Earl Hooker, Blues Master [NOOK Book]

Overview

The life and early death of a South Side guitar genius, the greatest unheralded Chicago blues-maker

Jimi Hendrix called Earl Hooker "the master of the wah-wah pedal." Buddy Guy slept with one of Hooker's slides beneath his pillow hoping to tap some of the elder bluesman's power. And B. B. King has said repeatedly that, for his money, Hooker was the best guitar player he ever met.

Tragically, Earl Hooker died of tuberculosis in 1970 when he was ...

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Earl Hooker, Blues Master

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Overview

The life and early death of a South Side guitar genius, the greatest unheralded Chicago blues-maker

Jimi Hendrix called Earl Hooker "the master of the wah-wah pedal." Buddy Guy slept with one of Hooker's slides beneath his pillow hoping to tap some of the elder bluesman's power. And B. B. King has said repeatedly that, for his money, Hooker was the best guitar player he ever met.

Tragically, Earl Hooker died of tuberculosis in 1970 when he was on the verge of international success just as the Blues Revival of the late sixties and early seventies was reaching full volume.

Second cousin to now-famous bluesman John Lee Hooker, Earl Hooker was born in Mississippi in 1929, and reared in black South Side Chicago where his parents settled in 1930. From the late 1940s on, he was recognized as the most creative electric blues guitarist of his generation. He was a "musician's musician," defining the art of blues slide guitar and playing in sessions and shows with blues greats Muddy Waters, Junior Wells, and B. B. King.

A favorite of black club and neighborhood bar audiences in the Midwest, and a seasoned entertainer in the rural states of the Deep South, Hooker spent over twenty-five years of his short existence burning up U.S. highways, making brilliant appearances wherever he played.

Until the last year of his life, Hooker had only a few singles on obscure labels to show for all the hard work. The situation changed in his last few months when his following expanded dramatically. Droves of young whites were seeking American blues tunes and causing a blues album boom. When he died, his star's rise was extinguished. Known primarily as a guitarist rather than a vocalist, Hooker did not leave a songbook for his biographer to mine. Only his peers remained to praise his talent and pass on his legend.

"Earl Hooker's life may tell us a lot about the blues," biographer Sebastian Danchin says, "but it also tells us a great deal about his milieu. This book documents the culture of the ghetto through the example of a central character, someone who is to be regarded as a catalyst of the characteristic traits of his community."

Like the tales of so many other unheralded talents among bluesmen, Earl Hooker, Blues Master, Hooker's life story, has all the elements of a great blues song -- late nights, long roads, poverty, trouble, and a soul-felt pining for what could have been.

Sebastian Danchin is a freelance writer and record producer. He also creates programs for France's leading radio network, Radio-France, and is the blues editor for France's leading jazz magazine, Jazzman. His previous books, among others, include Les Dieux du Blues (Paris: Editions Atlas, 1995) and Blues Boy: The Life and Music of B. B. King (University Press of Mississippi, 1998).

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Musician/journalist Danchin (Blues Boy: The Life and Music of B.B. King) offers a fascinating account of neglected bluesman Hooker (1929-70) and postwar electric blues. Relying upon dozens of in-depth interviews and exhaustive research of secondary sources, he outlines the affable guitarist's start in the Chicago blues scene and painstakingly tracks his rambles through the clubs and juke joints of the Deep South, Florida, Missouri, Arkansas, California, and back to the West and South sides of the Windy City. While acknowledging that the general public was not familiar with Hooker's recordings on such small, independent labels as King, Chief, Age, and Cuca, the author reveals how respected his subject was by his better-known contemporaries B.B. King, Junior Wells, and Ike Turner. He ends with Hooker's increasing notoriety and major label recordings amid the blues explosion of the late 1960s before his untimely death after a lifelong bout with tuberculosis. A stellar examination of an overlooked blues master and of the roots and cultures of blues after World War II.--Dave Szatmary, Univ. of Washington, Seattle Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781604739008
  • Publisher: University Press of Mississippi
  • Publication date: 1/1/2001
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • File size: 5 MB

Read an Excerpt


Chapter One


The EarlyYears


(1929-1946)


