Interviewers have always had a tough time capturing the thoughts and meditations of guitarist Snooks Eaglin. Out-of-town journalists have scheduled interviews with Snooks, flown to town and upon arrival, discovered that Snooks has abruptly changed his telephone number. Even Jeff Hannusch, who occasionally plays bass with Snooks, had his doubts when assigned the task of questioning Eaglin. Thanks to the intercession of Rock ‘n’ Bowls John Blancher and a round of chilled libations, the job was accomplished. “We owe it all to Scotch and milk,” explains Hannusch.
Being considered the best guitarist in New Orleans — a city musically better known for incubating a plethora of excellent drummers, pianists and horn players — is akin to being the best basketball player in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, or the best ice hockey player in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Nevertheless, if Snooks Eaglin were to transfer his amazing musical talents to athletic ability, he would surely be a perennial MVP in the NBA, NHL or NFL.
Born Fird Eaglin 66 years ago in New Orleans-“Snooks” was a childhood nickname inspired by a mischievous radio character — he must certainly have the largest repertoire of any living New Orleans musician. Given the time, Eaglin could easily recycle the entire postwar R&B output of New Orleans, and if that weren’t enough, add some classic soul, calypso, funk and country & western to the mix.
A child prodigy, Eaglin first recorded with Sugarboy Crawford in 1953. Although present on the hit ‘Jock-A-Mo” (for more on that historic recording check Sugarboy’s Backtalk interview in OffBeat’s February 2002 issue), he was never a member of Sugarboy’s band. In the mid-1950s Snooks made a gospel 78 as “Blind Fird” on Wonder, a label run by the colorful Dryades Street entrepreneur, Doc Augustine. In 1958, Snooks was introduced to folk music listeners via a series of recordings for Dr. Harry Oster. A couple years later, he found himself on the Imperial imprint, cutting R&B 45s for Dave Bartholomew as “Ford” Eaglin. With the local record business in disarray, Snooks became artist-in-residence at the Playboy Club, and did cut one obscure 45 for the Fun label as “Lil Snook.”
In the early 1970s, Snooks was paired with Professor Longhair for live and studio work. With gigs becoming scarce, Snooks and his wife Dee moved to Donaldsonville, and played clubs along Bayou Lafourche. Snooks was back in New Orleans (actually St. Rose, a nearby suburb) by 1978 and recorded for the Swedish Sonet label. He was also performing at clubs like Tipitina’s, Jimmy’s and Snug Harbor. By the 1980s, Eaglin’s legend was growing and he became the man in town with the six-string. Several record companies approached Eaglin about making new recordings but none of the companies would concede to Snooks’ terms. Snooks is a man who has no interest in waiting by the mailbox for an annual royalty check. Snooks’ services are sold C.O.D. Finally, Black Top’s Hammond and Nauman Scott stepped to the plate and Snooks enjoyed a prolific five CD run with the Camp Street recording concern. However, with Black Top now caught in the web of MCA/Universal/eMusic, none of the Black Top CDs are currently in print.
Luckily, the Scotts rescued a 2001 Snooks session which they had locked in their closet. Although Nauman recently passed away, and Hammond now pursues a career in real estate (he just sold my historic Gentilly Terrace estate), Hammond decided it would be a good idea to release the session on a limited edition CD in time for jazz Fest. Hammond dubbed the label Money Pit-a name which obviously describes the current state of the music business-and had 1,040 CDs manufactured. Entitled The Way It Is, the CD is a most welcome release. Snooks’ last studio CD, Souls Edge, came out in 1995-and not surprisingly, nearly all of the new CDs were scooped up in a two-week period. OffBeat — with the vital assistance of John Blanchard — recently caught up with Snooks and Dee before a gig at the Mid-City Lanes Rock ‘n’ Bowl. where we discussed the new CD and a wide variety of other topics.
