3301 – Eddie Kirkland: “Front and Center” *
Macon, Georgia seems not to have a reputation as being a particularly memorable town for black musicians – though Fred McMullen was reputed to have come from there and the Rev. Pearly Brown travels there weekly to play in the streets. A few of the relatively major names DID come from there though, such as Georgia White (in the 40s) and Little Richard (in the ‘50s), and Otis Redding settled there in the sixties, but generally it has been a rather underwhelming locale for the black blues musician. Ironically, there are some white so-called blues bands emanating from there, like The Allman Brothers Band, Wet Willie, and The Marshall Tucker Band (even more ironical, since their success has come at the hands of Redding’s old organization). There have been occasional blues men through the town over the years and John Lee Hooker used to say that he wanted to retire there! Maybe this is why Eddie Kirkland settled there over eight years ago – it certainly isn’t for the opportunities to work as a blues musician in town.
Kirkland has been around a bit. I don’t mean only the years he spent with John Lee Hooker, playing second guitar, writing songs for him, and generally keeping track of things. (There are many blues addicts that say the best of Hooker’s work was the early material, especially the sides cut with Eddie.) No, I mean the continual scuffling he has had to put up with for his 25 years in the business . . . the stint with Hooker was the closest he came to “making it.” He doesn’t aspire to be a star, but would love to be able to support his family as a musician.
Eddie was born August 16, 1928 and was brought up on a farm near Dothan, Alabama with his “foster” grandmother, his mother having remained in New Orleans a while. His first musical experimentation was with the harmonica – his first-cousin had one, and he “borrowed” it a lot. He became adept at such old numbers as “Fox Trot” and “John Henry” . . . enough so that he was able to pick up some change playing and doing the “hambone” in the streets; enough at least for the picture-show on Saturday and even a box of popcorn to go along. A little later on he was attracted to the guitar, mainly due to one Junior Bailey (Eddie called him “Daddy”) who would play for local frolics and peanut-shellings. Another who made an impression with his sound was Blind Murphy, who played a lot with a bottleneck – Eddie’s slide expertise was to flower much later. There were other musicians he heard in Alabama, including a family of musicians, the Snells . . . Martin, Ray, and Jewell. In addition, there were transients (a duo known as “Stop And Fix It” from their most popular number) to be heard, as well as the ubiquitous phonograph records – Blind Lemon, Big Bill, Blind Boy Fuller, Tampa Red, Memphis Minnie, Peetie Wheatstraw, Big Maceo, and Dr. Clayton stand out today. A later recorded influence of great strength was Lightnin’ Hopkins (and to an extent, “Big Boy” Crudup), but this was all to be mixed up and synthesized into Eddie Kirkland’s style.
About age eleven he left Dothan, having already hooked up with a small medicine show, “The Sugar Girls Show” – he eventually ended up in Dunkirk, Ind. (at age 14), staying with an aunt to get some schooling. He left there and went up to join his mother in Detroit, working for Ford and playing in the streets on the side. A meeting with John Lee Hooker about 1948 resulted in a five-year association (he also made his first records during that time) that was useful for both. He left his Detroit home-base for a swing through Georgia on his own, then headed for Cleveland (1960) where he met Elmore James, and later to Newark, NJ and an LP for Prestige in 1961. It was not until 1962 that he abandoned Detroit completely . . . heading for Moultrie, Ga. where he was a DJ for a while, then St. Petersburg, finally settling down in Macon.
While living in Detroit, Eddie met all the best musicians, local and otherwise, as well as meeting others while on the road with Hooker (he was inspired to play slide by a combination of Elmore James and Muddy Waters). After settling in Georgia, he played locally, and even hooked up with Otis Redding, playing guitar in his band (before Otis was big) . . . this may have resulted in the one recent high spot. He had a hit in the south, “The Hawg”, and it was recorded and released by the same label Otis worked for. Work was “made” by this in the form of more frequent gigs, but after about five years this tapered to the present slow circumstances. He has recorded since then for Fortune, King, and Capricorn (now purchased by TRIX), but little came out of the few titles that were issued to stimulate things, and gigs in Macon are non-existent for a black blues artist (at least ones that pay).
