Earl Hooker (Earl Zebedee Hooker) was born in Clarksdale in 1930 which made him about 15 years junior to Muddy Waters (who was also from Clarksdale), and 12 years younger than John Lee Hooker. Earl was John Lee Hooker’s first cousin, but that is where the similarity ended between these two.
Earl, ‘Zeb’ was one of those guys who seemed to know everyone, if you arranged a host of Blues ‘names’ in a circle, like the hub of a bicycle wheel Earl might sit comfortably in the middle.
Earl moved to Chicago at the age of one, and as a youngster and teenager, no doubt was exposed to the fertile blues scene there. Music came naturally as his parents were both playing musicians. He started playing guitar about 1945 after meeting Robert Nighthawk.
While Nighthawk became the main influence on Hooker’s playing, Earl learned from other guitarists and became adept in several genres aside from the blues, like country & western, jazz, and popular music that would soon become rock and roll. His mastery of bottleneck helped defined the art. He generated a definitive hollow piercing tone instantly recognisable as a classic bottleneck voice.
Earl was to spend much of his life on the move, criss-crossing the U.S.A. (and once to Europe), playing clubs and joints, and making trips to studios in Bradenton, Miami, Memphis, Chicago, Wisconsin, Los-Angeles, and London.
During the early 60’s, Earl returned to Chicago to record some of his finest work for Chess, Chief and Age.
It was during the late 1960’s that Zebedee (‘Zeb’ to many of his buddies) began to get some overdue recognition. Chris Strachwitz, the owner of Arhoolie records, asked Buddy Guy to recommend guitar players from Chicago whom he could record for his fledgling label. Buddy promptly gave Chris Earl’s address in Chicago.
In late 1969, Earl travelled to Europe to play in the American Folk Blues Festival, along with Magic Sam, Carey Bell, Clifton Chenier (see elsewhere this blog) and others. After returning to the USA, Zeb was admitted to a Chicago sanatorium (with TB) where he passed away in April 1970. He was just 41.