At the end of February I lost my good friend, Eddie Kirkland at the age of 87. “Who?”, you might ask. Sad, but a common question; Eddie was never a household name – God knows he tried. His career was long and memorable – his first recordings were done in 1949, and his most recent in 2010. The initial ones had John Lee Hooker on second guitar (he was then Hooker’s back-up both on the road and in the studio for over seven years); the latest was with the survivors of the English band Foghat. In between were some true recorded gems and some less so – most are worthy in some fashion, though. Included were a session that resulted from being Otis Redding’s guitarist/band leader for three to four years. He continued to work one pub at a time in his effort to conquer the musical world, although when I first met him in 1969, he was about to quit music and open up a garage to fix cars. Eddie gave all he had with every performance, whether there were 3,000 folks, or only 3 – he was always full on.
Supposedly born on the island of Jamaica 16 August, 1923, Kirkland and his very young mother came to the US with a White family for whom she worked, first in New Orleans, then in Dothan, Alabama with his “foster grandmother” by the time he was two. Music of all sorts was a part of his life (including radio – he loved The Grand Ole Opry!) and he first took up the harmonica – he was adept enough with it to busk in the streets and make enough to go to the picture show and even buy some popcorn! A local guitarist Junior Bailey got him interested in that instrument, as did one Blind Murphy who played with a slide. Additionally other locals such as the Snell brothers, Martin, Ray, and Jewell, had an input into his development along with did phonograph recordings of the time – Blind Blake being a favorite. Around 1933 he left Dothan with a medicine show called “The Sugar Girls Show” for a time, stopping in Dunkirk, Indiana and staying with an aunt after three years or so. Eventually he moved further North to Detroit via Cincinnati and rejoined his mother (with whom he was very close until her death in the early 1990s); he worked in the auto industry, as did many a Detroit migrant from Dixie.
He met Hooker in 1947, a relationship that lasted a decade and a half; John Lee was one of many Detroit musicians that Eddie knew and played with, running the gamut from Calvin Frazier to Boogie Woogie Red, Baby Boy Warren to Washboard Willie. His first records were done for the RPM label, one of the Bihari brothers lines out of Los Angeles… Hooker was recording for them a great deal at that time and Eddie appears on many of his early recordings. In 1960, Eddie was in Cleveland, Ohio where he met Elmore James (who stole his song “I Must Have Done Somebody Wrong”!); he also he recorded for King Records in Cincinnati, Ohio with one James Brown as the drummer! The following year he was in Newark, New Jersey and NYC; an album was cut at that time for Prestige Records’ TruSound subsidiary (“It’s the Blues, Man”) with King Curtis’ band that included Oliver Nelson and Billy Butler! By 1962 he had left Detroit permanently, first going to Moultrie, Georgia (where he worked as a radio DJ), St. Petersburg, Florida, and then Macon, Georgia – this city was his home base until the end of his life.
He scored a major gig with Otis Redding as his guitarist and band-leader in the early sixties (read Peter Guralnick’s Sweet Soul Music for some stories); this association led him into the Stax studio to record two singles for the Volt label where he mostly sings and plays harp backed by the famous Stax house band. In the mid-60s “The Hawg” (as by “Eddie Kirk”) from that session was his sole Black, southern jukebox hit and it generated gigs for years behind that one success. Later sessions for Fortune (on a Detroit visit) and King Records (backed by blue-eyed soul man Wayne Cochran’s C.C. Riders [in Macon]) produced great material, but no further hits. Music was becoming a less and less attractive way to make a crust. Then along I came in 1969 with Bruce Bastin as we seriously trolled the SE! I insisted that we try and find Eddie as a result of my years listening to his Prestige/TruSound album from earlier in the decade; rumor had him in Macon as either a mechanic or a disc jockey.
There was no luck in the phone book, so I went to the offices of Capricorn Records and asked if anyone knew where to find him – producer Jackie Avery did and gave us directions literally around the corner from their office! It all began for me then. Eddie was running a “motel” upstairs on Plum Street; rooms could be taken by the hour and there were about a half dozen of them. Eddie and his family lived in the two rooms near the top of the stairs and there was a podium as check-in desk. Bastin and I interviewed him extensively, even though his music was far from the Piedmont style we were trying to document, and we did up a piece for the British blues magazine BLUES UNLIMITED for whom we both wrote. At that point, gigs had cooled off for him and he was talking of opening a garage and fixing cars… he was already doing this free-lance to some extent to bring in more money for his family.
