Snooks Eaglin, born Fird Eaglin, Jr. on January 21, 1936, New Orleans.
Snooks lost his sight not long after his first birthday after being stricken with glaucoma, and spent several years in the hospital with other ailments. Around the age of five Eaglin received a guitar from his father; he taught himself to play by listening to and playing along with the radio. A mischievous youngster, he was given the nickname ‘Snooks’ after a radio character named Baby Snooks.
Sometimes compared in his vocal delivery to Ray Charles, but to me Snooks Eaglin sounds more like Dr John (although this is unlikely to be a matter of influence as Dr John was born four years later) with just a dash of Ray Charles in there somewhere.
He had a slightly unusual way of playing his guitar (mainly a Fender Telecaster), thumbing the bass end and picking upwards with just one finger, usually his index finger on the treble notes.
Generally regarded as a legend of New Orleans music, he played a wide range of music within the same concert, album, or even song: in his early years, he also played some straight-ahead acoustic blues.
His vast repertoire of established songs and his ability to make them his own earned him the nickname ‘the human jukebox.’ Eaglin claimed that his musical repertoire included some 2,500 songs.
At live shows, he did not usually prepare set lists, and was unpredictable, even to his band. He played songs that came to his head, and he also took requests from the audience.
In 1947, at the age of 11, Eaglin won a talent contest organized by the radio station WNOE by playing ‘Twelfth Street Rag’. Three years later, he dropped out of the school for the blind to become a professional musician. In 1952, Eaglin joined the Flamingoes, a local seven-piece band started by Allen Toussaint. The Flamingoes did not have a bass player, and according to Eaglin, he played both the guitar and the bass parts at the same time on his guitar. He stayed with The Flamingoes for several years, until their dissolution in the mid-1950s.
His first recording was in 1953, playing guitar at a recording session for James ‘Sugar Boy’ Crawford.
The first recordings under his own name came when Harry Oster, a folklorist from Louisiana State University, found him playing in the streets of New Orleans. Oster made recordings of Eaglin between 1958 and 1960 these recordings were in folk blues style, i.e., Eaglin with an acoustic guitar but without a band.
From 1960 to 1963, Eaglin recorded for Imperial. He played electric guitar on Imperial sessions with backup from a band including James Booker on piano and Smokey Johnson on drums. He recorded a total of 26 tracks. Much of the material on Imperial was written by Dave Bartholomew. Unlike the Harry Oster recordings, these works on Imperial are New Orleans R&B in the style for which he is widely known today. After Imperial, in 1964, he recorded alone at his home with a guitar for the Swedish Broadcasting Corporation, released as I Blueskvarter 1964: Vol.3. For the remainder of the 1960s, he apparently made no recordings.
His next work came on the Swedish label Sonet in 1971. Another album ‘Down Yonder’ was released in 1978 featuring Ellis Marsalis on piano. Apart from his own work, he joined recording sessions with Professor Longhair in 1971 and 72 (Mardi Gras in Baton Rouge). He also played some funky guitar on The Wild Magnolias first album recorded in 1973.
He joined Nauman and Hammond Scott of Black Top Records in the 1980s which led to a recording contract with the label. Eaglin’s Black Top years were the most consistent years of his recording career. Between 1987 and 1999, he recorded four studio albums and a live album, and appeared as a guest on a number of recordings by other Black Top artists.
After Black Top Records closed its doors, Eaglin released ‘The Way It Is’ on Money Pit Records, produced by the same Scott brothers of Black Top. In 1997, Eaglin’s version of ‘St James’ Infirmary’, was featured in a UK TV ad for Budweiser lager.
For many years, Snooks lived in St. Rose in the suburbs of New Orleans with his wife Dorothea. Though he did not play many live shows, he performed regularly at the ‘Rok’n’Bowl’ in New Orleans, and also at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
Snooks died of a heart attack at Ochsner Medical Center in New Orleans. He was scheduled to make a comeback appearance at the New Orleans Jazz Festival later that Spring.
Snooks Eaglin passed away on February 18th 2009