You’ve got a song on your new CD called “I’ve Been Around the World.” You mention Dee in it and lot of other people you’ve played with…
Really it’s a rap. It was recorded by Puff Daddy-that’s his tune. I didn’t know it until [drummer] Raymond [Weber] told me who it was. Really it’s a good tune. I just changed the lyrics. I wanted to tell about all the people I worked with back in the days.
Dee, where did you meet Snooks?
At a Carnival ball here in New Orleans. I don’t remember where it was.
Snooks: It was the Brick Masons Hall on Conti Street, 1958.
When did you get married?
You were with Imperial then?
Yeah, but I wish I wasn’t. (laughs) Dave [Bartholomew] was the type of person nobody got along with. Dave came to me and talked about how he’d do good for me, and I could sell some records. But when the time came, I’d get the damn statements but no royal-ties. I got sick of that shit. I’m surprised Fats was with him as long as he was, but that’s because they were both making some money. Me, Earl [King], Shine [Alvin Robinson], Bernadean [Washington], we didn’t make Dave any money.
You never hear anything about Bernadean but she had that great record.
“He’s Mine”-that was a strong record, man. She died. Shine had some good stuff too — “Oh Red” and “Reality.”
Was Smiley Lewis around then too?
Yeah. He was nice person. He made a lot of records [at Imperial] but just didn’t get the break.
You didn’t really get a break at Imperial even though you made a lot of records.
Sure enough, and I made a lot of records [nine singles] for Imperial. They called me Ford on Imperial, that was Lew Chudd’s [Imperial’s owner] idea. He said he never heard of a name like Fird before.
Did you ever meet Lew Chudd?
Never met him. The only record company president I ever met was Leonard Chess [Snooks obviously forgot Hammond Scott]. He came by my house on Fourchet Street to get me for that session with Sugarboy [“Jock-A-Mo”]. That was loud session. No bass player and the drummer [Eric Warner] behind me was playing loud as hell. I was playing through a three-tube amplifier my daddy had bought me.
What’s your favorite amp now?
Fender Twin. I had a [Fender] Deluxe but it didn’t have enough drive. They burn up resistors nearly every damn week. I burned a few of those up (laughs). Oh yeah, I burned one out and brought it back to Werleins. There was fire shooting out of both ends, bruh. I was playing a gig in town. Thank god the fire didn’t back up into the guitar because the current was really strong. I smelled smoke and the guitar cord was HOT! Good thing it had a fuse I could disconnect.
Do you like the old or new amps?
They all the same, except I don’t like the solid state amps-I don’t like they way they sound. The tube amp has the best sound and they’re coming back.
I saw you play on one in the Blues Tent at the Jazz Fest.
I liked that tent — it was beautiful out there. Now I was sweating. It was hot because I was right in the sun, but it was nice.
The other day I heard you yell to your bass player: “ice cream changes. ” What are ice cream changes?
Say like G, E minor, A minor, G7. Bomp, Bomp, Bomp, Bom. It’s a box. A lot of those old songs use that, like “Earth Angel” and “Talk To Me.”
When did you play the festival for the first time?
1971, when it was behind Municipal Auditorium.
You moved to Donaldsonville around that time, didn’t you?
Yeah, I was working for Tony Falsetta, he owned the Town & Country. [Elvis played this roadhouse during his Sun Records tenure]. I also played at Champs in Belle Rose. There was another club out there called Big Red’s [Labadieville or Napoleonville]. That was fun out there. Those people loved the blues.
I was looking through some early 1960s issues of the Louisiana Weekly and saw that you used to work at the Dew Drop as Lil’ Ray Charles.
That was Rip Roberts’ [who at the time exclusively booked Charles in the area] idea. He booked me in there for a decent salary. But, if Frank [Painia, the owner of the Dew Drop Inn] would have tried to book me, I’d have told him, “No” Frank was alright, but he only wanted to pay musicians $6 a night for 6 hours. That ain’t no money. But they had good food in there-the best red beans and rice in town. We’d stop in there on the way home from the Playboy Club almost every night and every time we’d run into Art Neville.
Did you work for Painia’s partner Hosea Hill at the Sugar Bowl in Thibodeaux?
