In 1976, I got involved with Eddie Kirkland as a record producer once again since nobody else was interested, and booked a week’s time at Minot Studios in White Plains, NY just an hour south along the Hudson River. The only hold-over from the prior album was Billy Troiani, a superior fretless bass guitar player: the rest of the band was made up of Billy Dwyer on drums, jazz tenor saxophonist Hugh Brodie, and on second guitar a cousin of Hugh’s who I had heard on one of Hugh’s local jazz gigs. I cannot remember his name off hand (it’s on the session sheets), but he had time off from touring with the band backing Gladys Knight & the Pips and had studied with Skeeter Best. This was to be my first (and only) big-time 16-track (2” tape) effort with Dolby for which the core of musicians rehearsed at my house for a week prior. Then three to four days were taken up laying down basic tracks with the rhythm section, with organist Billy Washington added the final day.
Then there were a day or two where Eddie and Hugh put down the vocal and horn tracks at the same time., Brodie, a bebop master, played some of the toughest, bluesiest, funkiest playing since his days in clubs with Riff Ruffin in Newark, NJ as a result. The two of them “worked” off of each other beautifully… one of my better production ideas. One or two cuts had string ensemble synthesizer added later by Tom Grasso… I had intended adding a few “real” strings with this, as well as a horn section in the Stax mold for most of the rest of the album’s thirteen potential tracks. I had spoken with arranger Hampton Reese (now the late) who I knew from my contacts over the years with B.B. King. But, needless to say, I ran out of the usuals (time, money) before finishing this project… it was probably the best, or second-best, thing that he has ever done and I have apologized to Eddie many times for not finishing the multi-track recordings and releasing the disc.
After all that was finished in the studio, Eddie also did four solo pieces on my 4-track at home a few days later – we planned some overdubbing of guitar or harp, but that, too, was never accomplished. That, then, was the end of my direct involvement with Eddie Kirkland in any business sense, but not the end of my involvement with my friend. Around that time, a local woman, Chris Nelson, became his manager, even when she moved to western MA from New Paltz. By the eighties his manager was Shirley Keener, from FL, who traveled with Eddie and booked his gigs. Around 1986/87 they stayed in my guest-room (before that, they’d stayed with friends or lived in his car) using my phone as a home base up North. After my son, Julian, was born in 1988, Eddie would drop by from time to time on his way to or from jobs to say “hello” to us, especially to “Little Pete”, as he called him! I have pictures of Eddie holding Julian – the definitive Caucasian American and the definitive African American!
Going into the late eighties, Kirkland was picked up by Randy Labbe, from the state of Maine, who acted as booker, manager, and producer. Randy did fairly well by Eddie, getting him gigs at festivals and better clubs, including many overseas at long last. For whatever reason, this did not translate into lots of repeat business in Europe – the folks booking Blues Estafette told me that the bands that he brought were inferior. Odd, because I’ve never observed a poor show by Eddie in all the years that I’ve known him. It is difficult to find and keep a good band together, though, when the money is a little thin; devotion and enthusiasm can only go so far. One must eat! As I know from personal experience, it is hard to “do’ everything necessary to further the career of a performer. I was no good as a sales or promotions person, in fact most anything to do with business. My business cards of the time read: “President; Chief Engineer; Staff Photographer; Shipping Clerk” and I was worst at the first one. My main criticism of Randy (besides writing me out of Eddie’s bio) is what I hear as his failings as a record producer. He sent me a copy of the first CD on Deluge, Labbe’s own label, and I was playing it when my partner came into the house. She asked, “Who is that?” When told, she didn’t believe it… she knew how Eddie sounded first-hand from sharing stages, even microphones, with him at local clubs. Her reaction was that he was too distinctive a voice and that it couldn’t be Eddie Kirkland! I don’t know how he did it, but Randy had homogenized his singing so that he became generic.
Later releases were little improvement, in my critical estimation. In between Trix and Deluge, Kirkland had LPs on JSP (self-produced) and Pulsar (produced by Oliver Sain) – the latter has been re-released on CD by Evidence, with additional material. And it is among his best – note that the unfortunately uncredited pianist is Johnny Johnson… it WAS recorded in St. Louis, after all! Since the Deluge albums, there has been one poor (sadly) release on Telarc produced by Labbe, and one seriously good newer one on JSP. Managed now by librarian Hedy Langdon (who has produced his latest CD for him) also in Maine, Eddie is still where he has always been… just bubbling under and not breaking through.
This I don’t understand. Eddie Kirkland is well regarded by his peers in both age directions… Elmore stole “I Must Have Done Somebody Wrong” from him! Lockwood would always ask me, “How’s that young fella doing?” whenever we’d meet. Even B.B. told me that he’d pinched a thing or two. Kirkland should be a promoter’s wet dream, a stunning and dynamic performer of mainly original material with his own sound… or so one might think. I have seen him grab an audience who had no idea who he was (and could care less), take them by their psychic collars and turn them into total converts before the first song is over! While some of his more recent CDs have been less than spectacular, his best is up with the best. One point that Mike Rowe brought up in his review of “The Devil… and other blues demons” in BU was that Eddie suffered from being too “blues” by the soul fans, and too “soul” by the blues fans. Certainly that was true back then, but is it still? I just don’t know. I fully understand the problem of falling through the cracks between categorical planks, but is that the real problem? Or is it because Kirkland’s not light-skinned, or is not a non-threatening “pretty face” in the same way as Young Bob (Cray); or is it because he’s older than most out there on the circuit; or is his stage show too “Black” for White audiences? I’ve been away from all that so long that I haven’t a clue, but I did see him a couple of years ago with a barely adequate band in Melbourne and he tore the place up!
The music business isn’t fair, especially towards African Americans, old or young, but one would hope that talent would count for something… but maybe not. It has been a wonderful, if frustrating, experience to have been involved with Eddie Kirkland and to be able to count him as a true friend… hell, he’s one of my son’s honorary godfathers, along with Riley B. In a just world, folks like Eddie would be able to make a comfortable living as a musician and his life would not have to be one small gig after another, trying still to conquer the world one bar (US)/pub (UK) at a time in his eighties. One must pay one’s dues and all that, but a life of constant scuffling is deadening to the soul. And Eddie has plenty of that, in spite of it all. Not all my experiences have been this frustrating, but when one of your friends is having it rough, it has an impact… Kirkland should be a revered elder as was his former employer, Hooker, and not just because he could blow John Lee off of the stage at any time (that’s why Hooker decided to open the evening session at Ann Arbor rather than close out the Detroit afternoon… he didn’t want to follow Eddie!), but because he’s earned it!
Peter B. Lowry
Published in B&R 253 (Oct 2010), pp. 18-19. Edited.