It had to happen sometime… my friend Eddie Kirkland died 27 February, 2011 in Tampa, Florida. He was helicoptered to a hospital from the scene where he died; he was 88 (approximately!). Not just “another man done gone”, but another friend done gone and that hurts, for they are rare. He certainly wasn’t ready to go, and I wasn’t ready to let him go, either, but we have no control over such events, do we.
It came as a total surprise one morning, as it always does, an e-mail message from French blues fan René Malines that Eddie Kirkland had died. My first reaction was denial, but further ’net communications blew that idea out of the water: It was official: my great and good friend was no more among the living at the age of eighty-seven. Killed while driving home to Macon, Georgia from a gig the previous night in Florida – his car was “t-boned” by a Greyhound bus. The levels of irony there are momentous – when I couldn’t find him at home in years past, he was likely in their Macon bus station… he liked the coffee and the people there. Eddie was doing what he did, what he probably loved doing, as a life-long road warrior trying to conquer the world one pub or festival at a time. Wealth was not to be for the man who wanted merely to be able to support his wife and kids by doing what he did best – play music. It was a constant struggle with long drives, rip-off venues, poor pick-up bands, selfish or incompetent management, and many broken promises, yet he kept on keeping on because he loved this life, the music, and the people he met, no matter how hard it was. It was what he did, full stop.
This piece will not be a resumé of Eddie’s career… that will be and has been found elsewhere in quantity in other publications, even The New York Times, The Daily Telegraph, and The Washington Post. True friends are precious (in spite of the devaluation of the word by the internet), few and far between in one’s life. Eddie was my very good friend, a man I shared space, time, and food with over a four decade-long period. We first met in 1969 when I cajoled Bruce Bastin to stray from our main Piedmont straight-and-narrow focus to hunt Kirkland down – his TruSound album “got” to me and “youth wanted to know”! A rumor in BLUES UNLIMITED placed him in Macon, GA working as a radio presenter. When we got there and had no joy with the phone book, I went to the offices of Capricorn Records (this was before we knew much about city directories) to see if anyone there knew where to find him. Producer Jackie Avery did, and pointed us literally around the corner from their offices/studio to a location on Plum Street – this turned out to be Eddie’s upstairs “motel”. Thus began a life-long friendship for us both.
It began simply enough with our interview then and my recording him over the Xmas holidays the following year in a motel room. This scenario was replicated a number of times over the years until 1972 when I had him come up to Ulster County, NY to perform at the day-long Spring Weekend concert at the college/university at which I taught Biology. He used some local musicians that I knew for the show, heavily rehearsing for over a week beforehand; a series of band recording sessions took place in the days after the show. He also did a stint in a classroom for/with me… I was doing a series of lectures on blues for Phyl Garland’s “Black Music” course. He connected much better than I with the predominately Black students by utilizing rhythmic patterns that they were familiar with underneath his songs; much better than I did in three previous hour-long lectures with records!
Over time, Eddie came up North more often for longer periods of time – he stayed with band members, or at The Astoria Hotel in Rosendale, NY. Or he often stayed in his car… later bunking at my house once I had an official guest room. One year we all went South to tour – the northern musicians and I. I drove my van with the P.A. system I had bought, was the sound man and road manager and we played throughout college towns in the Southeast, from Kentucky to North Carolina. Most of the venues would put us up in a local motel, occasionally we stayed with friends and once in a while slept in our vehicles… it was a close-knit low-budget operation! And Eddie would grab the folks at any venue without fail, even those who had never heard of him before (or thought he was Eddie Kendricks!) and make them immediate converts. It was a microcosm of his macrocosm of a life. He always put the best spin on things and kept creating HIS music to the best of his ability.
