Natchez-based drummer, harmonica player, and vocalist Hezekiah Early was born on October 7, 1934, on a farm in the community of Anna’s Bottom, located about a dozen miles north of Natchez adjacent to the Mississippi River. Some of the first music that Early heard as a young man was that of local fife and drum groups, which consisted of a fife player, two snare drums, and a bass player. His father, Wilson, played fife, and Early learned to play all the instruments himself. He continued playing in such bands until 1970 and says that he would like to revive the tradition. He recalls that some of the songs they performed at picnics were “When the Saints Go Marching In” and “Glory, Glory Hallelujah.”
Early took up the harmonica when he was about thirteen after encountering Alexander “Papa George” Lightfoot, a Natchez-based musician, deejay, and recording artist who often played the harmonica while selling snow cones from a wagon. By age 15 Early joined the band of local blues guitarist John Fitzgerald, initially on harmonica and then on drums. [Fitzgerald, about seven years older than Early, was the son of one of the best local blues guitarists, Robert Fitzgerald.] They initially played at informal parties and picnics, and then later clubs in the country and in Natchez. In 1954 they began working at Natchez’ Wagon Wheel, a white club, and around the same time also worked in nearby Ferriday, Louisiana at Haney’s Big House, which was the most important club in the region, often featuring national acts. In the early ‘50s, the band featured the vocals of Elmore Williams.
In 1959 Fitzgerald left blues after joining the church, and Early began playing with local guitarist Jesse Ware. In 1963 were joined permanently by trombonist Leon “Pee Wee” Whittaker (ca. 1906-1993), a native of Newellton, Louisiana who performed for years with the Rabbit’s Foot Minstrels. This core group became known as Hezekiah and the Houserockers. Early recalls that in the early ‘60s a new sheriff in Natchez made playing there difficult and that most of their work was in Louisiana. In the early ‘60s Early and his group began working as the house band at Haney’s Big House in Ferriday, a tenure that ended when the club burned down in 1965. The group subsequently began playing more in Mississippi, and in 1978 Ware left the group and was replaced by James Baker.
In 1979 Early resumed playing the harmonica after he was recruited to perform the instrument in the film Freedom Road, which was filmed locally and starred Muhammad Ali. In 1981 the group performed at the Natchitoches Folk Festival, and recordings from that performance and at an informal gathering at Whitaker’s home were issued in 1983 on the album Since Ol’ Gabriel’s Time (Folklife Society Of Louisiana), with extensive notes by folklorist Dr. David Evans. The group sold the album during their many performances at the 1984 World’s Fair in New Orleans In 1990 Evans issued a second, self-titled album, Hezekiah and the Houserockers, for his High Water label, and the group toured extensively with other traditional Mississippi groups artists including Jessie Mae Hemphill and James “Son” Thomas. In 1987 the French Black and Blues label issued an album of all three artists, Mississippi Blues Festival, which was recorded in Paris in 1986. In 1986 the group also performed at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival.
Hezekiah and the Houserockers continued performing until shortly before Whittaker’s death in 1993. In 1998 Early recorded an album together with vocalist/guitarist Elmore Williams for the Fat Possum label, Takes One To Know One (by Elmo Williams and Hezekiah Early); in 2008 the label issued a vinyl-only EP of remaining tracks, American Made. They occasionally perform at festivals in the US and Europe, and locally Early also performs with vocalist Robert “Little Poochie” Jackson. Throughout his life, Early has had regular day jobs, including driving a forklift for a lumber company and from 1972 to 2001 worked at local tire factories. He’s also an accomplished carpenter, having built his own home (in 1964) and that of his older brother next door, and also makes smaller items, including birdhouses. He has six children, including Hezekiah, Jr., who is also a drummer.