Snooks Eaglin

The Complete Imperial Recordings


Soul’s Edge

(Black Top)

By Peter Margasak

Legendary R & B producer Allen Toussaint once called Snooks Eaglin “a human jukebox,” and that label carries some serious weight in New Orleans, a city known for its rich musical diversity. The birthplace of jazz has produced a mother lode of giants: King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Domino, Dave Bartholomew, Professor Longhair, and the Neville Brothers, to name but a few of its best-known citizens. Yet Eaglin’s typically missing from many accounts of the Crescent City’s musical history. It’s true that Eaglin, born Fird Eaglin Jr. back in 1937, is regarded more as an interpreter of song than as an important writer, but it’s tough to think of another individual who embodies the ornate mosaic of New Orleans music with so much accuracy, panache, and individuality. Eaglin’s deserved spot in the city’s musical firmament becomes clear on a recently reissued compilation of his long-unavailable early 60s R & B work for the Imperial label and a new recording released last year on Black Top.

Blind since the age of two, Eaglin broke in on the scene in the 50s, first as a session guitarist and later as a member of the Flamingoes, a popular R & B combo led by Toussaint. By the end of the decade Eaglin was leading a double life of sorts. Folklorist Harry Oster started recording him in 1958, and the solo acoustic results presented Eaglin as a quaint bluesman smack-dab between rural urgency and urban smoothness. Released during the ferment of the folk-blues movement, these early recordings quickly endeared Eaglin to a small coterie of dedicated white college students who cagily sought out genuine old-timers in order to balance their obsession with people like Mike Bloomfield and John Mayall. Yet even Eaglin’s earliest output proves that he refused to hew to any single convention. On That’s All Right (OBC), a collection recorded by Oster in 1961 and reissued on CD in 1994, Eaglin nonchalantly complements blues ruralism with idiosyncratic takes on contemporary R & B hits by Ray Charles and Amos Milburn; Eaglin cut his musical teeth on the jump blues of the 40s and early 50s. But while pipe-smoking future hippies in crisp white shirts marveled over his stirring authenticity, Eaglin was making exuberant, blatantly commercial R & B geared toward folks more interested in getting down than studying bluesmen like mounted butterflies.

The Complete Imperial Recordings documents the seven sessions Eaglin cut with producer Dave Bartholomew between 1960 and 1963. Some material was recorded with a spare trio, some with New Orleans piano great James Booker, and some with a medium-sized horn-soaked band. But none of the material delivered any chart activity, though some had a bit of regional popularity. While the quality of music varies greatly, Eaglin’s distinctive interpretive ability is already palpable even if the influence of Ray Charles’s singing hangs over the ebullient proceedings like a veil. Most of the tracks were written by Bartholomew and his hit-producing associates, but Eaglin stamps all of them with his own vibrant personality. In search of that elusive hit, tunes like “By the Water,” and “Would You” aped the heavy gospel inflections that had secured both popularity and innovative importance for Charles, but they weren’t distinctive enough to leave a mark. On the other hand, Eaglin’s takes on ballad crooning, as on Jesse Belvin’s “Guess Who,” proved quite lovely, though his voice lacked both the sensuality and desperation to catch on.

If his soulful singing hadn’t quite come into its own, his guitar playing had. Self-taught, Eaglin developed an unusual stinging style marked by a striking percussive quality; indeed, sometimes he seems to be snapping the strings. Without the benefit of watching others play, Eaglin learned not so much to strum the guitar as to hammer at it. The attack makes his playing instantly recognizable, whether he’s nailing punchy, single-note flurries (“I’m Slippin’ In”) and gnarled, chunky runs (“[Mama] Talk to Your Daughter”) or merely breaking down chords into gentle arpeggios (“That Certain Door”). Eaglin’s delicate interplay with Booker on “C.C. Rider” simultaneously spotlights his effortless lyrical fluidity and his understanding of the inherent soul contained within the blues. Whether jumping deep into the blues or playing more pop-oriented R & B material, his solos always sparkle with energy and feeling.

Failing to score any hits during his Imperial stint, Eaglin retreated first from recording and a little bit later from playing live. But with the inception of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in 1970 he started playing out again. His recorded output was virtually nil throughout the 70s and early 80s (though he did contribute some truly funky guitar on the first record by Wild Magnolias, the popular clan of Mardi Gras Indians). Nevertheless Eaglin’s stature as a local legend consistently increased. In the mid-80s he was signed by Black Top Records, the New Orleans label that has helped revive the careers of such blues and R & B figures as Robert Ward, Tommy Ridgley, Bobby Parker, and the late Nappy Brown. Last year’s Soul’s Edge was the fourth in an impressive series of recordings that have captured Eaglin’s staggering breadth.

On his previous Black Top efforts Eaglin stretched beyond the expected array of tasty New Orleans nuggets to include some harder-edged 70s R & B, a few scrappy originals (his absurdist “Cheetah” has lines like “A chimpanzee don’t wear no BVDs”), and a surprising variety of instrumentals–conflating Santo and Johnny’s guitar patterns on the classic “Sleep Walk” or proffering an irresistible blend of twisted-up flamenco and classical runs on his quirky version of “Kiss of Fire.” The movement toward diversification continues apace on Soul’s Edge, which opens with “Josephine,” an old Fats Domino vehicle transformed into a raucous meditation on fat-assed second-line rhythms. Over a thick bed of highly propulsive percussion and insistent bass Eaglin chicken-scratches his guitar to a drunken parade beat. He covers familiar R & B tunes–Bobby Blue Bland’s “I’m Not Ashamed” and Hank Ballard’s “Thrill on the Hill”–and sweeps gently through the gospel tune “God Will Take Care of You.” But the most impressive element of the new record is how Eaglin’s fully integrated all the styles he’s assimilated.

His voice has its limits, but Eaglin has learned to work within them. He exploits his mid-range perfectly, extracting an easygoing blend of soul, passion, and play. His guitar playing never needed to improve, but now we get to hear more of it. The core blues feel remains, but Eaglin’s remarkable flexibility allows him to inhabit nearly any situation with grace, from the furious key-changing blues of bassist George Porter Jr.’s instrumental “Aw’ Some Funk,” a real showcase for the guitarist, to the heart-wrenching lament his playing expresses on “Nine Pound Steel.” Never an innovator, Eaglin’s still one of New Orleans’s most important stylists, and a keeper of the city’s cultural flame. As he approaches his 60th birthday it’s not too late to bump up his status to place him in the deserved company of the city’s greats.