Kirkland was always a gentleman – he never drank alcohol, but smoked cigars, and probably drank too much coffee – who respected all he met if they warranted it. And he could tell who did and who didn’t. A believer in some “folk” beliefs (crossroads, hoop snakes, gris gris) Eddie was a straightforward, up-front kind of guy… no deviousness there. His word was his bond in a positive, old-fashioned way. He had a great, often bawdy, sense of humor and cared about his family and friends in deep and meaningful ways – he was tickled pink (so to speak) with the birth of my son in 1988. Eddie was a master mechanic capable of improvising when necessity or finances intervened – Boogie Woogie Red told me of Eddie repairing a tire with a chunk of another and some nails – no, really! I’ve seen him strip down an engine in less than ideal circumstances and rebuild it in two days’ time; when not playing music or writing songs, he would tinker with his car and guitars. Those of you who have seen him perform will be witness to his instruments’ personalized state, itself a “folk art” on the hoof. One time he arrived at my place in his station wagon (estate wagon for those in the UK): he had taken the keypad off of a touch-tone telephone and rigged it up for multiple electrical purposes. Push one number, you got the left blinker; push another, you got the right one; another turned on the dome light… you get the picture!
Eddie was a person of boundless energy who slept only in short spurts. He told me in Melbourne that he was basically awake throughout his heart bypass surgery… relaxing was not a part of his repertoire. As a musician, he was unique, but this is not always the way to success in the music business. His guitar playing was readily identifiable as “Eddie” from the time of his first recordings… no B.B. cloning for him. On the harmonica he got a full and personal sound – as a singer he was full on and soulful to the max. Writer of many great songs (just ask Elmore James or John Mayall), and an exuberant performer, Kirkland was on the fringes of success his whole career. Never forgotten when once seen/heard by his audience, Eddie should have and could have been “bigger” than he was, but he never got the right breaks at the right time. The Foghat experience/connection could have been taken advantage of at the time (I was no longer involved in that aspect of his life), but the ball was either dropped or never picked up. Capitol Records tried to get him to record an album of Otis Redding songs, which he didn’t want to do: proper thinking would have had him sign for two records – one of Otis’ stuff, one of his own. Another missed opportunity.
The last time he and I had time together was about five or six years ago in Melbourne – he had been caught in the act at one of the Ponderosa Stomp festivals in New Orleans by radio presenter Mohair Slim, who booked him for two shows. He came down to Australia only a few days ahead and rehearsed once or twice with the back-up musicians; they were serviceable, at best, in performance. The crowds loved him, though, and he did his usual energetic shtick, including a backwards somersault while playing his guitar! We stayed in shared rooms in a couple of hotels and talked. Eddie would go out on the street garbed as usual – nobody took much notice of him as he leaned against a building, watching people walk by. He was an inveterate people-watcher; it was how he learned about wherever he was at the time. I brought myself and my National on the train from Sydney – the guitar was to be used for promotional radio appearances at the local ABC station, and also public station RRR with Brian Wise.
Our time together was sociable, as usual – he was interested in my family, especially my son (see attached photo). Before we left the U.S., he came by one time with a stuffed toy – a California raisin doll (meaningless to those not from the States and a certain age!), something my son still remembers! He was family to me – the older brother I never had, or something of a father figure. He was my friend and friends are sacred to me and his loss pains me greatly in a way that will never vanish. To go completely maudlin, I loved the man and his loss to me is major – I will never have another special relationship like that one. Hopefully it was special to him as well. Such music, such caring, such energy cannot be replaced in this world… vale, Eddie. You made MY life a better place… hopefully I did something positive along those lines for you – corny, but rest in peace at last.
PETER B. LOWRY
Published in JUKE BLUES: No. 71; Summer 2011 – pp. 56/57.
A recent e-mail from Gene Tomko:
Thanks, Peter. I really enjoyed reading your blog posts, especially
the one about Eddie Kirkland. I never got to know Eddie quite like you
did, just seeing and talking with him between sets at a few dozen of
his gigs, but his shows were such a dependable constant in my life for
so long that it almost felt as if he would still be going strong long
after we’re all gone. I saw him one final time in Atlanta not long
before his accident. I hadn’t seen him in several years before that
and wondered (and worried about) how he was doing and holding up as he
was now in his upper 80s. I came away from that last show with one
word on my mind – superhuman. He looked and sounded as strong as ever.
Eddie’s total focus and commitment to his music always astounded me.
Those times where he’d drive 10, 12 maybe 14 hours straight from his
home in George to play a gig and arrive just in time to setup and play
and sing his heart out, only to get right back in that old
station-wagon afterwards at 3 am and drive onto the next one. Many of
the times he would not even leave the stage during his breaks, but
just mess around with his guitar or his amp and preparing for his next
set. He truly was one of a kind.