The Heart of a Man
Who Feels the Soul of the Blues
Biography by Thom Jurek
Until the arrival of Ellis Hooks on the 21st century blues and soul scenes with his now-signature meld of R&B, blues and Southern gospel, it seemed that the great stories surrounding these musics had already been told and passed into antiquity with the great names assigned to them — Otis Redding, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, James Carr, and Sam Cooke, to name a few. Not so.
Ellis Hooks was born in Bay Minette, Alabama, between Birmingham and Montgomery. He is the 13th of 16 children born to sharecroppers. According to legend, he didn’t own a pair of shoes until he was eight. Hooks began his singing career as a child leading the church choir, but fell under the sway of the soul, blues, and country music his older brothers listened to on the radio. The voices of Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, and Little Milton were sheer enchantment for the youth.
At the age of 15, Hooks decided to seek his fortune as a singer and left home. He hitchhiked across the United States, working odd jobs, and playing and singing for anyone who would listen on street corners, and eventually landed in New York. In the city he slept where he could, played the occasional club gig on Bleeker Street, and spent many days singing in Central Park.
In the storied way Hooks’ life has unfolded, Diana Ross heard him in Central Park and, taken with his unique vocal style which blends the soul croon and blues growl, offered him a recording session at the famed Power Station studio. Hooks balked and never showed up, later claiming that he wasn’t ready and his songs weren’t developed enough.
Hooks wasted no time in making his next career move. He earned enough for a one-way trip to Europe and spent time living in Paris, Amsterdam, and in Milan, where he played tube stops and street corners. It’s a time he looks back on fondly: “European audiences receive you; they’re open and they treat you like family. In the United States you have to fight for every audience member,” he told this journalist in an interview.
Hooks returned to New York in 1995 where lightning struck for the second time upon meeting producer Jon Tiven. Hooks accompanied a young singer as a chaperone to an audition at Tiven’s studio. While the producer was unimpressed with the singer’s audition, he challenged Hooks, asking him what he did. Hooks, miffed by the dismissal of his friend, told Tiven he sang. Tiven offered the young man a guitar and a chance to prove it, and a partnership was born.
Hooks and Tiven began a working partnership that has yielded no less than three fine recordings. Undeniable was issued on the European Zane label in 2002. Using a backing band under the directorship of Tiven, who plays guitar, keyboards and alto saxophone, and his bass-playing wife Sally, Undeniable caught the ear of critics all over Europe, Time Out, in the U.K., acclaimed it the soul album of the year and it earned Hooks the headline spot on the BBC’s World Music Festival on New Year’s Day 2003.
Hooks toured incessantly, playing club gigs, and he won an opening slot for Terence Trent D’Arby, where he played for over 40,000 people. Hooks also won the admiration of Carla Thomas and appeared at both the Montreux Jazz Festival and Poretta Soul Festival as her special guest.
Hooks has issued two more albums. First, there’s the rollicking Up Your Mind, on the Evidence label; it was released in late 2003, and garnered Hooks a W.C. Handy Award nomination. March 2004 saw the release of the stunning Uncomplicated (entitled Hand of God in Europe) on the Artemis label, and it gathered a storm of notoriety and praise on both sides of the Atlantic from critics and fans. An album project Hooks worked on in the 1980s, The Godson of Soul, was reissued by Evidence Records on CD in 2005, followed on the label by a new album, Another Saturday Morning, in 2007. Hooks is the true continuum in the celebrated Southern traditions of soul, blues, and gospel; his voice, while reminiscent of some of the greats, is nonetheless his own, and his phrasing is a trademark. Given the powerful nature of his recordings and his now-storied intensity in concert, Hooks may indeed be the artist who brings these historic traditions back into the musical dialogue and onto the charts in the 21st century.
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