Ellis Hooks – Soul man
The march of time is exacting its toll from the titleholders and titans of classic R&B. This past year has seen the passing of greats including Little Milton, R.L. Burnside, and James Brown protege Lyn Collins. But the torch will not be dropped. Not so long as Ellis Hooks has breath. And judging from the lungpower exhibited on his fourth full-length, Godson Of Soul, the genre is in good care.
Given the paucity of new talents in the field, a more cynical artist might have titled his disc Orphan Of Soul. But Hooks hardly operates alone. Guests on Godson include legendary guitarist Steve Cropper and trumpet/trombone player Wayne Jackson of the Memphis Horns. Further, as the singer is quick to point out, he might never have found his niche were it not for his producer, co-writer, and musical comrade-in-arms, Jon Tiven.
“When I first came to New York, I played country, I played rock,” recalls Hooks, who grew up just outside Mobile, Alabama. “Jon was the only one who saw what was inside of me, and knew how to get it out. He said, ‘You are a soul man.'”
On Godson Of Soul, the creative team was determined to reiterate that fact. While Hooks’ 2004 domestic debut, Uncomplicated, won favorable notices, today he expresses concern that it tinkered with a winning formula. “Uncomplicated had a little too much rock in it,” he says. “We wanted to get back to our roots, and our original fans. That’s why we went about writing a classic soul album.”
Had Godson Of Soul been issued 40-odd years ago, the Animals and the Stones might have nicked selections for their set lists. His voice rough-edged and red-blooded, yet graced with an undercurrent of aw-shucks sensitivity, Hooks rhapsodizes about his lovemaking prowess on the boisterous opener “Five Times”. He proves equally adept at expressing the other end of the emotional spectrum, embodying the epitome of late-night despondency on “Black Nights, Blue Moon”, his sorrowful moan dogged by weary handclaps. “You Changed My Life”, meanwhile, strikes the classic balance of the secular and sacred epitomized by Ray Charles; although the tune is a love song, with just a tiny lyrical tweak or two, it could double as a paean to the almighty.
The album was recorded in Nashville, where Hooks recently relocated. Godson includes “Chainsaw”, a down-and-dirty duet with country singer Marty Brown, one of many and sometimes unexpected collaborations. Hooks also co-wrote one song (“That’s Where It’s At”) and sang backing vocals on Little Milton’s final studio album, Think Of Me, and lent his pipes to Honeycomb, the roots-rock outing from former Pixies frontman Frank Black.
Of the two, Hooks says he was more intimidated by the alt-rock icon, even though Milton’s influence figures more prominently in his own aesthetic. “[Milton] was an original, I couldn’t wait to work with him,” he admits. “But when Jon told me Frank wanted me to work with him? That was totally out of left field.” An ardent fan of collaboration, Hooks also has an original tune titled “Show It To Me” that he hopes to cut with the Godfather of Soul, James Brown.
Brown, along with Sam Cooke, Otis Redding and Bobby Womack (who makes a cameo, via answering machine message, on Godson), were all formative influences on Hooks as he grew up in Bayminette, Alabama, the thirteenth of sixteen children. He left home at age 15 and three years later landed in New York City.
While busking in Central Park, he had a brush with another R&B legend, Diana Ross, who offered Hooks a chance to cut some tracks at top-notch recording studio the Power Station. But at the last minute, he balked and blew off the appointment, frightened that the Motown diva would try to mold him into a chart-friendly crooner. “I wasn’t ready, and I got cold feet,” he admits. “That was unprofessional. I love her, but I doubt she’ll ever want to speak to me again.”
Not content to spend the rest of his life serenading patrons of Central Park, Hooks struck out for Europe soon after, playing the streets of Paris, Amsterdam and Milan. Upon his return to the States, he met Tiven, and the two formed their fruitful partnership.
Hooks’ initial acclaim came from the other side of the pond. His 2002 debut, Undeniable, was issued via the European label Zane Records, which led to gigs supporting Terence Trent D’Arby and an appearance at the Montreaux Jazz Festival as the special guest of Carla Thomas.
Hooks figures his reception overseas is part of an overall trend of foreign audiences craving authenticity. “Europeans see all the original blues and R&B singers as coming from America. So they are going to beg you to come over, and treat you well,” he says. “I’ve seen the same thing happen with country bands from America over there. Folks want the real deal.”
With a fifth album already completed, Hooks shows no signs of slowing down. As for the dwindling numbers of legit soul music peers, he has an answer for that, too, one which would surely delight the late “Pops” Roebuck Staples: “I have several brothers and sisters who can really sing,” Hooks offers. “So some of my brothers and I are talking about doing a gospel album together. We’ll probably start writing it next year.”