The generation that made the defining records in New Orleans’ rhythm and blues became a little smaller when Snooks Eaglin died February 18 from cardiac arrest. He was 73. Eaglin is remembered for his ability to mimic almost any song after a cursory listen and his unique guitar style. His fretting hand often completed chords with his thumb, or he used it to play bass runs that complimented his rhythm and lead playing. Instead of picks, he flailed at the guitar strings with his thumb and fingers. It often appeared that his fingers were bent backwards at a 90 degree angle.
“He can play a job with just a drummer and make it sound like a four-piece group,” said the late Earl King in 1987. “I’ve seen Snooks play for years, but I still shake my head every time he picks up the guitar.”
Fird Eaglin, Jr. was born January 21, 1936. He was rendered blind at the age of 19 months, after an emergency operation to remove a brain tumor. Being blind though didn’t keep Eaglin out of mischief as a child.
“That’s how I got the name Snooks,” said Eaglin, in 1987. “There was a radio program with a character named Baby Snooks. Baby Snooks was always getting into trouble. They started calling me Snooks, because I was always getting into something.”
Eaglin was five when his father brought home an inexpensive Harmony guitar. He learned to play and at age 11 won a talent contest at WNOE for his rendition of the, “Twelfth Street Rag.” At 15, he purchased his first electric guitar, a Twintone, and a small amplifier. He briefly attended the Louisiana School for the Blind in Scotlandville, but withdrew to play music professionally.
In the early 1950s, Eaglin hung out at Victor Augustine’s curio shop on Dryades Street, where many musicians rehearsed. Augustine, a part time songwriter with his own label, got Eaglin to record one of his songs, “Jesus Will Fix It.” Around this time, Eaglin was approached by Sugar Boy Crawford who was looking for a guitarist to replace Irving Bannister—who was drafted—in the Shaw-weez. This led to the historic 1953 Checker session where Eaglin provided the slashing rhythm guitar on the Carnival classic, “Jock-a-Mo.”
When Bannister returned and reclaimed his job, Eaglin joined the Flamingos, a group that patterned themselves after the popular Hawkettes. The band featured Allen Toussaint on piano.
“Snooks was phenomenal even then,” said Toussaint in 1987. “People in the audience would call out a popular song and Snooks would play them note-for-note. The rest of us just stumbled on behind.”
In 1958, folklorist Dr. Harry Oster and Richard Allen recorded 57 Eaglin performances that appeared on several labels. Allen and Oster had heard about Eaglin from his neighbors and recorded him playing traditional blues, pop songs, folk and rock ’n’ roll. The liner notes on the original albums portrayed Eaglin as a troubadour who busked for spare change in the French Quarter. That didn’t sit well with Eaglin.
“I never played in the streets once in my life,” said Eaglin. “I was making plenty money playing in nightclubs.”
Eaglin tried to persuade Oster to record the Flamingos, but he wasn’t interested, and the group disbanded when Shirley and Lee raided it for a tour. In 1960, Imperial’s Dave Bartholomew signed Eaglin and produced several uninspired singles under the name “Ford” Eaglin. “I thought those records could have come out better,” said Eaglin. “Dave had his way, and I had mine. But by him being the producer, he won most of the arguments.”
After Imperial folded, he cut one other single on the Fun label before moving to Donaldsonville, Louisiana in the mid-1960s to play clubs along Bayou Lafourche. In 1970, he moved to St. Rose and began playing regularly at the Playboy Club in the French Quarter. It was there that he encountered a young Quint Davis, who was in the early stages of organizing the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Davis paired Eaglin with the newly rediscovered Professor Longhair, a coupling which benefited both musicians and produced some mind-boggling recordings.
The following year, Eaglin made an LP for Sam Charters’ “Legacy of the Blues” series that appeared in Europe, and he recorded two legendary albums with the Wild Magnolias in 1974. But after that, it was more than a decade before he returned to the studio.
“The money wasn’t right,” said Eaglin, “I had several offers, but I want my money up front. I don’t like royalties.”
Eventually, Eaglin struck up a relationship with Hammond Scott, who won Eaglin’s trust. In 1986, they recorded Baby, You Can Get Your Gun for Scott’s Black Top label. Several more Eaglin/Black Top albums appeared, which exposed Eaglin to a wider audience. Tours of Europe and virtually every important American blues festival would follow.
In recent years, Eaglin’s appearances were confined to the Jazz Fest and the Mid-City Lanes’ Rock ’n’ Bowl, where he regularly packed the house. A well-attended visitation for Eaglin was held at the Howlin’ Wolf on February 27 which included musical tributes by Irma Thomas, Allen Toussaint and Deacon John. A traditional jazz funeral followed. Eaglin was laid to rest in Providence Park Cemetery in Jefferson Parish. His passing is the end of a chapter in New Orleans’ music history.