The diminutive man who can’t see is led onto the stage, seated in front of his amplifier, and handed his guitar. His gnarled fingers seek the strings and quickly renew their long acquaintance with the instrument, covering the frets like talons and strumming and picking at the strings as if his claw-like extremities are merely an extension of the guitar.
Snooks Eaglin’s mind and heart are equally well connected to the guitar and to the music itself. His intelligence and soul are likewise everywhere present in the music he makes, from the impeccable tune selection that characterizes his musical approach to his masterful vocal and instrumental delivery of each of the wildly disparate songs in his vast repertoire.
I might as well say it right out: there’s no one I’d rather see or hear perform music than the great Snooks Eaglin. He plays the tunes I want to hear the way I want to hear them played, and that’s no mean feat. His recordings for Black Top, with the Wild Magnolias and with Professor Longhair bear obsessively repeated listening, his live presentations are endlessly fascinating, and he never fails to satisfy.
Now nearing sixty years of age, Fird Eaglin, Jr. has continued to develop and grow as a musician from year to year and album to album like few others of equivalent maturity (only his label-mate, the magnificent Earl King, comes immediately to mind). His playing stays fresh and exciting, he is constantly adding fantastically hip tunes to his musical book, his vocal effects are more and more perfectly achieved, and his ever-increasing ease and facility in the studio make each new recording more successful than the last.
Witnesses to the “live” Snooks Eaglin are treated to the multiple dimensions of his infectious personality: a slyly twisted, uproariously bawdy sense of humor, an exuberant address to his bandmates and his audience alike, a magical rapport with everyone within reach of his voice and guitar. Backed by his friend and collaborator George Porter, Jr. on bass and sympathetic drummers like Herman Ernest and Terrence Higgins, Snooks offers set after set of brilliantly performed versions of songs of every description, each one interpreted with his distinctive artistry yet rendered with precisely the mood and intention imprinted by the original composer and performer.
This, too, is no mean feat, for while thousands and thousands of cover versions of both established and obscure tunes from the rhythm & blues catalogue are pounded out in countless bars and concert venues across America each night, roughly nine times out of ten the results are not completely satisfying. Yet Snooks hits the mark damn near every time, and his genius for picking perfect obscurities and performing them to perfection is utterly unmatched in the music world of today.
Take his last compact disc, Teasin’ You, a record R&B lovers can listen to over and over again without tiring of hearing long-buried compositions like Lloyd Price’s “Baby Please Come Home,” Larry Williams’ “Dizzy Miss Lizzy,” Wee Willie Wayne’s “Travelin’ Mood,” the great Earl Connelly King blues ballad “Don’t Take It So Hard,” Tiny Bradshaw’s “Heavy Juice,” Professor Longhair’s “Red Beans,” “Lilly Mae” by Smiley Lewis, the Charles Brown hit “Black Night,” “When It Rains It Pours” by Billy “The Kid” Emerson, and three brilliant works by Snooks’ favorite composer, Mr. Earl King: “Soul Train,” “My Love Is Strong,” and “Teasin’ You.”
Only the title track, originally sung with such invincible conviction by Willie Tee, compares the least bit unfavorably with its predecessor. In every other case Snooks’ version is just as easy to listen to as its model (although nothing can ever replace the gigantic tenor saxophone of Red Prysock on the original “Heavy juice”).
And the program is spiced with a couple of patented Snooks touches: a schlock instrumental, “Sleepwalk,” which has the guitarist playing the parts of both Santo and Johnny to mesmerizing effect; and an ancient spiritual tune, “Jesus Will Fix It,” given a primitive second-line treatment which never fails to delight.
Snooks Eaglin compositions are relatively few and far between, but when he presents a “Cheeta” or an “Oh Sweetness” or the explosive “Drop The Bomb!”, it’s a tune to remember. And his skewed renditions of instrumental features like “Profidia,” “Kiss of Fire,” and “Out of Nowhere” are entirely in a class of their own.
But it’s as an archivist and interpreter of rare works of rhythm & blues artistry that Snooks makes his greatest contribution. Pick up his first Black Top disc, Baby, You Can Get Your Gun! (1987), and you’ll find New Orleans favorites by Guitar Slim (“You Give Me Nothin’ But the Blues”), Percy Mayfield (“Baby Please”), Tommy Ridgley/Dave Bartholomew (“Lavinia,” dusted off from 1950), Earl King (“Baby, You Can Get Your Gun”), Bartholomew and Smiley Lewis (“That Certain Door,” originally recorded by Snooks 35 years ago for an Imperial Records single), and the surprise item of this set, Eugene Church’s celebratory anthem from the late-’50s, “Pretty Girls Everywhere.”
