Still mourning the unexpected deaths of Snooks Eaglin and Antoinette K-Doe, the New Orleans music community suffered yet another bitter blow on March 17 with the sudden passing of Eddie Bo. A dynamic singer, producer and songwriter, Bo was one of the last living links to the New Orleans “Junkers” piano style, a tradition that he picked up from his mother, later honed at Grunewald’s School of Music and eventually took to the national charts. With a discography spread out over a staggering number of record labels, Bo made his mark with R&B and rock ’n’ roll, then took his hard-edged soul style to new heights as one of the pioneering practitioners of funk.
Born Edwin Joseph Bocage in New Orleans on September 20, 1930, Bo grew up in a family of Creole musicians and laborers whose skills included shipbuilding, bricklaying and carpentry—the last of which Bo pursued throughout his lifetime. His uncle Peter played in the bands of King Oliver and Sidney Bechet, furthering Eddie’s musical interests which soon took in the modern jazz sounds of George Shearing and Art Tatum. After graduating from Booker T. Washington High School, Bo served in the Army where he earned the nickname Spider Bocage due to his ability to “spin a web” around his opponents in the boxing ring. Upon his discharge, he took his nom de plume to the stages of the Club Tiajuana and the Dew Drop Inn, making his vinyl debut on Ace Records in 1954.
Bo had already decided to concentrate on R&B rather than jazz. “The mass of people, the people that went to concerts to listen to jazz, they didn’t know what they were listening to,” he said. “They just wanted to be entertained. If you know how complex and intricate jazz is—really there’s no way you could know unless you went to school. They’d just be bullshitting—excuse my French—faking and acting like they understood. But they understood what a backbeat was; they could feel the rhythm.”
Bo’s next release on Apollo was “I’m Wise,” which Little Richard immediately covered and rode to the top of the charts as “Slippin’ and Slidin.’” Undeterred, Bo switched to Chess Records where he cut the storming second-line rocker “Oh-Oh.” Due in no small part to Edgar Blanchard’s hypnotically blistering guitar lines, the song’s flip side, “My Dearest Darling,” went relatively unnoticed. Not so in the hands of Etta James, who took it to number five in the R&B charts and grazed the pop top 40 with it in the fall of 1960. Nevertheless, as good as James’ interpretation was, anyone who ever heard Bo’s live rendition of “My Dearest Darling” would have to admit that he officially took it back in later years.
The 1960s were busy years for Bo. He started his first label, Blue Jay, at the beginning of the decade and released the superb “Our Love (Will Never Falter).” He capitalized on the Popeye dance craze (the South’s answer to the Twist) with the R&B pounder “Check Mr. Popeye,” and scaled the local charts with the New Orleans favorite, “Every Dog Got Its Day.”
Bo’s sound was becoming heavier, and a string of seamless discs produced for Joe Banashak’s Seven B imprint—“Horse With a Freeze,” “Fallin’ in Love Again” and “S.G.B. (Stone Graveyard Business)” to name just a few—bore a drum-driven, guitar-heavy style that marked his emergence as a proto-funk pioneer. “Lover and a Friend,” a duet recorded with Inez Cheatham, was only one of many outstanding productions featuring female vocalists. Names like Inell Young, Mary Jane Hooper and Pat Brown are inextricably linked to Bo’s, and the same can be said of funk classics credited to David Robinson, Chuck Carbo, Little Buck and Walter “Wolfman” Washington.
Originally released on tiny labels including Golden Cup, Fireball and Orbitone, much of Bo’s funk catalog has been heavily sampled, owing partially to his excellent choice in drummers, using James Black, Smokey Johnson and Bobby Williams when possible. Less obscure, but no less powerful, was the work that resulted from his partnership with local seafood king Al Scramuzza, which yielded the hit “Hook and Sling.”
Striking out on his own, he formed Bo-Sound Records and in 1970 scored his first internationally distributed hit with “Check Your Bucket.” Bo released his first two albums, The Other Side of Eddie Bo and Watch for the Coming, at the end of the decade, managing to strike a masterful balance between his early jazz roots, his recent funk style and the disco of the day. Following a sabbatical away from the music business in Florida, he made a triumphant return to his hometown in 1989, releasing records and gigging full time until his death, often on double bills with Snooks Eaglin. His energy was infectious, and he never failed to move a crowd, be it at the Jazz Fest, the Rock ’n’ Bowl, the Ponderosa Stomp or at his own Check Your Bucket Cafe.
“It’s all about the creativity of what you feel inside,” said Bo, surveying his often underrated career. “You want to create something that nobody had but you. That’s what I was trying to do, I was trying to create something that I could say, ‘That’s Eddie Bo.’ I think I did it.”