"Another Saturday Morning"
It was Spring 2003, during the Rhythm & Blues Night at De Oosterpoort in Groningen. Theo Oldenburg and I were waiting backstage & upstairs, somewhere in that maze, for our interview with Duane Jarvis. Duane had informed us that he was playing leadguitar for Ellis Hooks during his European tour. Ellis Hooks, never heard of before. Then a tall, young man walked the corridor at a rather fast pace, supple like a panther, in passing by he gave us this BIG smile... Yes, that was Ellis Hooks! And his show later that night was just as surprising and captivating, a performer who took over the stage and the room with his charm and charisma, who even paid attention and tribute to the ladies... I can recommend an Ellis Hooks concert to any music lover!
Who is Ellis Hooks? He was born in Bay Minette, SouthWest Alabama to a full Cherokee mother and a father of African American descent, a sharecropper. Ellis was the thirteenth of no less than sixteen children. He didn't have a pair of shoes until he was eight, and wasn't permitted to know the meaning of fun. "We weren't allowed to play after school or on Saturdays because we'd be picking peas for the white folks," Ellis explains, "and we'd spend all day Sunday in church." His strict Baptist family had nothing but disdain for secular music, so when the fourteen year-old Ellis heard the radio and lost interest in leading the church choir, he was thrown out of his household.
Hitchhiking across the United States, often relying on just his voice and guitar for meals and places to spend the night, he supported himself doing a variety of odd jobs, from bailing hay to gutting fish. He slept everywhere, from graveyards to playgrounds. At age eighteen he eventually landed in New York, where he sang in the streets and on one occasion was almost 'discovered'. "I was singing in Central Park and Diana Ross came walking by in a yellow dress and told me she loved my voice and wanted to put me in the studio. She set up time for me at the Power Station but I wasn't ready, I really wasn't comfortable with my own songs at that point. I was so freaked out I never showed up. I was too young." Ellis didn't wallow in any lost chances, though. Instead he took off for Europe, honing his craft along the way. "I was buskin', playing on the streets, walking up to people's dinner tables and performing for them. I hit the tube stops, and just played and played. I was addicted man, but that's what it takes to get better," Hooks says of his time spent in Paris, Amsterdam and Milan. Hungry to parlay his talent into a successful career as a professional musician, Hooks returned home to New York City when he was twenty-five. He tried putting bands together, but never found the right people to play with him. "I was ready to give up," Ellis offers, "I had sung in front of so many people and never had a record out, I figured it just wasn't going to happen for me."
As the millennium approached Ellis was contemplating moving back to Alabama to become a preacher, but fate and destiny interfered. He wasn't even present, when his winning cards were dealt. Taken out by friends on his birthday to a famous gentleman's club, producer Jon Tiven was approached by a stripper claiming to possess an extraordinary singing voice. Tiven, who has worked with Wilson Pickett and B.B. King, set up an appointment for the woman to audition her vocal skills. She arrived accompanied by a chaperone. When she failed to ignite any interest in the producer, Tiven turned to the chaperone in leather pants and cowboy boots and asked, "What do you do?" Ellis Hooks grabbed a guitar from Tiven's wall and answered the man with a song, and the rest, as they say, is history.
It took me until recently, to get my hands on a promo of an Ellis Hooks CD though. He has made several already, his debut "Undeniable" (2002) was followed by "Up Your Mind", then he recorded "Uncomplicated" (2004) and "Godson Of Soul" (2005). "I just want to make music that moves people", Ellis explains, "and I just sing what I feel." So here's "Another Saturday Morning"! No less than sixteen (original) tracks, still produced by Jon Tiven, who also plays a variety of instruments: guitars, sitar, piano, Hammond organ, alto and tenor saxophones, percussion, drums and harmonica. Although the booklet features great action pictures of Ellis playing guitar, he sticks with singing only on this CD, besides lead vocals also doing his own (falsetto) backing. His voice has been described as 'gravel and honey' and that's exactly what it is! He combines soul with blues and seventies music, plus a little funk and reggae here & there. Most tracks have the classic set-up: drums, bassguitar, leadguitar(s) and keys. A lot of mid to uptempo songs, just a few ballads, fade-outs (so typical for the seventies) almost everywhere. The subject of the lyrics? Love, with a capital L... Love-related happiness, complications of course, but love is indispensable! The delivery is impeccable, confident, Ellis 'jumps' into every song with both feet!
Opening tracks "Black Dirt" and "You Move Too Fast" feature alto & tenor saxophones, I love saxophones! I'm not too crazy about a synth though, but it fits on a funky track like "Don't Stop Dancing". Mason Casey plays a fabulous harmonica on bluesy uptempo "Don't Come Running Back", exactly like the instrument is supposed to sound! In "Bad MF" (don't worry, he doesn't sing the full word!) the thought of James Brown crosses the mind, of course. The Hammond organ gets a big part in "I've Had It", Jon and Sally Tiven take care of the more extensive backingvocals here. In "Rain On The Wood" the subject changes to a more contemplative view at life: "It's hard to light a fire with the rain on the wood", delivered with the inspiration of a gospel. The title track is a soul ballad about old friends, life and destiny, money, good and bad luck. "When you get knocked down, you better get up again / The battle's on, if you loose they win / You can't give up", sings the man from his own experience and I feel like singing along, loud! A quite different arrangement was used for "Churchyard Girl", a song about first love, balancing somewhere between soul and countryblues, featuring an electric piano and again the great Mason Casey on harmonica. It sounds to me like a true story... The poppy approach of "The Road To Your Heart" would have guaranteed a Top-40 spot, way back when that list still meant something. Bonus-track is a perfect Christmas song, beautiful, those layers of electric piano and Hammond organ. I played several tracks off "Another Saturday Morning" in my radio show already and I still receive requests for more, I guess that says it all...
And what is Johanna's own favorite? "Your River". A gorgeous song, Sam Cooke-like vocal, infectious melody and... a sitar!! Only those who grew up in the seventies can appreciate that musical instrument to the fullest. The runner-up is "Do I Ever Cross Your Heart", that spoken interlude is again so seventies! I was quite happy back then, maybe I forgot too many bad things or maybe I didn't even realize they were there, but I remember a good time. And the music of Ellis Hooks on this CD just brings that back to me...
Written by Johanna J. Bodde, June 2008.