At the end of 1970 I came back to record Eddie as a solo player – this was done in a motel room at the Holiday Inn in Macon. My youngest sister and eventual first husband came along for this quick post-Xmas trip out of curiosity (my sister took some photos). He recorded eleven songs for me that day, a couple with Fred Robinson on guitar (while Eddie played harp) – other sessions followed over time. In 1972, I brought him up to Ulster County, New York to play on an all-day college Spring Weekend concert with some local musos I knew; he recorded an band album with them as well (“The Devil… and other blues demons”). Thus began our lifetime connection. I was directly involved as record producer, then road manager/sound man/van driver for well over a decade. He then took on others he thought better qualified to handle certain aspects… I didn’t mind, for I had my business limitations! He recorded extensively for me for some six years, including two separate studio albums (the last sadly still unreleased). In later years, until I left the US in 1995, Eddie would use my home as his northern base-of-operations during the summer months, sleeping in his car or sometimes my guest room. He would often tour the NE with other local musicians – having a bunch of musicians who knew him and his music was important as pick-up bands did him and his music something of a disservice.
There were some albums recorded for Pulsar (produced by Oliver Sain and now on Evidence; “Have Mercy” has a mistakenly uncredited Johnny Johnson on piano) in St. Louis, for JSP in the UK (self-produced; “Pick Up the Pieces”), then he hooked up with Randy Labbe’s Deluge label in Maine for three albums (“All Around the World”, “Some Like it Raw”, and “Where you Get Your Sugar?”), another for Telarc as well (“Lonely Street”). Labbe also managed and booked him for some years. By then he was playing with great energy and stamina throughout the US, Canada, and Europe. Most recently there has been a second album for JSP in 1999 (“Movin’ On”), a DIY one (“Booty Blues”, available from his web site), and two appearances on the latest Foghat record (ironically entitled “Last Train Home”). He was being managed for the last decades of his life by another person from Maine, Hedy Langdon, who was able to do wonders for him and showed stamina of her own what with her regular day job as a librarian! Kirkland had a band in Finland (Wentus) get to know his music and they backed him on many European gigs in the past decade; check out You Tube.
It was in Melbourne about five or six years ago that I last saw Eddie perform – local presenter Mohair Slim brought him down for two nights’ work. Sadly, he was unable to play Sydney due to lack of interest/familiarity with he and his music. A few folks from here like Austin Harrison flew down to hear him then – I took the train (carrying my National for him to use on local ABC radio, and RRR). There were a couple of rehearsals, but the band had some difficulty following Eddie… I tried to sort things out, but not that well. And yet the two gigs were well received by the punters no matter the onstage uncertainties – he was that kind of crowd-grabbing, high-energy performer! As for he and I, we seemed to pick up where we left off in 1995!
Eddie Kirkland was an unique sounding guitarist (no warmed over B.B. here), a readily identifiable harmonica player, an incredibly soulful singer, and a very good and prolific song-writer. Not to mention his energetic stage shows. Part of the problem for Eddie is that he didn’t sound like anyone else… ever… and that is often a detriment in the music business. My friend Mike Rowe wrote in BLUES UNLIMITED that Eddie was too soul for the blues anoraks, and too blues for the soul addicts. Uncategorizable. Kirkland just kept on keeping on, no matter the obstacles placed in his part – it was always full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes. He was a singular phenomenon of art and nature. Eddie died on the road (the “Blues Gypsy” being one of his latest descriptives) returning home to Macon after playing in Florida – his car was t-boned by a Greyhound bus and he died in hospital in Tampa. He will be missed by all who met him: I know that my life has a large, unfillable hole in it. Vale Eddie Kirkland, The Energy Man and The Blues Gypsy. Music is life and you were that. Too soon, no matter how old.
PETER B. LOWRY
pub: THE BLUES TIMES – No. 218; May 211: pp. 7,10.