Let's Hear More From Snooks. . . Aw-rite?
I've been burning up what few brain cells I have left trying to remember the first time I saw Fird 'Snooks' Eaglin, Jr. perform live. This lack of specifics has much more to do with my age (and maybe what I was drinking back then) than with the impact of his performance, I'm sure. Fortunately for me, I got to see him play often in New Orleans. So, his always entertaining, go-for-it gigs have all blurred into one big stream of consciousness memorial funfest, making it hard to sift out that one show that got me started. I know it was in the early 1980s, more than likely at Jazzfest; but, whatever the venue and exact date, I immediately became a fan of that extraordinary man, as have so many others who caught his shows out at the fairgrounds racetrack or in a local club, such as the Rock 'n Bowl. Over the years, people would call me when I was doing radio in Memphis, saying they'd been to New Orleans and were knocked out by a guitar player and singer named Snooks - best music they heard; and I have gotten similar comments since I've been doing the blog. He had that effect. As noted here and elsewhere, Snooks passed away on February 18th, just prior to Mardi Gras, at the age of 73. Another of New Orleans' unique voices and talents has slipped away.
As well-known and loved as he was around his hometown, Snooks was not effectively presented as a featured recording artist for most of his career. Besides non-locals discovering him on their vacations, it was not until the 1980s that he made a name for himself outside of New Orleans through his fine recordings for the Black Top label. He was a contemporary in age of both Allen Toussaint, with whom he played as a teenager in his first band, the Flamingos, in the early 1950s, and Art Neville, who headed up a popular rival 1950s band, the Hawketts. As Jeff Hannusch relates in The Soul of New Orleans, Snooks made his first commercial record for Victor Augustine around 1953, when he was about 17: two gospel sides, including "Jesus Will Fix It", released on a 78 billing him as Blind Fird. It had limited local sales. Already known around town for his prodigious guitar chops, he was asked that same year to join James 'Sugar Boy' Crawford's band, replacing guitarist Irving Banister, who had been drafted. As a result, Snooks played on a number of Sugar Boy's recording sessions in New Orleans for Chess Records, including the classic "Jock-A-Mo". When Banister returned from the service, Snooks went back to gigging with the Flamingos, already exhibiting his unique style of spontaneous guitar wizardry and ability to play virtually any popular song the crowds requested, whether the rest of the band could follow or not.
When Dr. Harry Oster and his assistant, Richard Allen, came to New Orleans in 1958 looking for folk artists to record (there was once a market for that), they were for some reason told to go to Snooks' house. Finding him sitting on his porch strumming a guitar, the duo immediately sensed his talent and got his consent to roll tape. Over 50 songs were eventually tracked, most with just Snooks and his acoustic guitars (6 and 12 string), but a number of them had added washboard, harmonica, and vocals by Lucius Bridges and Percy Randolph. The sessions were later released in various combinations by a number of labels including Folkways and Folk-Lyric/Arhoolie. To boost the saleability of the tracks to the purist folklore crowd, Oster's notes for the releases stated that Snooks was a blind street musician. While Snooks had both the lack of eyesight and the repertoire to pull that off, easily playing solo blues, folk, R&B, and other genres, too, he told Hannusch that he had never stood on sidewalks busking for spare change, being much too busy doing R&B and rock 'n' roll in clubs and at dances; but the fabricated notion of Snooks' early days as a street performer still crops up. Meanwhile, in the real world, the Flamingos soon broke up; and Snooks began gigging around town as L'il Ray Charles, playing Charles' repertoire, mimicking his vocal style, and doing well for himself.
Several years after Snooks recorded for Oster, he was signed by Dave Bartholomew to Imperial Records. Bartholomew, who worked for more than a decade with Fats Domino, Smiley Lewis and other Imperial artists as a writer and producer, was still recording local talent for the label. In the early 1960s, he produced records on Snooks, Earl King, Alvin 'Shine' Robinson, Shirley and Lee, Frankie Ford, and Huey Smith and the Clowns. Snooks' first session for Imperial was in the Spring of 1960; and, over the next three years. he cut more than two dozen sides with Bartholomew and had nine singles released. While none really lit up the charts, they sold locally; and Imperial kept releasing more until the California-based label was bought out by Liberty Records in 1963, ending its New Orleans productions.