The life of Earl Hooker—like that of many mythical figures—isfilled with the historical inconsistencies that both plaguethe historian and help build up true legends. In Hooker's case,problems start early with the very date and location of his birth.Hooker himself claimed to various inquirers (including ArhoolieRecords producer Chris Strachwitz, blues historian Paul Oliver,and nurse Wilma Hart at Chicago's Municipal Sanitarium, wherehe died) that he was born in Clarksdale, Mississippi, on January15, 1930, a statement that has never been challenged since. Theguitarist's grave marker, however, cites his year of birth as 1929, adate supported by his obituary, which gave the location as QuitmanCounty, a rural area neighboring the eastern border ofClarksdale's Coahoma County. Confronted with a difficulty ofthat sort, a biographer's most reliable source of information wouldno doubt be a birth certificate; unfortunately, it was impossible totrace one for Hooker in Mississippi, confirming Chris Albertson'sopinion when he wrote in his fine biography of Bessie Smith,"Southern bureaucracy made little distinction between its black populationand its dogs; such official records as a birth certificate were not always considerednecessary."

    This cannot be simply viewed as a romantic exaggeration; in the very yearEarl was born, sociologist Charles S. Johnson was making a survey of 612African American families in a rural Alabama county, and he wrote in his subsequentstudy, Shadow of the Plantation, "The county health officer [doesnot]know what proportion of the total [number of births] was registered. There issome evidence that the number of Negro births registered is less than the actualnumber of births." In the absence of official documents, Earl's ownmother, Mary Blair Hooker, was the most likely informant, and she vividly recalledgiving birth to her eldest son on January 15, 1929. In order to test hermemory, she was asked similar questions (including the birth date of herdaughter Christine, for whom a birth certificate was found in Chicago) and shesystematically provided the right answers, tending to indicate that her memorycould be trusted.

    Whereas Earl's mother certainly remembered the circumstances of his cominginto the world better than he did, the fact that Hooker chose to give 1930as his date of birth is indeed surprising. In the blues community, musicianssometimes try to pass themselves off as younger than they actually are as a kindof ostentatious mannerism, but had this been so in Hooker's case, it would havemade more sense to opt for a later date. Considering his rather eccentric andcarefree nature, a likely explanation would be that a round figure like thirtysimply appealed to him for purely arithmetic reasons when it came to figuringhis own age. In much the same way, citing Clarksdale (the main cotton centerin the northern part of the Delta) as his place of birth might have been a wayfor Earl to place himself on the map when he reconstructed his life story for interviewers.At any rate, official records did exist at this time, but the Clarksdalecity directories list no Hooker until 1936, and the 1920 U.S. census cites onlyone black Hooker family (George, wife Gussie, and daughter Carrie) living inCoahoma County; on the contrary, the same census listing for QuitmanCounty shows that Earl Hooker (Earl's father), age twelve, was the fourth ofeight children born to Mary and Jefferson Hooker, a tenant farmer.

    By the end of the decade, Earl Sr. was old enough to start his own family,and he married a sixteen-year-old neighbor named Mary Blair, who soon gavehim a son, as she recalls: "In my family, it was eighteen of us. We got preachers,all of 'em is preachers. I was livin' on a farm then where my parents were raisin'cotton, outside of Clarksdale; it was a great big place in Quitman County, Mississippi,a few miles away from Clarksdale in the country. Earl was born exactlythe fifteenth of January, 1929. I called him Earl Zebedee Hooker." Earl sharedhis date of birth with civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., born on thevery same Tuesday of January 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia, less than four hundredmiles east of Quitman County.

