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Simply The Best

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Album Review

Back in the late '50s and early '60s, Chicago blues was at its peak, and for the price of a drink or two one could hear the unbearably exciting guitar work of Buddy Guy, Freddie King, Otis Rush, Magic Sam, Elmore James, Muddy Waters, Robert Nighthawk, and Hubert Sumlin blasting out of small clubs along the south and west sides of the city. But if you were to ask any of these fretboard whizes who was the best guitar player in town, they would all direct you to wherever Earl Hooker was playing on that particular night. A cousin of John Lee Hooker and a major disciple of Robert Nighthawk, Hooker was the man to beat, the most technically advanced of all bluesmen. Adept at a multitude of styles ranging from hillbilly to jazz, Hooker worked as a sideman and leader in more configurations than any other modern bluesman, spending much of his time away from Chicago with his band, aptly named the Roadmasters. While his lead guitar work graced the recordings of Muddy Waters ("You Shook Me," the only time Waters gave up his slide guitar chair to anyone), Junior Wells (the original "Messin' With the Kid"), G.L. Crockett (the rockabilly classic "Look out Mabel"), and others, Hooker's solo career was sporadic; a baker's dozen of singles under his own name, along with an unreleased session for Sun, were spread out over a 15-year period before the late-'60s blues album market caught up with him, by which time the tuberculosis that dogged him throughout his life cut his career short. Perhaps the only traditional bluesman to successfully utilize electronic gimmicks like wah-wah pedals and distortion units without sounding ridiculous, Hooker's slide guitar work was the absolute creamiest, once reducing B.B. King to tears backstage as he told Buddy Guy that "no one can play a slide that clean." Unfortunately, Hooker wasn't much of a singer and would record with various vocalists, especially on his later work, thus reducing him to sideman status on his own albums. But with Hooker, you came for the guitar playing, and there's a carload of it on this 19-track collection of his best stuff left behind in the MCA-Universal vaults. Starting out with the calling card of Waters' "You Shook Me," the collection features two of his best Chess sides from the '50s, "Tanya" and "Frog Hop," the latter a showcase for Hooker's improvisational skills. From there, it's fast-forward to the late '60s, when Hooker was cranking out sessions left and right, both under his own name for Blue Thumb (co-produced by Ike Turner, who learned guitar playing from Hooker back in the '50s) and Blues Way, as well as backing sessions for everyone from Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry to Andrew Odom, Big Moose Walker, and his cousin, John Lee Hooker. While many of these albums were uneven affairs, this compilation brings together the shining moments when the inspiration light and the record button were both on at the same time. Whether it was fleet-fingered single-note work or the smoothest of slide playing, nobody played the blues like Earl Hooker, and here's where you go to hear some of the best of it.


Born: January 15, 1929 in Clarksdale, MS

Genre: Blues

Years Active: '50s, '60s, '70s

If there was a more immaculate slide guitarist residing in Chicago during the 1950s and '60s than Earl Hooker, his name has yet to surface. Boasting a fretboard touch so smooth and clean that every note rang as clear and precise as a bell, Hooker was an endlessly inventive axeman who would likely have been a star had his modest vocal abilities matched his instrumental prowess and had he not been dogged by tuberculosis (it killed him at age 41). Born in the Mississippi Delta, Hooker arrived in Chicago...
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Simply The Best, Earl Hooker
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