On Out of Nowhere (1989) you’ll hear Tommy Ridgley’s “Ooh Lordy My Baby” (in a fine version that probably inspired the composer to re-record it in 1992), Allen Toussaint’s “Lipstick Traces” (homage to Benny Spellman), “Young Girl” by Jerry McCain, the Falcons’ “You’re So Fine,” the immortal “Mailman Blues” by Lloyd Price (mistakenly credited to Snooks), the Nappy Brown feature “Wella Wella Baby-La,” which once brought so much pleasure to Savoy Records president Herman Lubinsky, the Isley Brothers’ cheesy “It’s Your Thing,” “Playgirl” by Smiley Lewis, and T-Bone Walker’s great slow blues “West Side Baby.”
Now that’s a repertoire, ladies and g’s, which far surpasseth any easy understanding and indeed verges on the surreal, yet delivers just about three hours of eminently repeatable recorded music—far more than we get from most contemporary recording artists. And it’s all flawlessly performed by first-rate musicians, imaginatively programmed, and imbued through and through with the ineffable essence of a man called Snooks.
Hey, let’s face it: this man can play anything, he knows every worthwhile tune ever written, he’s surrounded by great players, and now he’s about to release a new album—only his fourth in the modern era. What more can we ask for…Mardi Gras? You got it! Check out Snooks’ historic sessions as guitarist in Willie Tee’s New Orleans Project backing up the Wild Magnolias in the premiere album presentation of Mardi Gras Indian music back in 1973 (The Wild Magnolias, now on CD from Polydor Records).
Or dig the sessions Snooks made with Professor Longhair for Fess’ comeback demos in 1971-72. These masterpieces of modern music show off Snooks’ playing in all its brilliance and soulful glory as he and Fess, backed by the impeccable Will Harvey-Shiba and George French-Zigaboo Modeliste rhythm sections, tear through Fess’ omniscient repertoire with abandon and glee: “Mardi Gras in New Orleans,” “She Ain’t Got No Hair,” “Her Mind Is Gone,” “Hey Now Baby,” “Dr. Professor Longhair,” “Gone So Long,” “Tipitina,” “She Walks Right In,” “No Buts No Maybes,” “Big Chief,” and the rest.
Added attractions are the Fess covers of songs that were as carefully chosen and beautifully performed as those characteristically selected by Snooks today, like “Cherry Pie” by Marvin & Johnny, Solomon Burke’s “Cry to Me,” James Waynes’ “Junco Partner,” Fess’ timeless arrangement of Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya,” “Sick and Tired” by Chris Kenner, a fine Fats Domino medley, T-Bone Walker’s “Mean Old World,” Big Jay McNeely’s “There Is Something on Your Mind” and a host of others.
The Wild Magnolias album deserves special mention for Snooks’ wildly atmospheric theme statements and improvisations on “Smoke My Peace Pipe,” “Corey Died on the Battlefield,” “Saints,” “Two-Way Pak-E-Way,” and the Wild Magnolias versions of “Golden Crown,” “Battlefront,” and other wild Indian gems recently unearthed by reissue producer Leo Sacks.
I’ve left out the two Snooks Eaglin “folk blues” records (for Bluesville and for GNP “Roots of the Blues” series) because they basically try to reduce Snooks to a solo “street performer” type of attraction, and the second Sam Charters production for Sonet because it’s not generally available on CD anymore, but Snooks completists will find them indispensible.
Finally, there is the priceless version of Rollie McGill’s “That Same Old Train” that can be found on Black Top’s Blues Pajama Party sampler, and the “live” cuts from Black Top Blues-A-Rama, Volume 6, which are well worth hearing.
In fact, what we need now is a whole album of “live” Snooks Eaglin—not stage versions of previously recorded material, but new selections inimitably performed in concert by the great master of modern repertoire backed by George Porter Jr. and Herman V. Ernest, III. And someone needs to collect Snooks’ Imperial singles and unissued masters for the CD era. Then, as Billy Delle might say, we’ll have as much Snooks as we can use, and that definitely ain’t nothin’ nice.