    Unlike King, whose family belonged to the urban black bourgeoisie—W.E. B. Du Bois's celebrated "talented tenth"—Earl belonged to the South's rurallumpenproletariat. His very early days were spent on the farm tended by theBlair family in the vicinity of Vance, in the heart of the Delta. This area had—andstill boasts—a large black population, most of which was scattered aroundsmall rural towns that hardly numbered more than a hundred souls. Only threecenters in the Delta held larger populations—Greenville, Greenwood, andClarksdale, the latter being the smallest of the three with some 10,000 citizens,but also the closest to the Blairs' farm. Earl's maternal grandfather was a sharecropperon one of the cotton plantations to be found all around the MississippiDelta, working under what the Georgia Baptist Convention labeled "debt-slavery"shortly after World War I) Sharecroppers then lived with their families inrough wooden shacks along dusty roads under a harsh, paternalistic system thathad undergone few changes since the Civil War and the emancipation of blackfield hands. Against the loan of a shotgun house and several acres of land, thesharecropper was contracted to a landowner for whom he grew and picked cotton.At the end of the growing season, the crop was divided between them, anddeductions were made for cash advances and "furnishings"; when the accountswere settled, many cotton-raising families ended up in debt, thus becomingchained to "the man" and having to start over again the following year.

    "There was nothing unusual about 1929; it was an ordinary year," writesLerone Bennett Jr. in Before the Mayflower. "Babies were born and old mendied. Funeral services for John Lisle, a Civil War veteran, were held at CharlesJackson's funeral home on the South Side of Chicago.... In October there wasa new Louis Armstrong record, `When You're Smiling.' The Gay Crowd lettheir hair down at a series of parties celebrating the October 26 football gamebetween Tuskegee and Wilberforce. That same weekend the Harlem night clubseason went into high gear with the opening of the new revue at Smalls Paradise.Sunday came and Monday and Tuesday—and the bubble burst with thecollapse of the stock market." In the perspective of time, 1929 stands out inthe eventful period that bridged the two world wars mainly because of the financialcrash that rocked Wall Street on that black October Thursday. But theeconomy of the rural mid-South had not waited for that final blow to collapse;ever since the end of the Great War, prices had consistently slumped, reachingan all-time low in the last year of the decade. Due to the increasing competitionof artificial fibers, the value of King Cotton dwindled, and farmers sawtheir incomes slump by over 30 percent between 1919 and 1929. As a consequence,the migratory movements that developed during the teens were growingmore important each year. Between 1916 and 1940, it is estimated thatmore than two million African Americans left Dixie to settle in large northernindustrial cities like Detroit, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh or Chicago. In the latter,the black population more than doubled during the decade, from 109,458 in1920 to 233,903 ten years later. For the year 1930 only, 80,000 black migrantsdecided to leave the southern states in the hope of finding more lucrative jobsin the north. Among the black families that deserted Mississippi and rolled upthe Illinois Central railroad line into Chicago's imposing Central Station thatyear were the Hookers. Probably because the prospect of becoming anotherdirt-poor tenant farmer didn't appeal to Earl Sr., Earl's parents decided not tostay on the plantation, possibly coaxed by the engaging descriptions of the lifein the North that could be found in Robert Abbott's Chicago Defender.

    Earl J. and Mary Hooker first arrived in Chicago by themselves, temporarilyleaving one-year-old Earl with the Blairs in Mississippi because they realizedthat it would be more difficult for them to settle there with a baby. Within afew weeks, they had found a place to stay on the West Side, quickly learningabout bustling city life, high rents, and Chicago's terribly cold winters. "Whenwe started out we lived on the West Side, 1037 West 14th Street!" MaryHooker says. "I was so upset about this house, you see. It was somethin' I didn'tlike. I don't think it was right. You'd be surprised.... But I stayed at 1037 West14th Street for quite a long time."

    Those who are familiar with Chicago's layout know that the city's black districtsare mostly concentrated today on the West and South Sides, two clearlydistinct areas offering their own particular features, and both of which have enhancedtheir own specific brand of blues music. Although Earl Hooker waslater to become somewhat more of a South Side man, his first few years inChicago were spent in Jewtown, a part of the near West Side extending fromHalsted in the east to Sangamon and Morgan in the west, along Maxwell and14th Streets.

    Throughout the Depression, a constant stream of black families filtered intothe old West Side ghetto to escape the high rents of the tiny "kitchenette"apartments found in the South Side black belt. Recent migrants from thesouthern states often made it their first stop when they came to town. More sophisticatedblack Chicagoans generally looked down on the West Side, whereItalians, Mexicans, and poorer Jews dwelled along with Blacks in dilapidatedbuildings. There the educational level of the black population was the lowest.In the West Side of the Depression years, most African American families eitherfound their income through WPA programs or received direct relief fromthe city. At the intersection of 12th and Halsted Streets, close to the Hookers'home, one could find the West Side "slave market," an infamous street cornerwhere a large number of black women congregated every morning, hiringthemselves out as domestics by the day to the highest bidder, waiting for affluentwhite housewives to drive by in their limousines.

