- Snooks Eaglin: New Orleans Street Singer
When Snooks Eaglin passed away in his native New Orleans on February 18, 2009, news organizations large and small around the world ran his obituary—a fitting testament to a truly great musical talent. Judging from the evidence online, the majority picked up some version of an Associated Press (AP) story filed from New Orleans the following day, headed “Snooks Eaglin, R&B Singer and Guitarist, Dies at 72” (New York Times, February 19, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/20/arts/music/20eaglin.html). Quoting Quint Davis, the producer of New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, at which Eaglin was scheduled to perform, the obituary notes that Eaglin’s career spanned “50 years’ worth of New Orleans recordings, from early folk to R&B and jazz.” Folk music gets that passing mention; however, the obituary’s emphasis is definitely on Eaglin’s later years as a New Orleans rhythm and blues icon, when, in the AP’s words, he “counted platinum-selling rockers among his fans” and found a bit of belated success with his astounding guitar playing and idiosyncratic arrangements of vintage rhythm and blues and rock and roll standards. That is as it should be. From the beginning, Eaglin was first and foremost a rock and roll singer chasing a hit record—if not his own then somebody else’s. Understandably, he might himself have wished to be remembered mainly for the glory days near the end of his life, when, as the AP reports, “musicians including Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney, Robert Plant and Bonnie Raitt would seek out Mr. Eaglin to watch him perform.” Still, it is curious that so many who know Eaglin’s later work seem scarcely aware of his brief career as a folksinger-of-sorts, launched abruptly in 1959 by Harry Oster’s compilation Snooks Eaglin: New Orleans Street Singer (Folkways LP FA2476), which has recently been reissued in an expanded form with excellent liner notes and an overview of Eaglin’s life and work by blues researcher Elijah Wald. This may be because Eaglin’s folk phase ended abruptly when, in late 1960, he returned more or less for good to the rock and roll fold. In fact, in most respects, the idea of Snooks Eaglin as a folk bluesman was just another case of wishful thinking by the urban folk song revival. But there may have been something else at work too.
Fird Eaglin, Jr., was born in New Orleans on January 21, 1936. Neither he nor anyone in his family had any idea where the name “Fird” came from, but all agreed that his nickname “Snooks” was borrowed from radio personality Fanny Brice’s “Baby Snooks” character. It was not the last thing Snooks would borrow from the radio. Blinded at an early age, he was soon teaching himself guitar by playing along with the family’s radio. The results were the two chief sources of his later fame: a dazzling and uniquely personal finger style and an uncanny ability to learn and remember songs from records and radio. By the time he was ten or eleven, he was playing in local churches and for radio talent contests. He was soon gigging with other rhythm and blues hopefuls, and in November 1953, he made his first record, appearing on Sugar Boy Crawford’s “Jock-O-Mo” (Checker 787)—the earliest version of the New Orleans standard better known as “Iko Iko.” Around the same time, he and another future giant of New Orleans music, pianist Allen Toussaint, formed the Flamingos, a group that covered popular rhythm and blues and rock and roll records for local dances. Over the following decades, Toussaint would emerge as a worldrenowned songwriter and hit maker. As a performing musician, though, Eaglin invariably played other people’s songs. [End Page 236]
To supplement his earnings with the Flamingos, Eaglin occasionally busked with an acoustic guitar on the streets of the French Quarter, and it was here that he encountered Louisiana State University...