I only have a couple of Snooks' Imperial singles. A lot of the material Bartholomew had him doing was slow to mid-tempo and often did not allow him to display the edgy energy of his own style of performing. In fact, most of the songs Snooks did were either written or co-written by Bartholomew; or he had the publishing on them. So, it was more about working the boss' catalog than showcasing the artist. Snooks always did a credible and professional job, and occasionally got to shine. But I'd have to say he was not served all that well by his Imperial experience - which is why no one hails these records as classics the way Earl King's originals for the label are revered. I got my overview of the sessions from the CD, Snooks Eaglin: The Complete Imperial Recordings, released by Capitol in the mid-1990s and now out of print. In 2006, I featured a cut from one of my Snooks singles, "Travelin' Mood", and have reactivated the audio on that post. To boot, I'm featuring here the flip side of that single, plus one of the better tracks that Imperial did not see fit to release.
You can also currently hear another number from one of the Imperial 45s at Red Kelly's The "B" Side.
"My Head Is Spinnin'" (R. J. Mitchell & Ford Eaglin)
Ford Eaglin, Imperial 5765, 1961
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"I've Been Walkin'"(R. J. Mitchell & Ford Eaglin)
Ford Eaglin, unissued Imperial
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Recorded in June of 1961, "My Head Is Spinnin'", written by Snooks and R. J. 'Bobby' Mitchell, another local Imperial artist, is a pretty standard R&B/pop song of the day that does not reveal any overt New Orleans roots. The changes remind me somewhat of Arthur Alexander's "Anna", although that tune did not come out until 1962. Maybe Alexander was taking from Snooks. Anyway, the song is a good example of the type of tune Snooks was doing at Imperial, although he at least did have a hand in writing this one. He's pretty subdued vocally (sounds like he might have had a cold!) and musically, although the arrangement is well-done and the song pleasant enough.
On the other side of the coin, we have the much more lively performance of "I've Been Walkin'" from that same session, also written by Mitchell and Eaglin, which never got released, at least not until the Capitol CD came out. It's still played pretty safe, but is upbeat and has some fine guitar soloing. I always like it when Snooks plays something particularly hot and says "yeah", like he does here. I think he has always been his best audience! Besides Snooks, the basic rhythm section for these songs was Frank Fields on bass, James Booker on piano, and Smokey Johnson, drums. Not too shabby. So, why was this one was left in the can?
After Imperial went through corporate assimilation and left most of its New Orleans roster behind (Irma Thomas did record for them later), Snooks made only one more record that decade, the ultra-rare "Cheetah" b/w "Sweetness", both originals, for Eddie Bo's very short-lived Fun label around 1964, where he was shown as 'Lil' Snook. Fun was Bo's first self-owned recording venture; and Snooks was his lead-off artist. But very few copies of the single exist (Hannusch has a label shot of it in The Soul of New Orleans). Needless to say, it was not a big seller. Two decades later, Snooks would reprise those tunes on different Black Top CDs.
As with many R&B artists, the 1960s after the British Invasion hit were tough on Snooks, making it hard to get work. So, he moved out of the city, across the river to the West and spent several years gigging in and around Donaldsonville, LA, before moving back closer to New Orleans around 1970 and starting to play in the city again with the resurgence of interest in the local music scene. He was soon performing at the Jazz and Heritage Festival, where he began playing with Professor Longhair. They toured together for several years and did some recording in Woodstock, New York and Memphis, Tennessee that did not see the light of day for almost 20 years. In June of 1971, Snooks recorded a solo album set up by producer Sam Charters for the Sonet label, which was based in London. Just vocal and acoustic guitar, it was another attempt to pass Snooks off as a folk-blues artist. Though it became the second volume of the label's Legacy of the Blues series, the record was no more to Snooks than some quick money in his pocket. After that, he became involved in a history-making project when Quint Davis, director of Jazzfest, who had hooked Snooks up with Fess, got him into the studio band led by Willie Tee for first Wild Magnolias album sessions in 1973; and the guitarist went appropriately wild with the wah-wah on the psychedelicised funk (see Mardi Gras music post below).
Recording opportunities did not materialize again until 1977, when Charters returned to record a second LP on Snooks for Sonet, Down Yonder, this time with a small combo and more of a New Orleans R&B feel.