    Jewtown was a harsh neighborhood, yet an animated one. This was especiallytrue during the weekend. Whereas the ground-floor stores of most of thebrick-and-frame buildings bordering Maxwell Street—a busy east-west thoroughfare—operatedin a normal way during the week, on Sundays the sidewalksof Jewtown would gradually fill up with stands and pushcarts as the streetsuddenly turned into something like an oriental bazaar. The Maxwell StreetMarket—as it was known to all until it was the victim of urban renewal in the1990s—was launched by Jewish immigrants at the end of the nineteenth century.On Sundays, everything could be peddled and bought at the market, fromsouthern spices and country goods noisily advertised by strong-voiced criers tostolen watches, firearms, and narcotics pushed by furtive dealers. Blues musicbrought a colored touch to Maxwell Street Market's loud atmosphere. Jewtownsidewalks were the main source of musical activity for newly arrived southerners,and a rather lucrative one indeed, according to the statement of slide guitaristHound Dog Taylor, who started performing there on a regular basis uponhis arrival in the Windy City in 1940: "You used to get out on Maxwell Streeton a Sunday morning and pick you out a good spot, babe. Dammit, we'd makemore money than I ever looked at. Sometimes a hundred dollars, a hundredtwenty dollars. Put you out a tub, you know, and put a pasteboard in there, likea newspaper. When somebody throw a quarter or a nickel in there, can't nobodyhear it. Otherwise, somebody come by, take the tub and cut out. I'mtelling you, Jewtown was jumpin' like a champ, jumpin' like mad on Sundaymorning."

    The neighborhood around Maxwell Street also stood out as the roughestarea in town, according to police statistics. As such, "Bloody Maxwell" certainlywas not to the liking of Mrs. Hooker. After a few months, her motherhad come up from Mississippi with young Earl, and Mary Hooker had imaginedliving with her family in a more appropriate setting. Yet the housing shortagewas such that Earl's parents couldn't afford to move to more comfortable premises,and the Hookers' grim financial reality did not improve for the better withthe arrival during the Depression of Christine Hooker, nicknamed Earline,who was born at the Cook County Hospital on Friday March 23, 1934, at 4:25in the afternoon: "See, I had four children with my husband, two boys and twogirls, and Earl was the oldest one. Earline was the next one. Then I had anothergirl, but of course she is dead. You see, two of my children's dead."

    The promising prospects that led the Hookers to settle in Chicago four yearsearlier had finally given place to disillusion; unemployment was soaring, and itwas common knowledge in the ghetto that Blacks were the last hired and thefirst fired. For want of a paying job, Mary Hooker tended to domestic chores,and the city records show that her husband—like one out of every four blackmales in the nation at the time—was on relief when Earl's sister was born.Things brightened up when the Hookers left their dilapidated 14th Streetapartment toward the mid-thirties to move to a more acceptable building locatedin the heart of the South Side, in the basement of 3139 South ParkBoulevard, a busy thoroughfare later renamed Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.

    According to an often verified cliché, the musical sensitivity of black childrenis usually aroused in church, but it wasn't the case with Earl. His motherwas more interested in the Saturday nightclub scene than in the Sunday morningworship service, and it seems that he was exposed to secular music quiteearly, since both his parents were capable dancers. His father also displayedsome proficiency on several musical instruments, and Earl listened extensivelyto music at home from a very early age. Another influential factor might be thepresence in the family of John Lee Hooker, who went on to become a world-famousbluesman and the living symbol of guitar boogie music. "Johnny LeeHooker, that's our cousin, so Earl had known him since he was very young. Hemet him in Chicago," Mrs. Hooker says. "He's some relation to us on my husband'sside." Mary and John Lee Hooker could not be more specific as to thenature of the latter's kinship with Earl Sr., and the Mississippi census data wereof no help in this respect. In any case, John Lee was about ten years older thanEarl, and he was raised on a farm between Clarksdale and Vance before makingthe move up north in the late thirties. Established in Cincinnati at first, heprobably met his young cousin around that time when he visited his relativesin Chicago.