These days Kirkland books himself to whatever gigs he can drum up himself – his past experience with a manager when he was “hot” has soured him a great deal on them – as well as doing odd jobs, and working on cars. He has played a couple of college dates outside his normal bailiwick, and has always turned the place apart (as “Boogie Woogie Red” said after a performance in March ’73, “You know whose show that was, don’t you!”). Here is an original guitar stylist (who doesn’t sound like B.B. King when working with a band), as well as an impassioned singer. He has to be the most intense performer I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing, in contrast to his reserved off-stage manner . . . and he is a hell of a songwriter, often spontaneously so (many of the songs on this album are like that). This album is a conscious attempt to go back a bit, but Eddie never looses sight of today’s music – he is comfortable in the unusual solo role, and he makes beautiful blues.
As Eddie has said to me, “I always wanted to be a good lowdown guitar player – pick a lot of strings . . .” I think this album will show that he has succeeded in this, and will hopefully whet some appetites for the band album to come next year.
WHEN I FIRST STARTED HOBOING – Based loosely on a John Lee Hooker number, Kirkland attacks this piece with slide, and with a vengeance. Lyrically it owes little to Hooker, so really a stark original blues results from the original starting point. (3)
I TRIED TO BE A FRIEND – Coming along on his own electric guitar this time, he does a strong song on a failed relationship. He plays the hell out of the guitar here, and this number is faded only because of a broken string and being too tired to retake! It is a “modern” blues approach, and one can easily imagine this with a band (for a later TRIX album), even though it works alone. (3)
EDDlE’S BOOGIE CHILLEN – This is, of course, his former employer’s first big number, but done up a bit differently by Eddie. As with the original, this is done on electric guitar – he uses a slightly different chord-progression, turning this into a Kirkland piece. (3)
NORA – Rather a first, here; the first time using a harp-rack! With the harp held in one corner of the mouth, he still manages to sing clearly – makes one wonder what he could do with a little practice, this being so good. (3)
I NEED A LOVER, NOT JUST A FRIEND – This is a rather typical, rhythmic number that builds in intensity – a rather pragmatic lyric here. Truly he is “telling it like it is” in the field of human relations and expressing a universal desire. (2)
I WALKED TWELVE MILES – One of the many spontaneous songs here, Eddie uses an interesting rhythm figure on this – l didn’t think he could pull it off on the acoustic Gibson, though! His singing, coupled with the beat, make it all believable. (4)
I’VE GOT AN EVIL WOMAN – An electric slide number, this shows well the delicate intensity that is good slide-guitar playing. Kirkland’s lyric is less delicate, but equally intense – dealing with the untrustworthy aspects of the opposite sex. (1)
GOlN’ BACK TO MISSISSIPPI – A spontaneous number that resulted from holding a twelve-string guitar for the first time! It seemed to fit the instrument . . . there sure is a hell of a lot of guitar going on for someone who only uses a thumb-pick! (1)
LONESOME TALKING BLUES – Here Eddie works again on the National guitar – truly a blues instrument in his hands – in his own tuning and using a bottleneck. While the spoken intro is a bit of a cliché (though he doesn’t drink at all), this is a lovely, intense piece of blues. (2)
DETROIT ROCK ISLAND – It seems that every guitarist in Detroit had to play this number – it was sort of the local proving ground for guitar-pickers. If you could do something with this rather simple progression that was original, you were accepted by the blues coterie. Eddie builds variation into his lines! And it rocks! (3)
JERDINE – This is a strictly superb bottleneck number done on electric guitar – the harsh, whining quality is the result of glass on strings pushed out by electricity. The story and performance are intense, the most typical descriptive adjective I can think of for this performer. (4)
HAVE YOU SEEN THAT LONESOME TRAIN – Rather a soul/blues effort, it gives the listener a chance to hear Eddie on harp at some length. Second guitarist Fred Robinson had some trouble keeping tempo that day, so a friend of mine played drummer on a wooden box! Again there is the rhythmic build-up of Kirkland. (1)
GOING TO THE RIVER, SEE CAN I LOOK ACROSS – Another example of how Eddie builds his numbers rhythmically; starting “down”, it just keeps on climbing as he plays the National to a high intensity . . . a fitting closer. (2)
- (1) Macon, GA – Dec 28, 1970
- (2) Macon, GA – Jul 20/21, 1971
- (3) Macon, GA – Sep 29, 1972
Pete Lowry (1973) contributor BLUES UNLIMITED
n.b. – Past, and recent concert recordings by Eddie are on:
– Blues Sounds Of The Hastings Street Era: Fortune 3012 – Detroit Blues – The Early 1950s: Blues Classics 12 – Anthology Of The Blues – Detroit Blues: Kent 9006 – Blues Come To Chapel Hill: Flyright 504
Eddie Kirkland is one of the most versatile artists to ever come along. Singer extraordinaire, song-writer of great ability, guitarist of unique proportions, and harmonica-player of great power … he has so much musical variety and ability in him that he eludes all the easy pigeon-holes imposed on black music by us outsiders. He’s not “Chicago” or “Piedmont” or even “Soul” – he’s just Eddie Kirkland, damn it, and no other category fits.
