Snooks Eaglin: New Orleans guitarist and singer known as 'the human jukebox'
Thursday 23 April 2009
The New Orleans guitarist and singer Snooks Eaglin displayed a breathtaking dexterity, combined with an amazing ability to remember over 2,000 tunes that earned him the nickname "the human jukebox". This endeared him both to local audiences in the Crescent City and to many of the rock musicians visiting the area; Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney, Bonnie Raitt and Robert Plant admired his inimitable playing style and sought him out.
A regular at the Mid-City Lanes Rock 'n' Bowl club, Eaglin was an integral part of the New Orleans scene. He worked with Allen Toussaint in a band called the Flamingoes during the Fifties, cut 26 tracks for Imperial with the songwriter and producer Dave Bartholomew in the Sixties, and later teamed up with Professor Longhair, another local legend, in the Seventies.
Eaglin suffered from glaucoma as an infant and was blind by the time he reached his second birthday. He seldom ventured from New Orleans, though he recorded a fine Live in Japan album in 1995. Eaglin claimed to have written "Lucille" for Little Richard – who is credited on the single under his real name of Richard Penniman, along with the late Albert Collins – one of the many songs he certainly performed in his own, idiosyncratic way. He didn't use a plectrum but instead relied on the incredibly long fingers on his right hand picking and strumming the strings of his Fender Telecaster to create a richly melodic and rhythmic sound, as if two guitarists were playing at the same time.
Always happy to take requests, Eaglin could segue from a piece by Beethoven to a Stevie Wonder cover with a healthy dash of Crescent City material and blues standards – "I Went to the Mardi Gras", "Red Beans", "St. James Infirmary" – thrown in. He also guested on albums by the Wild Magnolias, Henry Butler, Earl King and Tommy Ridgley.
Born Fird Eaglin Jr in 1936, he was a mischievous child despite his blindness and became known as "Snooks" after Baby Snooks, the impish radio character created by Fanny Brice. A keen radio listener, Eaglin had an amazing knack for picking out the chords of a song, first on a hand-carved ukulele and then on a guitar given to him by his harmonica-playing father, and won a talent contest after performing "Twelfth Street Rag" on radio station WNOE when he was 11.
He attended the Louisiana School for the Blind in Baton Rouge but by the early Fifties had dropped out to try to make a living as a musician. He played alongside Toussaint in the Flamingoes – a different outfit from the Chicago doo-wop group – and in 1953 he provided the guitar on "Jock-O-Mo", a local hit for James "Sugar Boy" Crawford. Eaglin also appeared on other recordings the singer-pianist made with a band called the Cane Cutters.
Eaglin regularly performed on street corners in the French Quarter, sometimes calling himself "Little" Ray Charles, and was recorded by Dr Harry Oster of the Louisiana State University for various folk and blues compilations. He eventually issued his debut album, fittingly entitled New Orleans Street Singer, in 1959. The following year, he signed to Lew Chudd's Imperial Records and, as Ford Eaglin, made a series of rhythm and blues singles written and produced by the talent scout and arranger Dave Bartholomew. However, despite using the same musicians as Fats Domino, Eaglin didn't manage to break through. He spent three years in the house band at the Playboy Club in New Orleans and remained anonymous until the early Seventies.
When Led Zeppelin came to town, the Atlantic Records boss Ahmet Ertegun made sure Eaglin played at the after-show party, much to the delight of the band's lead singer, Robert Plant, who still talks about the occasion. The launch of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival also helped to boost Eaglin's profile as he appeared with Professor Longhair and also backed him on several recording sessions (though they only surfaced on Longhair's House Party New Orleans Style: The Lost Sessions 1971–72 in 1987). In 1978 he recorded Down Yonder: Spooks Eaglin Today for GNP/Crescendo and in 1987 he released Baby, You Can Get Your Gun!, the first of six albums for the Black Top label over the next 10 years.
In 2000, Raitt showed up at the Rock 'n' Bowl to watch Eaglin, who proceeded to tease her and quipped: "Listen to this, Bonnie! You gonna learn something tonight, girl!" She took it in good humour and helped him to change a broken string during his set. Another story about Eaglin, which has passed into legend, involved the blind guitarist, the only sober member of the Flamingoes after a gig in Donaldsonville, driving the band home. "That's a true story, baby," he insisted.
An eccentric even by the standards of his New Orleans contemporaries, Eaglin held strong beliefs as a Seventh-day Adventist, was a firm observer of the Sabbath and would not perform from dusk on Friday until dusk on Saturday.
With a repertoire drawing on country, Latin and funk, acoustic blues, gospel, jazz, rock'n'roll and rhythm and blues, Eaglin enjoyed responding to audience requests and relished catching out his bandmates. "The reason I cover so much ground is that when you play music, you have to keep moving," he said in a rare interview. "If you don't, you're like the amateur musicians who play the same thing every night, which is a drag. That's not the point of music."
Snooks, who battled with prostate cancer, "played with a finger style that was highly unusual," Toussaint said. "He was unlimited on the guitar. There was nothing he couldn't do. Snooks played the chords, the melody and the bass. That was extraordinary. People are prone to throw the word 'genius' around, but I reserve it for a few people and Snooks would be one of them. It's quite obvious for anyone who ever heard him play."
Fird Eaglin Jr (Snooks Eaglin), guitarist, singer, songwriter: born New Orleans 21 January 1936; married Dorethea 1961 (one daughter, two stepdaughters, one stepson); died New Orleans 18 February 2009.
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