    By the time Earl turned ten in 1939, his father realized that Chicago was notthe northern paradise he had dreamed of, and he left a wife and two young childrenin the Windy City before eventually winding up in Kansas City, where theHookers had relatives. "After that I never married no more, although I couldhave remarried, you know, a couple times. My husband is dead now. He's beendead about five years. I didn't know that he was dead myself, and I just got thenews in Arkansas," Mrs. Hooker said in 1978. Approximately around the timehis parents separated, Earl decided to take up an instrument and fixed hischoice upon the guitar, a popular instrument he had seen both his father andhis cousin John Lee use. The purchase of a guitar was no small investment fora humble home like the Hookers', and Earl ordered his first instrument fromthe Sears and Roebuck Company, with a one-dollar down payment and fifty-centweekly installments.

    Earl was going to school then, attending successively Douglass ElementarySchool, at 3200 South Calumet—one short block west of his mother's SouthPark apartment—and Doolittle School, located at 535 East 35th Street, justeast of Park. Both were overcrowded institutions mainly staffed by whiteteachers, most of whom resented being assigned to black schools. At the time,the limited number of schools in Chicago's South Side compelled principals toset up two shifts in order to satisfy local needs—one from eight until noon, anda second until four. Compared to the educational facilities available to blackchildren in the South, Douglass and Doolittle were heavens, but teachers weretoo busy taking care of studious pupils to give proper attention to someone likeEarl, who proved refractory to all forms of training; his capacities for readingand writing actually were the only learning he derived from his school days.His interest for music was growing as fast as his strong distaste for education,and most of his time was spent with other boys who could play the guitar likehim: his best childhood friend Vincent Duling as well as young Elias McDaniel,another guitarist and singer who later became known as Bo Diddley, a nicknameearned as a child. Another Doolittle Elementary student that Earl probablyran into at one time or another was future gospel, soul, and pop star SamCooke.

    With Vincent and Bo in tow, Earl would often skip school to hang out withstreet gangs in the vicinity of 35th Street, to the despair of Mrs. Hooker, whotried her best at providing her son with a decent education: "Douglass School,it was a school for bad boys, `cause I had a pretty rough time with him in school.He just didn't want to go to stay in that school; it was just that music! I went tosee the teachers there, and they said, `Mother, there's some good in that boy,that boy's got all kinds of talents.' But he just wouldn't learn, wouldn't donothin' but that music, it kept me so worried."

    Singer and harmonica player Billy Boy Arnold, who later became friendswith Earl and Bo Diddley, makes a good description of those days: "I knowHooker used to play around 31st on the streets and Bo Diddley played aroundthe streets so they knew each other. Hooker told me once how he used to skipschool. His mother'd think that he'd be going to school, but he'd be hiding inthe closet with his guitar, and when she came home in the evening, he'd stillbe in the closet playing his guitar." "He spent a lot of time doing that," DickShurman, a friend of Hooker's in the latter years, confirms. "They say hismother had to pass his food into the closet `cause he'd stay there all day. I guesshe'd do that just for privacy, just a place to go to and keep others out of, just youand the guitar against the world, I can see that." Hooker playing the guitar in acloset, filling it up with sound, possibly for acoustic reasons. Hooker and hisguitar against the world, a pattern that would more or less remain the same untilthe end.

    Earl's best friend, Vincent Duling, was slightly younger than he was, beingborn in Chicago on September 2, 1931. By 1942 Earl and Vincent were proficientenough on their instruments to play for tips on the streets, and they rodethe public transportation across town every weekend to perform at theMaxwell Street Market in Jewtown. Bo Diddley sometimes joined them on thesidewalks of 31st or 35th Streets—two busy east-west South Side thoroughfares—unlessthey met at 4746 Langley Avenue, where Bo lived at the time.Soon Bo had his own street corner outfit that he called the Hipsters beforechanging to the even hipper Langley Avenue Jive Cats: "Earl Hooker was theone that got me interested in playin' on the street corners with a band, becausehe had one an' I saw they were makin' all these nice coins, so I said: `Hey!' Earland me, we was in the same classroom at school. I used to hang around Earl alot. We ditched school together, we'd get caught by the truant officer."

