While Ellis Hooks is completely open about his admiration for Otis Redding and Sam Cooke, the 30-year-old is in many ways a first-generation soul singer. His story is as amazing as his voice, both of them so strikingly good that you’d think some publicist made them up.
His father was a sharecropper in southern Alabama, married to a Cherokee/African-American. Ellis was their 13th of 16 children; he was raised in a strict religious environment and was forced out of the house as a teenager when he discovered secular music.
“I picked cotton, peas, all that shit,” he recalls. “Looking back on it, it was a good, disciplinary thing for me. It taught me how to work hard. But I just don’t ever want to do it again,” he adds with a laugh.
From there, Hooks took to the road, hitchhiking and traveling around the country and through Europe, while he taught himself to play guitar and write songs to eke out an existence. He landed in New York City; for six years he played music in Central Park and on the street, mostly living there too.
Hooks puts a positive spin on that time as well. “People started throwing money at me; I said, ‘Man, this is great,’” he says. “Then the street just started claiming me. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it toned me up for what I’m doing now. I was gettin’ my chops.
“You really learn how to sing when you gotta do it outside with no mike by yourself, trying to make enough money so you can eat that day. The streets really kicked my ass, but it turned out to be a big rehearsal for me.”
Hooks has just released his third album in three years, though in many ways Uncomplicated is his debut, in part because it’s his first release on a label (Artemis) with enough resources to promote him broadly. Both Undeniable (released in 2002 only in the UK) and Up Your Mind (2003) were a bit more standard blues fare, hinting at the potential Hooks displays much more effectively on the stylistically diverse Uncomplicated.
The lead track “It’s Gonna Take Some Time” and also “I Don’t Want To Go Home” easily merge soul and country in a manner that brings to mind Arthur Alexander. Such an amalgamation — Hooks calls his music “Americana soul” — may be wildly out of touch commercially, but it makes perfect sense if your upbringing was in a part of the south largely untouched by time and thus not much different at all from what the original soul giants would have experienced when they grew up.
Other standout tracks on Uncomplicated feature Hooks delivering roadhouse rock ‘n’ roll (“Can’t Take This No More”), classic pleading vocal soul (“Never Give Up On Your Love”) and funky beach-party pop (the title track).
Jon Tiven has produced all three of Hooks’ records and knows a thing or two about the genuine article, having worked with Alexander, Wilson Pickett and B.B. King. Tiven says they intentionally went for a contemporary blues sound on the first two records, “having no other avenue to establish [Hooks] since he wasn’t going to make it as a teen artist or on urban radio.” But on Uncomplicated, they consciously dug deeper for what Tiven calls “a much wider definition of soul music.”
“Ellis has a unique spirit about him,” says Tiven. “He isn’t like anyone else you will ever meet. With all those years he was living on the street with absolutely no encouragement or cultivation of his talent, you’d expect him to be hard or frustrated. But he’s exactly the opposite. Ellis is like the lotus on top of the water; negativity doesn’t touch him.”
And while it’s his voice that grabs you, Hooks is a solid songwriter with a natural sense for the great pop hook, the very thing that distinguished the great soul singles of the ’60s. Tiven says Hooks has three albums in the can already and more than 100 unrecorded songs. He’s also done some co-writing lately with renowned Booker T & the MG’s guitarist Steve Cropper, who sat in with Hooks’ band at a recent gig.
While even Hooks himself admits his style of music makes him “a fish out of water” commercially now, people are beginning to take notice. “I love what I’m doing and am just trying to be myself,” he says. “I think people appreciate that.”