1947: An 11-year-old Snooks Eaglin makes his mark on New Orleans’ music scene
At just 11 years old, New Orleans guitar player Fird “Snooks” Eaglin Jr. already had chops. Following in the footsteps of his music-loving family, the young Eaglin — who lost his sight before his second birthday following a risky operation for a brain tumor and glaucoma — entered a 1947 talent contest sponsored by local radio station WNOE. When all was said and done, the kid walked away the winner. It put $200 in his pocket, but it also announced to the city the arrival of a new musical talent. From there, Eaglin, now recognized as arguably the city’s most prominent blues and R&B guitarist, put hundreds of records to wax and accumulated a repertoire that reportedly included at least 2,500 songs, earning him the nickname “The Human Jukebox.”
By the time of his death in 2009 at the age of 72 or 73 (depending on whom you ask), Snooks played with virtually every major New Orleans musical talent, both as a sideman and as a bandleader, and became a staple at Jazz Fest as well as local venues such as Rock ‘n’ Bowl and Snug Harbor. He especially bonded with blues guitarist/singer Earl King, as well as the city’s long line of piano greats. In the end, Eaglin eschewed self-penned work, instead choosing to become a master — genius, really — at interpreting other artists’ work. “I don’t have original material,” he told The Los Angeles Times in 1987. “Other people’s stuff sounds better. When you make something up of your own, you’ve got to be figuring what you’re gonna put in and all that. I just take some old junk and put it together.”
- The date of the talent contest that put Eaglin on the musical map is a bit murky. Most sources say it was in 1947, although some say 1953. But that’s in keeping with the Eaglin mystique. Even his birthdate is unclear, coming on Jan. 21 in either 1936 or 1937.
- Eaglin received his lifelong nickname when, as a youth, an inherent and irrepressible mischievousness earned him comparisons to a similarly inclined contemporary radio character named Baby Snooks.
- Eaglin’s first instrument reportedly was a hand-carved ukulele strung with rubber bands he inherited as a toddler.
- So what did Snooks play for the WNOE talent contest that won him 200 bucks? It was “Twelfth Street Rag,” a ragtime standard written by composer Euday L. Bowman in 1914. By this time, of course, Snooks had graduated from the ukulele to the guitar.
- Eaglin’s first-place effort in the WNOE contest spurred him to advance his music career, prompting him to drop out of the Louisiana School for the Blind in Baton Rouge at the age of 14.
- One of Snooks’ first joint musical ventures was membership in the local R&B group the Flamingoes, with none other than Allen Toussaint. Eaglin joined the band — which had nothing to do with the popular doo-wop group of the same name — in 1952, playing guitar and bass, according to later recollections.
- The seven-piece, horn-led combo (which was also Toussaint’s first band) broke up a few years later, but not before one of the events that helped form the Snooks Eaglin legend. In a 1995 interview with Offbeat magazine, Eaglin asserted that late one night after a raucous, booze-fueled gig in Donaldsonville, the rest of the Flamingoes were too hammered to drive, so Snooks — who’s blind, you may recall — slid behind the wheel. With his three-sheets-to-the-wind bandmates piled in the back, Snooks allegedly used the sound of road gravel crunching under the car’s tires to successfully guide them home.
- While all of this nuttiness was going on with the Flamingoes, Eaglin picked up other gigs on the side, including as a sideman for Sugar Boy Crawford on Crawford’s now-classic Mardi Gras rave-up “Jock-a-Mo” in 1953. Historians and writers believe that recording was the first time Eaglin appeared on wax.
- As Eaglin’s reputation continued to grow, he became a fixture on the local juke joint scene as a sideman and a solo artist, but he didn’t play only for late-night revelers. In December 1963, for example, Snooks took the stage with a holiday choir at the Municipal Auditorium for The Times-Picayune’s annual holiday toy distribution to children from working-class families. The choir and accompanying band, guided by conductor Lawrence Carter, performed holiday standards such as “Silent Night,” “Jingle Bells” and “White Christmas.” Rounding out the side combo were Eddie Williams, George French, Willie Tee and Arthur Reed.
- Eaglin’s ability to play pretty much any song earned him the nickname “The Human Jukebox.” As local keyboardist and producer Ron Levy once said: “He’s one of the most naturally talented people I’ve ever met. He can play any song just off the top of his head. If he can think about it and hear it in his head, he can play it perfectly. He didn’t have to learn it — he’d just do it. I never heard him play a bad note. And even if he played something that was wrong, he’d make it right.”
- Eaglin’s greatest mainstream fame kicked off in the mid to late 1980s, when he hooked up with New Orleans’ Black Top Records, a label founded in 1981 by brothers Nauman S. Scott III and Hammond Scott. Eaglin recorded five albums for Black Top, beginning with 1988’s “Out of Nowhere” and culminating with “Live in Japan” in 1997. In addition, Eaglin backed up other rejuvenated local legends such as Tommy Ridgley and Earl King.
- Eaglin died of complications from prostate cancer at Ochsner Medical Center in New Orleans on Feb. 18, 2009. His memorial service was held nine days later at the Howlin’ Wolf; it was the Warehouse District club’s first funeral event.
While the career of Snooks Eaglin was perhaps overshadowed, at least in the public eye, by more well-known New Orleans music legends such as Professor Longhair, Fats Domino, Allen Toussaint, Dr. John and Louis Armstrong, the man known as “The Human Jukebox” played alongside just about all of them and earned their utmost respect. At Eaglin’s 2009 funeral at the Howlin’ Wolf, Jazz Fest producer-director Quint Davis put him in the league with such New Orleans legends as Professor Longhair, James Booker, Earl King, Earl Palmer and Johnny Adams. “There’s no replacing them,” Davis said. “There will never be anyone like them. Snooks leads that list.”