    Earl Hooker and his friends practically lived on the streets, playing music,busting windows, and drinking cheap wine. On the streets, Earl met most of hischildhood chums, some of whom later became musical associates or partnerson a professional level, like guitar player Louis Myers who was to remain one ofhis closest friends until the end: "Now how I met Earl Hooker it was like in alittle gang fight.... And I know Hooker he was running around with a littlestreet gang then, and I never did know he played guitar, they jumped us onetime on 35th Street and the next time I saw Hooker, he was on the street playingguitar. And now he could play, he was around my age bracket.... When Isaw him that kinda made me wanna come on out and play on the street too, butI never did 'cause see I was always shut in by my peoples or the religion on myauntie's side.... Wasn't no use, my auntie didn't allow me to play ... in thehouse so I quit and picked it back up especially when I saw Hooker.... Hookerwas a terrible young guitar player."

    For street-smart ghetto boys like Earl Hooker, Vincent Duling, Bo Diddley,or Louis Myers, music was an essential component of their lives. It was presenton the sidewalks; in the neighborhood bars and taverns in front of which theysometimes hung around for hours, trying to sneak in; and, of course, in church,a source of inspiration that proved widely influential in the case of Bo Diddley.By the time they reached their teens, they had all resolved to become professionalmusicians, a decision they stuck to. While Bo Diddley later grew into amember of a black rock `n' roll triumvirate alongside Little Richard and ChuckBerry, Louis Myers achieved international fame as leader of a widely acclaimedChicago blues unit known as the Aces. Only Vincent Duling remained in relativeobscurity, although his instrumental virtuosity earned him the respectand admiration of many of his peers; after working quite extensively on theChicago scene, Duling crisscrossed the southern states during the fifties withthe outfit of multi-instrumentalist Dennis Binder—even making a handful ofrecordings for the Memphis-based Sun company—before he eventually settledin Oklahoma with Binder.

    A factor of importance was the tremendous influence records and radio stationshad on the black community. Even the poorest homes proudly exhibiteda radio and a phonograph, as Drake and Cayton show in their sociologicalstudy of black Chicago, Black Metropolis, where they give the following descriptionof a typical West Side home in the mid-forties: "The furnishings ofthis home are those of very poor people, but everything is clean and in order.The only new article in the living-room is a modern portable Zenith radio.Other furnishings include a large old-fashioned stove, a day-bed, three chairs,a trunk with a clean towel spread over it, a Victrola [phonograph], and atable."

    The blues were Earl Hooker's own favorites from the very beginning. By thetime he took up the guitar, country-tinged blues sounds were becoming outdatedas electrically amplified instruments gradually replaced acoustic ones.One of the very first blues guitar players to start using an electric instrumentwas Texas-bom Aaron "T-Bone" Walker, who settled in California in the mid-thirties,where he perfected his style at about the same time as jazz guitar pioneersEddie Durham and Charlie Christian. For a few months in 1942, T-BoneWalker had his name up in lights at the front of Chicago's Rhumboogie Club,a Garfield Boulevard venue. Managed by Charlie Glenn with financial backingprovided by heavyweight champion Joe Louis, the Rhumboogie featuredWalker's show for a three-month run. Walker was an immediate hit withChicago club-goers, who lined the sidewalks of Garfield Boulevard night afternight to catch one of his flamboyant shows and see him doing splits withoutmissing a lick, playing the guitar behind his head or picking it with his teeth.At the end of his nightly set at the Rhumboogie, T-Bone rarely failed to makethe rounds of after-hours spots on the South and West Sides, sitting in with localmusicians, paying special attention to his younger fans, so that he had aconsiderable impact on upcoming blues guitarists, as Billy Boy Arnold explains:"Hooker really liked T-Bone 'cause T-Bone was the top guitar player beforeB. B. King was on the scene. So Hooker being a guitar player and playingin that style, he listened to T-Bone."

(Continues...)


Excerpted from Earl Hooker by Sebastian Danchin. Copyright © 2001 by Sebastian Danchin. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


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