"No More Doggin'" (J. L. Hooker)
Snooks Eaglin, from Down Yonder, Sonet, 1978
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Here's Snooks doing his far more funky take on the Roscoe Gordon classic, "No More Doggin'" (with writer's credit on the record given to John Lee Hooker, who had done a cover version of the song). On Down Yonder Snooks was backed by some fine hometown players: Ellis Marsalis on piano (a jazz great who has never done many R&B sessions), brothers George and Bob French on bass and drums respectively, and Clarence Ford on sax. They gave him some good grooves and support to work with. But, while Snooks was in fine form, unfortunately, the LP had a near fatal flaw: his guitar was not well-recorded. It sounds like it was plugged directly into the mixing board on some cuts, including this one, giving it an insubstantial tone. On others, the guitar was first run through an overdrive/fuzz effect that made it buzz like a giant wasp. Annoying at best. Had the producer let Snooks plug into an amplifier with a decent microphone in front of it and left off the cheesy effect box, this record would have generated more enthusiasm.
Although Snooks continued to play Jazzfest, often with former Meters George Porter, Jr, and Zigaboo Modeliste backing him, and a few clubs, such as the newly opened Tipitina's, he did not make another recording until 1986, when he was lured into the Southlake recording studio in Metairie by brothers Hammond and Nauman Scott to make an album, Baby You Can Get Your Gun, for their new Black Top label. It is extremely difficult to capture the magic of a performer like Snooks on tape or a hard drive in the controlled confines of a studio; but producer Hammond Scott was able to get the right combination of material, players and vibe to finally give Snooks what he needed to make outstanding recordings. In all Snooks did five albums* for Black Top, before the label sadly folded near the close of the last century. I hope I am not stepping on any toes, if I include one of my favorite cuts from Snooks' Black Top days that appeared on his second CD, Out Of Nowhere.
"Oh Lawdy, My Baby" (T. Ridgley)
Snooks Eaglin, from Out Of Nowhere, Black Top, 1989
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On this tune, written and originally recorded in 1953 by the great New Orleans vocalist and bandleader, Tommy Ridgley, Snooks and band stayed true to it's spirit and strong second line groove. Trading solos with guitarist Anson Funderburgh (who also recorded for the label), and saxman Kaz Kazanoff, Snooks let loose with some hot fretwork. Ron Levy was on organ; and drummer Marc Wilson and bassist Rhandy Simmons were, I think, members of Anson's band, the Rockets. I really dig how Snooks slips in a repeating lick from Rufus Thomas' "Walkin' The Dog" on the verses. That's the slyly inventive way he continually mixed things up.
As good as his Black Top albums were, Snooks was always best live, where his in the moment spontaneity and gonzo guitar work would always amaze, entertain and frequently amuse us. Sometimes his taking on virtually any request could be distracting, since he would go through the song trying to sing while calling out chord changes to the band. There is a funny example of this on YouTube, where he keeps losing George Porter on a song and telling him, "Follow me, son!" But everybody forgave Snooks that stuff, because he would turn around and peal off something utterly brilliant on the guitar, and always kept things at least interesting, danceable...and frequently funky. Though he could play myriad songs, he had stock numbers he did at most gigs, including this next one, which is another of my favorites in its original version and Snooksified as here, captured live a few years ago in New Orleans.
"Dizzy Miss Lizzy" (Larry Williams)
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As Snooks would often tell a crowd, waxing educational from time to time, "This song was done by Larry Williams back in 1958, aw-rite?" Accompanied by George Porter on bass and drummer Kim Joseph, Snooks lets rip some outrageous runs on this pumped-up yet funked-out version of "Dizzy Miss Lizzy", making Williams original classic rock 'n roll record sound almost polite by comparison. Fird Eaglin, Jr. was born of a broken mold, perfectly imperfect, irreplaceable and unforgettable as a performer. He put his stamp on every word, note and chord of every song he played. For those of us who were blessed to have seen him have his way with various and sundry popular songs and shared in the obvous joy he had doing them, things just won't be the same without him around; and we can't help but be diminished by his loss. So, we'll just try to keep jammin' the tunes and remember the good times - aw-rite?
Actually, the Scott brothers put out one more Snooks project in 2002, now out of print, The Way It Is, on their Money Pit label (guess we know how they viewed the music business by that point). On most of it, Snooks is backed by Jon Cleary and the Absolute Monster Gentlemen. It's definitely one of Snooks' funkiest projects. Try to find a copy somehow.
[More Snooks on YouTube with George Porter, Jr., Jon Cleary, who I forgot to mention earlier, and a drummer who kind of looks like Kenny Blevins. Good stuff.]