Lifelong New Orleans resident and Ickmusic buddy Cove reflects on the passing of a New Orleans great. – Pete
New Orleans lost another of the great legends of its musical heritage this past week, when Fird “Snooks” Eaglin died at 72.
Snooks was the great assimilator, taking in others’ songs and then spinning them back out in ways that were uniquely his. The musicians he played with were always amazed by his repertoire, which led them to call him “The Human Jukebox.”
Blinded by a disease as an infant, he earned the nickname “Snooks” as a mischievous child who dared to do things like walk along the tops of fences throughout the neighborhood, which even the kids with sight would not do. His father gave him a guitar at age six, and he learned to play by listening to the radio and records.
After playing regularly around town in the 1950’s, and recording several R&B and acoustic albums, Snooks disappeared into relative obscurity until he started playing regularly at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in the 1970’s. His was one of the careers that was revived by putting New Orleans music back on a national and worldwide stage by our Jazz Fest.
I came to know his music in those early Jazz Fest years, and never missed the opportunity to hear him play at Jazz Fest. Although he jealously guarded his private life, living in a fairly distant suburb of New Orleans, he played regularly around town, and had become a staple performer at the now-famous “Rock-N-Bowl” shows at the local bowling alley called Mid-City Lanes.
Anyone who was not familiar with his music and watched Snooks approach the stage didn’t know what they were in for. Seeing an almost stooping old man being led to the stage by someone with eyesight, and find his way into a chair, you might be getting ready to sit down and settle in for the night. And then Snooks would start, and soon no one but Snooks would remain in their seat.
When Snooks played it was like he was the sun in the universe of the room, and everyone else was set into motion by his sound. Snooks, anchored in his chair, would literally cause everyone else in the house to dance and move about him. He would boast that he was about to blow the roof off of the place, with that vocal that was both a yelp and a grunt at the same time, and then he would do just that. He would posture his hand in a weird claw-like position above the strings, and more sound would come out of that guitar than you could believe. How a man who sat so still could set everyone in the room into motion by the sound of his guitar was amazing. It was impossible not to move to his sound.
Dr. John has commented that Snooks could play the horn part, the bass part and the piano part in the same song, all on his guitar. Listen to these songs, and watch him playing on “Red Beans” (with the fantastic Jon Cleary on piano and George Porter on bass), and just try to sit still, I dare you. The speed moving up and down the scales. The rhythms within rhythms. So many sounds happening at once. There was only one Snooks Eaglin.
With a new popularity gained from the Jazz Fest shows, Snooks’ recording career took off with some excellent albums on the Black Top label beginning in 1987. Sadly, most of those albums are now out of print, but I read a report on the web that the Collectors Choice label should have all of them back in print soon.
An entirely different aspect of his music was his acoustic blues. It was never his favorite music, but some of the recordings of the 1950’s tried to wrongly pigeonhole him as an acoustic blues musician. Yet the recordings are terrific. Among my favorite is “I Get the Blues When It Rains,” from a wonderful recording in the early 1970’s with the producer of the Jazz Fest. There is nothing better on a rainy, muggy New Orleans day than to sit back on the porch, open a beer, and listen to this one. Listen to Snooks playing the drum solo on his guitar.
This week the local papers and radio have been filled with stories told by people reminiscing about Snooks. One of the best was a report that after one show in which everyone in the band except Snooks got drunk, Snooks drove them all home, negotiating the winding turns along River Road from memory, and making adjustments to get back on the road after hearing the sounds of the tires hitting the gravel.
My own e-mail has been jammed with notes from friends and family across the country, recounting our memories of great evenings that revolved around dancing to Snooks at the Rock-N-Bowl, at the House of Blues, or Tipitina’s. I recalled the night my cousin held a Mardi Gras party at his warehouse, and hired a funk band because that’s what all the young people wanted to dance to. I convinced him to hire Snooks, at least to open, even though most of that crowd had never heard of him. The place went wild with Snooks; the funk band almost didn’t get to play; and in the morning my cousin called with a hoarse voice to say that he couldn’t remember what happened or how he had lost his checkbook, that the crowd must have had fun because it looked like someone had blown up a trash can in there, and to thank me for recommending Snooks. What a party.
And my brother responded to the story about Snooks driving home one night by saying, “That was nothing; in the old days I drove home blind many a night and made it fine. But no one could play the guitar like Snooks.”
Thanks for letting me send in this post. I could reminisce all day, but this is the weekend before Mardi Gras, and it’s time to take it to the street, and walk the Mardi Gras beat with the sound of Snooks’ guitar ringing in my head.
Watch “Red Beans”:
Buy any of the Black Top albums. They are worth the hunt. The first two albums listed below are my two favorites of the “Black Top” series.
The Crescent City Collection (a “Best Of” the other Black Top albums)
Live in Japan
Sonet Blues Story – acoustic recordings made in 1971, produced by Jazz Fest producer Quint Davis
House Party New Orleans Style, by Professor Longhair
This is one of the great albums by the ‘Fess, because of the interplay between the piano and Snooks’ guitar playing. You don’t have to look at the list of musicians to know that it was Snooks in the studio with the Fess during these incredible sessions.
The Sonet Blues Story – Recorded at Ultrasonic Studios in New Orleans in 1977, a good set of R&B with a band.