I worked out there a long time ago with Diamond joe. Hosea was a nice dude, he really paid well for entertainment. He wasn’t tight like Frank.
What about Club Tijuana?
Oh yeah, but that was one place you didn’t make much money at all. I meet Guitar Slim in there. I went in there to play and after I got finished, they asked him to play. But Slim said, “No bruh, 1 don’t feel good tonight.” He didn’t want to play.
Maybe he felt like you’d cut his head.
That’s what I know. (laughs) I don’t try to scare off guitar players, but they chicken out when I get on the stage.
Did Percy Stovall book you?
Stove was good man, he was a fair guy and he paid me a good price We were out there [on the road] awhile when “Yours Truly” came out on ImperiaL He had a good band with Robert Parker and George Fortier on tenor. Stove paid me $75 a night and I’d get my money before I’d leave, in case there is any kind of mess or conflict.
How did that record “Cheetah” on Fun come about?
That was [Groovy] Gus Lewis’ idea. He was a deejay on WYLD. That was a no-no. 1 made that record in Cold Water, Mississippi. After the record came out the company folded up.
I guess you’re familiar with a lot of the R&B deejays in New Orleans?
Oh yeah. Besides Gus we had Larry McKinley, Bob Hudson, Shelly Pope, Hank Sample, Dr. Daddy-O-he was the oldest deejay we had around here. jack the Cat, Pappa Stoppa, Okey Dokey. I used to just turn the dial and let it roll. All of the black New Orleans stations signed off at 5 o’clock. There was nothing good on again until 10 when WLAC out of Nashville came on with Gene Nobles and John R [Richbourg].
I wanted to ask you about some of the older New Orleans guitarists starting with Edgar Blanchard.
Oh, he was good. He had a group called the Gondoliers. He played some at the Dew Drop but not too much because he knew there wasn’t any money it. He’d just play to make a quick buck and get out of there. He played a lot at the white clubs like Natal’s where the money was better. He played a little bit of everything, even the Ink Spots.
Oh lord — that boy was sick. He didn’t keep a guitar longer than a snowball could stay in hell. Every time you looked around he was pawning his guitar. The first time I meet Montrell he was working with Roy Milton. I was working at the Labor Union Hall [opening for Milton] and he asked me if he could borrow my guitar so he could make his gig. I said, “I ain’t got nothing to do with that bruh. I need my guitar to make my own gig.”
What about Walter “Papoose” Nelson?
Oh Papoose was great. Papoose was a damn good guitar player.
What about his brother?
“La La.” He was hung up on drugs. Just like his brother and Montrell.
Justin was real good He smoked a lot though and that’s what killed him.
That was Dave Bartholomew’s right-hand guitar player.
Was Smiley a good player?
Uh-uh. That’s why he had to get Buddy Charles to help him out. His fingers weren’t nimble enough.
What was the Playboy Club like?
Oh that was a good club. Six nights a week. I started there working with a black group with Eddie Williams and Clarence Brown. Later I had Charles Neville on saxophone. I started playing there in 1964. Al Belleno was there, too.
How did the Down Yonder LP on Sonet/GNP come about?
Quint Davis set that up. Really it was for Sam Charters. Quint had set me up with Fess before that. We recorded in Memphis and in Baton Rouge. Zigaboo was on those sessions but really I didn’t think they were any good [Snooks also cut a session with Longhair in Woodstock].
Getting back to your new CD, what’s your impression?
What I like about it is that there’s a lot of different musicians — not just one band — and they were all cutting it. I got Jon Cleary [and the Absolute Monster Gentlemen] on three cuts, and I got Erving Charles and Raymond Weber to finish it up “Boogie Rambler,” “Chokin’ Kind,” “Looking Back.” I picked all the tunes except for “I’ve Been Around the World,” which Raymond suggested. I also did Earl King’s “Mother’s Love” and he liked the way I did it. His version kind of slow-dragged and it wasn’t selling too much. He said he liked my version better. I’m really pleased with the way the CD came out.
What about you, Dee?
I sure am.