As much as his blindness may have made his life difficult in other ways, the younger Eaglin used it to his advantage to invent an original playing style that no one yet has deciphered and compile an ear-popping repertoire that today tops 2,500 songs.”
by john pinamonti
When I first heard Ray Charles sing the Buck Owens song “Together Again” on his classic Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music, I realized how a great artist can adapt any type of song to his or her “style”. That is, someone like Ray can pull off a song by Buck, do a Beatles or Stones tune, play one of his own classic blues and then play a soulful “America The Beautiful,” all in the same set! As I started to learn how to sing and put across a song, I used (and still use) guys like Ray as my model. Perhaps an even more influential person for me in this regard is Snooks Eaglin. This is probably due to the fact that he’s a guitar player, and some of his earlier recordings (which are discussed below) featured just him laying it down with an acoustic. I was first attracted to “The Human Juke Box” (a common moniker for Snooks in his hometown of New Orleans) because of his ability to leave no stone unturned musically. In fact, he is so similar to Charles in this and other ways that early on in his career he billed himself as Little Ray Charles! But the bottom line is that he always made a song work in his own way. Karl Bremer, in his excellent piece on Snooks from the Blues Access Magazine website, put it best when he wrote “He has an uncanny ability to adapt his voice to capture the very essence of every song he sings, yet still leave his own signature on it.” Before we move on, I strongly suggest you check out Karl’s article. It is a well-written overview of Snooks’ career and will give you a good taste of the man’s unique personality and playing style. (Thanks to Karl and also to Cary Wolfson for permission to quote from the article and use the link). I’m sure there are several important things I will forget to write about here, so please check it out for more detailed information.
The Early Recordings
Snooks has always considered himself a “band” artist. He apparently is not that keen on his solo acoustic recordings – as Bremer says, “The attempt to pigeonhole Eaglin as a country blues street musician was too confining for a young man who already had built an impressive and wide-ranging repertoire that stretched from traditional to pre-war blues, standards and spirituals to the R&B hits of the late ’40s and ’50s.” Snooks’ early band sessions (1960-1963) are great, and they are collected on The Complete Imperial Recordings (Capitol). They were made not long after his series of solo sessions, and are an important link in Eaglin’s musical chain. But the solo recordings that I’m focusing on are also brilliant, not only for the sheer breadth of his subject matter, but also for his amazing singing and guitar playing. The solo CDs I recommend are:
That’s Alright (Bluesville) is a good starting point, as Snooks covers tunes by Charles, both Robert and Lonnie Johnson, Arthur Crudup (yes, the title track is the same one that Elvis covered), and some old traditional tunes. But there is nothing “old” about these 1961 performances, and you can hear that he has absorbed not only a long history of song and style but is also very much connected with the then-current songs and rhythms. Also available from around this same time are Country Boy Down in New Orleans and Possum up a Simmon Tree on Arhoolie Records. These are not completely “solo”, as there is some washboard and harmonica added to the mix, but that’s maximum minimal accompaniment! You can’t go wrong with any of these releases, and they are all readily available.
Not so readily available is The Legacy of the Blues Vol. 2: Snooks Eaglin (GNP/Crescendo). This 1971 session was apparently issued on CD in the ‘80s; however, I haven’t been able to find it (I have a tape copy of the original early ‘70s LP). It is my absolute favorite Snooks record, and one of my favorite solo records by any artist. Since it was recorded 10 years later than the bulk of his solo stuff, it is a great glimpse at Snooks’ evolution as a musician. As good as the 50’s and 60’s sessions are, here he has reached an even higher point of solo performance. These recordings were done right after Snooks participated in the legendary Professor Longhair “rediscovery” sessions (see below), and you can hear that he is filled with the joyous ‘Fess funk. The first track, “Boogie Children,” finds him illustrating an old drummer versus a young one by playing his guitar like a drumkit. He raps and slaps much like Charlie Patton and others did in the 20’s and ‘30s, only Snooks updates it with something straight out of the James Brown/Meters bag, all the while guiding the listener along with his souful voice. All of the other tracks are equally good – you might have to do some work to hear this LP (as in order it and find someone who’s got a turntable), but you will be rewarded!
For those of you who want to hear Snooks cranking it out with a band, I suggest picking up the newly-issued The Crescent City Collection (Fuel 2000), as it is a sort-of-greatest-hits disc compiled from his 5 Black Top albums (recorded from 1987 to 1997). All of the Black Top stuff is good and lovingly produced by Hamilton Scott, but unfortunately it’s also all out of print (don’t know the full story – anybody out there know?). And strangely enough, Snooks is not even listed on the Fuel 2000 Records website!. But at least we have something readily available out there for rooky Snookies to check out. Some aficionados may argue with what’s left out on this disc, but it does include such classics as Red Beans, Lavinia and I Went to the Mardi Gras, and it will at least get your feet wet in the Eaglin River if you are new to these waters. For those of you who are primarily interested in Snooks’ guitar playing, then I recommend House Party New Orleans Style – 1971-1972 Lost Sessions by Professor Longhair. There may indeed be some of you out there who have yet to own or even hear ‘Fess, so you will be killing two birds with one stone by picking up this selection. To quote Karl Bremer again, “The disc remains one of the definitive Longhair collections available today, with Eaglin’s searing guitar, sublime phrasing and intricate fills providing the perfect foil for Fess’ rollicking syncopated piano.” ‘Nuff said?
Final Note: I barely touched on The Complete Imperial Recordings (Capitol), but I should reiterate that it is a collection worth getting, especially if you are looking for some funky ‘50s-style New Orleans R’n’B. Also available on vinyl from GNP/Crescendo is Down Yonder, which is a really cool late 70’s date featuring Ellis Marsalis (yes, that’s Wynton and Branford’s dad). If you had to play someone a record to illustrate what music from New Orleans is like, this would be a good choice. Whatever Snooks plays, it somehow gets that Louisiana funk all over it!
Next Month: Thicker-than-blood brother duos. The Delmores, Monroes, Stanleys, Louvins and Everlys.
John “Pointy” Pinamonti is a Managing Editor of Smokebox and an accomplished guitar slinger who practices his trade while slurpin’ fine bourbon and playing smoky clubs in New York City. His latest cd “High, Wide And Handsome” is available at his website.