The New Orleans singer and guitarist Snooks Eaglin, who has died aged 73, was a star in his home town’s musical firmament for more than 50 years. He played and recorded with fellow locals Ellis Marsalis, James Booker, the pianist and producer Allen Toussaint and the Wild Magnolias, and was sought out by visiting rock eminences including Paul McCartney, Robert Plant, Eric Clapton and Bonnie Raitt.
“His death,” said Quint Davis, producer of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage festival, “is like losing a Professor Longhair, a Johnny Adams or a Gatemouth Brown. He’s one of those giants of New Orleans music.”
Eaglin burst on to the international folk scene in the early 1960s with a handful of astonishing albums, drawn from tape recordings made by the folklorist Harry Oster and issued on folk “documentary” labels like Folkways, Folk-Lyric and Heritage. They revealed him as a kind of human jukebox, dispensing blues, country music, gospel songs, hits from the recent R&B charts, jazz standards and even exotica, all played in rich, orchestral arrangements for six- or 12-string guitar and sung in a husky voice seamed with emotion.
The British blues band leader Alexis Korner described him as “a young man with virtually unlimited musical possibilities … he approaches music through melody rather than harmony, [resulting] in a complete freedom of movement, and in a sense of dynamics too often lacking in current blues and jazz guitarists.” Korner coupled him with Wes Montgomery as the two most exciting jazz guitarists to have been heard since the 1940s.
These first recordings appeared to some listeners to locate Eaglin as a young African-American committed to fine old acoustic music rather than the noisy vulgarity of R&B. Since his early teens he had played in a band, the Flamingos, with Toussaint, and at 17 contributed the guitar part to Jock-O-Mo, a local hit by the singer-pianist Sugar Boy Crawford. In the 1960s, as European blues enthusiasts were marvelling at his unplugged music, he made a series of forceful R&B singles accompanied by members of Fats Domino’s orchestra. He would return to funky band music in the late 1970s and 80s.
Blinded by glaucoma in early childhood, Eaglin listened intently to music on the radio and developed a remarkable command of the guitar. “He played with a certain finger style that was highly unusual,” said Toussaint. “He was unlimited on the guitar. It was extraordinary.”
He spent some time at the Louisiana School for the Blind in Baton Rouge, but dropped out to work in music full-time. After his spell with the Flamingos he worked under the billing “Lil’ Ray Charles”, and when Oster first encountered him he was singing on the streets of the French Quarter.
His nickname was derived from the mischievous character Baby Snooks, from a 1940s radio show. Although albums such as New Orleans Street Singer attracted attention outside New Orleans, they did little for his job opportunities in the city. He played for a few years in the house band at the Playboy club, but by the late 1960s, he had practically retired. When the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage festival began in 1970, however, he was drawn back into playing, and a couple of LPs for Sonet in 1971 and 1977 refreshed his reputation in the larger world.
In the 1980s and 90s, he made five albums for the New Orleans label Black Top – one of them recorded in concert in Japan – on which he was backed by many of New Orleans’ leading session musicians. These revealed him as an even more extensively talented player than his early recordings had implied. He continued to vary his material, interspersing blues and R&B songs with Dan Penn’s elegiac Nine Pound Steel, the pop-mambo of Perfidia and the funk of the Isley Brothers’ It’s Your Thing.
“The reason I cover so much ground,” he said in a 1989 interview, “is that when you play music, you have to keep moving. If you don’t, you’re like the amateur musicians who play the same thing every night, which is a drag. That’s not the point of music.” He was said to know 2,500 songs.
Though reclusive and at times eccentric, Eaglin was always ready to perform at the festival, and was one of the annual event’s major draws. “More celebrities came to see Snooks than anyone,” says John Blancher, manager of the venue Mid-City Lanes Rock n’Bowl. “His reputation was as big as anyone’s in New Orleans. And he wouldn’t travel, so if you wanted to see Snooks you had to come to Rock n’Bowl.”
Blancher recalls that at the 2000 festival, Bonnie Raitt came to hear Eaglin, who called out from the stage, “Listen to this, Bonnie! You gonna learn something tonight, girl!” In 2008, Eaglin was diagnosed with prostate cancer, and he made his last public appearance, at the Mid-City Lanes, in July.
He is survived by his wife Dorothea, whom he met at a Mardi Gras engagement in 1958, his daughter, stepson and two stepdaughters.
• Fird (Snooks) Eaglin, singer and guitarist, born 21 January 1936; died 18 February 2009
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