Thursday, February 19, 2009

Snooks Eaglin, R.I.P.

From Keith Spera:

Snooks Eaglin, the idiosyncratic New Orleans rhythm & blues guitarist with fleet-fingered dexterity and a boundless repertoire, died Wednesday afternoon. He was 72.

"He was the most New Orleans of all the New Orleans acts that are still living," said Mid-City Lanes owner John Blancher.

Even in a city and musical community known for eccentric characters, Mr. Eaglin stood out. Extremely private, he lived with his family in St. Rose. For many years, he refused to perform on Friday nights, reportedly because of religious reasons.

The digits on Mr. Eaglin's right hand flailed at seemingly impossible angles as he finger-picked and strummed a guitar's strings. A set by the so-called "Human Jukebox" could range from Beethoven's "Fur Elise" to Bad Company's "Ready for Love."

Mr. Eaglin was born Fird Eaglin Jr. in 1937. As an infant, glaucoma robbed him of his sight. He earned his "Snooks" nickname after his mischievous behavior recalled a radio character named Baby Snooks.

As a toddler, he received his first instrument, a hand-carved ukulele strung with rubber bands. As a boy, he learned to pick a guitar to songs on the radio. He attended the Louisiana School for the Blind in Baton Rouge. By 14, he had dropped out to work full-time as a musician.

His first steady job was with the Flamingos, a popular seven-piece rhythm & blues band that also included a young Allen Toussaint on piano. Post-Flamingos, Mr. Eaglin briefly billed himself as Lil' Ray Charles. In the late 1950s, he performed on street corners and recorded two acoustic albums for a folk label. His studio work included the guitar parts on Sugarboy Crawford's "Jockamo."

In the early 1960s, Mr. Eaglin released a handful of singles for Imperial Records under the name "Ford" Eaglin. He logged three years in the house band at the Playboy Club off Bourbon Street.

Mr. Eaglin performed with Professor Longhair during the pianist's "comeback" gigs. He also contributed to Longhair's landmark "New Orleans House Party" album and the Wild Magnolias' early recordings.

In 1987, Mr. Eaglin released "Baby, You Can Get Your Gun!," his first album on Black Top Records. Several more well-received albums on Black Top further heightened his profile.

His annual appearances at Jazz Fest were hugely popular. In addition to legions of local fans, Mr. Eaglin's admirers included prominent musicians from around the globe.

It was Robert Plant, in fact, who first made Blancher aware of Mr. Eaglin.

In 1990, not long after he took over the Mid-City Lanes, Blancher received a call from Plant, who wanted to throw an after-party at the bowling alley. He asked Blancher to book Mr. Eaglin, whom he met years earlier when the guitarist performed at a party in New Orleans for Plant's former band, Led Zeppelin.

The after-party didn't happen, but the Mid-City Lanes became Mr. Eaglin's preferred venue. He played as frequently as once a month.

"He's an irreplaceable guy," Blancher said. "More celebrities came to see Snooks than anyone. His reputation was as big as anyone's in New Orleans. And he wouldn't travel, so if you wanted to see Snooks you had to come to Rock 'n Bowl."

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