Artist: Ellis Hooks
Album: Needle In A Haystack
Label: Blues Boulevard
Release Date: 11/13/2015
Well-traveled soulman Ellis Hooks has his own unique approach, honed from his sharecropper, Baptist, New York/European busker background. While some have compared Hooks to Little Milton or even Otis Redding, this disc often finds Hooks in a soul-driven, rocking mode. He has a rough-edged quality to his voice not unlike Otis Clay or Wilson Pickett, and comes across firmly convicted and self-confident in every syllable uttered. If you need an aural reference point, think of the brash swagger of R&B fueled Stones tunes like “Gimme Shelter” and “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’.”
Hooks again teams with long-time collaborator and soul legend in his own right, Jon Tiven, who writes, co-produces and plays multiple instruments on the record. This is their sixth album, but the first since 2007’s Another Saturday Morning, which capped a fertile period of five albums in five years. Hooks first achieved popularity in Europe and the UK while earning a W.C. Handy nomination for 2003’s Up Your Mind. Along the way, Hooks attracted guests like Steve Cropper, Dan Penn and Wayne Jackson. In fact, Cropper is the co-writer and guitarist on “To You Who Have Wronged Me” here. Many of the same players, including bassist Sally Tiven, appear as on the previous outings, but Jon Tiven adds another creative force- the poet, painter and lyricist Stephen Kalinich, best known for his work with Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys. Kalinich co-produces with Tiven, contributing socio-political lyrics to several songs, notably the nostalgic “Los Angeles,” the intense plea of “Put Down Your Needles” and the call for unity in “America, I’m Coming Home.”
Alabama born Hooks is the thirteenth of sixteen children. He eventually landed in New York after years of hitchhiking and street corner performances. Having met Tiven in 2002 and following the success of those highly acclaimed albums, Hooks toured extensively in Europe, appearing in many festivals and playing countless clubs. He grew tired of the road and settled in New York, appearing infrequently. Credit must go to singer/guitarist Chris Bergson, who often persuaded Hooks to sing at his New York gigs at The Jazz Standard and other venues. In fact, Hooks appearance on Bergson’s highly lauded Live at The Jazz Standard rekindled the music community’s interest in Hooks, and likely led to Hooks’ desire to record again. Hooks continues to play with Bergson both in the states and in Europe.
Armed with fresh material and his distinctive baritone voice, Hooks deserves another listen after this long hiatus. It’s well worth giving this disc several repeat listens and seeking out his earlier albums too.
– Jim Hynes