extremely funky John Lee Hooker album--all credited to John Lee. Earl went on to cut mostly instrumental sides for various small labels--including a couple of 1960 sessions behind Junior Wells. Sessions for Chess wound up issued on their subsidiary labels of Argo and Checker--in 1968 he was "discovered" by Arhoolie Records and began cutting tracks for the growing blues/folk audience. In 1969, in Los Angeles, he played lead on no less than seven ABC-Bluesway albums, over a 6 month period. He died young, at 40 in 1971, from tuberculosis.
This set has a couple of early tracks, "Frog Hop" (1956) and "Tanya" (1962)--a CW flavored cut. Another 1962 instrumental wound up being used as a backing track for Muddy Waters, becoming his release, "You Shook Me." The remaining 16 tracks come from those '69 Blue Thumb and ABC-Bluesway sessions. Three of them feature Hooker's adequate vocals, none particularly notable.
He backs people like the misnamed Andrew "Voice" Odom (his vocals are not much more than average) on a couple of Bobby Bland covers, as well as regular band-mate, keyboardist Moose Walker. His guitar has a distinctive sound for the time--no doubt producers hoped his sweet slide tone (think Tampa Red) coupled with the relatively recently invented wah-wah pedal would make waves with the white psychedelic audience. (Bluesway label was notorious for its odd matchups of musicians and genres, putting trombone players with hard-core bluesmen for example.) In the same vein, droning electric sax turns up on Walker's cover on Elmore James's "The Sky Is Crying." Hooker also plays lead on a Sonny Terry Brownie Mcghee cut, "When I was Drinking." Hooker also backs Charles Brown on yet another nicely atmospheric remake of Browns signature piece, "Drifting Blues". And he turns up on a couple of his cousins tunes as well; "Messing Around With The Blues" is generally a riff boogie with John Lee intoning the title phrase a few times.
On his own tracks, Hooker exhibits energy and dexterity, ranging from funky blues to jumping boog-a-loo. Though not a flashy player he was a good solid journeyman, and pieces like "Universal Rock" and "You Got To Lose" feature some impressive playing. Hooking is his version of the Honky Tonk riff, an easy lope. Overall, this 75 minute collection is pleasant, with a few scattered flashes of brilliance. It will probably appeal mainly to guitar players who want to check out the later work of one of the 1960's mainstay sidemen.
This review is copyright © 1999 by Tony Glover, and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved.