To those of us who don’t play it, the guitar can be an intimidating instrument in the hands of a master. The best guitarists always sound to me like they have at least three hands. I seldom listen to Robert Johnson or Joe Pass without thinking, “How do they do that?” New Orleans R & B guitarist Snooks Eaglin, who died Wednesday at the age of 72, was one of those frighteningly accomplished players. To a non-guitarist such as myself, Snooks’ solo versions of “High Society” (complete with the clarinet solo) and “Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie” are jaw-dropping.
It has always amused me that Eaglin was “discovered” playing on the streets of New Orleans by folklorists, who recorded him and issued several albums (including an amazing set on Folkways) by Blind Snooks Eaglin, the unspoiled folk/blues guitarist and singer. What his “discoverers” didn’t realize was that he was recording rhythm-and-blues singles for Imperial around the same time. If you can find his early Imperial recordings, listen to the first session, the one with “Nobody Knows” and “That Certain Door.” Snooks is accompanied only by bass and drums; the songs seem modeled on Ray Charles’ gospel-tinged R & B style, but Snooks’ raw vocals and impassioned guitar playing make Ray sound positively slick in comparison. This is great New Orleans music.
I was visiting New Orleans in 1995, when Snooks’ version of “Josephine” was a local hit; it seemed like it was on the radio every time I turned it on. Instead of the genial bounce Fats Domino gave it, Snooks set the song over one of the deepest, nastiest New Orleans second-line grooves I’ve ever heard. The bass line is extremely spare, and no less powerful for that. Halfway through the song, Snooks unleashes a choppy, intense, somewhat out-there guitar solo which raises the groove to a positively ecstatic level. Although nothing else on the Soul’s Edge album reaches the heights of that amazing opening track, the entire disc is worth hearing.
I was fortunate enough to hear Snooks several times at the Rock-N-Bowl in uptown New Orleans. He sounded great when paired with Eddie Bo, as he often was, but he was at his best stretching out with a trio, like on his early Imperial recordings. To fans of New Orleans music, it seemed like Eaglin had always been around and would always be around. That, of course, is not true of any of us. So long, Snooks.