I met Eddie first in 1970 while doing field-work in the S.E. with Bruce Bastin, when my long-standing interest in Eddie pushed us into Macon, Ga. Rumor then had it that he was in the city working as a disc-jockey or as a car mechanic … nobody knew for certain. As it happened, the latter had some truth, plus he gigged very sporadically and ran a motel (six rooms, hourly rates) on Plum Street around the corner from the Capricorn Records offices and studio. That meeting led to many things – recording sessions, gigs and travel as roadie and sound-man, and a life-long friendship.
One direction that we went with for recording was with “old time” stuff. Eddie cut a lot of tunes for me with just a guitar in his hands (see Trix 3308 for a band recording – “The Devil [and other blues demons]). With different guitars and multitudes of tunings we got a lot of great material on tape. Some of the best are on this album, a sterling example of old-style blues singing and guitar playing, but not old fashioned or outdated. Note that Eddie, like Wes Montgomery plays guitar only with his thumb, even on a twelve-string! So check out a great collection of original ”country” blues by a master blues man (among other titles)!
Peter B. Lowry CD release – 1993 (Cottekill, NY)
Kirkland’s birth date has been finally settled on as being 16 August, 1923 – the later date previously given is when he came to the US from Jamaica to New Orleans at the age of about five with his mother. She was around 15 or 16 years of age at the time. She worked for a White family in Jamaica who brought them both stateside: Eddie said to me that his father was a Cuban merchant marine sailor. Eddie was soon farmed out to relatives in Alabama (Dothan) and his early childhood took place there: his mother later moved up to Detroit, where he followed her in his teens.
Eddie was the longest-lived performer I dealt with, from 1970 when I began my Southeastern work until his death in 2011 in Florida. I can take the blame for getting him back into the music business. By the time we first met, he had nearly given up on music, playing a few local gigs on the strength of his early 60s hit record, “The Hawg”. Kirkland was looking to open a garage: He was able to perform “shade-tree mechanics” in some of the damnedest circumstances and places, but usually succeeded in getting back on the road in a timely fashion. When I first met Eddie, he was also in his “motel” with his last wife-to-be, Mary, and some of his younger kids, on Plum Street in Macon (six rooms/hourly rates) that was literally around the corner from the Capricorn Records offices and studio (and a block or two from the H&H restaurant!). Anything to support his family – by any means necessary.
Family was important to Eddie – he was ecstatic when my son was born (even being photographed holding him… prime black and prime white in a color snapshot!)* and always had some little toy for him when he visited us in the years (1988-1995) before we moved to Australia. Family was the prime thing in his life, followed by music and pussy… that’s why so many kids (nearly fifty?)! He did not drink, and only smoked cigars (no inhaling) so that he was not party to many of the dangers to Blacks in the South of stroke, throat cancer, or diabetes.
Kirkland was a gentle man (even though a successful boxer in his younger days) who was one of many who had suffered from the life of a poor Black man in both the South and in northern city ghettos. There was always the “crabs in a bucket” attitude of his peers in Macon that was a constant impediment, but Eddie let very little phase him. As his latter-day song goes, he’d just “pick up the pieces and keep on moving on.” I feel proud to call him “friend” and I think it was reciprocated (how would I know!)
*see PHOTOGRAPH section
The thirteen pieces on this album were taken from four recording sessions done over a three year span (1970-1972) in Macon, GA, either at Eddie’s place, or my room at the local Holiday Inn. Further solo and band recordings were done at a later date in other locales.
Peter B. Lowry (2012) Sydney