Snooks Eaglin (1936-2009): An Appreciation

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by Nick DeRiso

Snooks Eaglin, who had been battling prostate cancer, shot to prominence on the strength of 1959’s “New Orleans Street Singer,” a record that even today is a revelation.

Mostly, because it sounds nothing like Eaglin, who was as modern and as inventive and as non-traditional as they came. Still, for all of the foot-stomping joys of his band recordings, “Street Singer” remains the surest testament to Eaglin’s pure genius — as a performer and as an arranger.

Eaglin, born January 21, 1936, died on Feb. 18 — just weeks before a scheduled return to the Jazz and Heritage Festival in New Orleans.

He wasn’t, of course, your typical folk artist, much less a street performer, in the strictest sense of the word. Eaglin found material, even on “Street Singer,” in less traditional places — and clearly preferred the sounds he heard pouring out of dance clubs and passing car radioes in the Big Easy.

They called his 1959 breakthrough “folk,” but much of the material — not least of which was “St. James Infirmary,” by Hot Lips Page; and “Careless Love,” done by both Kid Ory and Bessie Smith, among others — was actually part of the mainstream black music of the day.

That’s not to say that Eaglin was ever, by any means, rote.

Glaucoma took his sight as an infant, but nothing could dim Eaglin’s twinkling sense of humor (real name “Fird,” his nickname came from a mischievous 1940s-era radio character named Baby Snooks), or the St. Rose resident’s remarkable inventiveness.

There is an immediacy in his solo recordings that can’t be matched. Eaglin’s soulful genius is stripped bare, even on songs that seemed as if they were nothing more than record-label suggestions — like, say, on the tepid “Rock Island Line.”

He could, instead, make magic in the most unusual of circumstances: Eaglin crafted on “Street Singer,” for instance, a Jose Feliciano-vibe on “Looking for a Woman,” the old Jimmy McCracklin tune. Eaglin, over the song’s 2:25 minutes, manages to invent New Orleans flamenco. Next, he settled into a traditional approach to Lightnin’ Hopkins’ “Walking Blues.”

Along the way, Eaglin kept showing up as the early rock ‘n’ roll legend of New Orleans music was constructed.

His first appearance in a band was with a seven-piece R&B group called the Flamingos, which featured a young Allen Toussaint on piano. Later studio work included playing guitar on Sugarboy Crawford’s seminal “Jockamo.” “Down Yonder” from 1978 included Ellis Marsalis on piano.

“His death,” Quint Davis, producer of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage festival, said in media reports on Thursday, “is like losing a Professor Longhair, a Johnny Adams or a Gatemouth Brown. He’s one of those giants of New Orleans music.”

Eaglin’s genius was only fully realized late in his career during a series of well-attended performances around New Orleans, notably at Mid-City Lanes and at the Jazz Fest. He recorded five albums for Black Top between 1987-99, and appeared as a guest on a number of other recordings by label stars like Henry Butler, Earl King, and Tommy Ridgley.

Along the way, he moved past the clear influence of Ray Charles. Fans would come to call Eaglin “the human jukebox,” and with good reason. In the most complete way, he grew to a level of artistry that would surprise and delight.

Eaglin had a rare grasp on the blues/R&B repertoire — though, of course, he rarely prepared set lists. He didn’t bother with such things. After all, he was said to know some 2,500 songs.

“The reason I cover so much ground,” Eaglin 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.”

Eaglin was as memorable across the Louisiana musical landscape as that pungent smell after a sudden rainstorm in the spring. All of that emotion, and his definitive vernacular command, came like a force of nature — quickly, completely, and then undeniably.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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