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The Eclectic Blues Of Unpredictable Eaglin

September 19, 1987|DON SNOWDEN

What do Washington's go-go masters Trouble Funk, California instrumental rockers the Ventures and New Orleans R&B singer Smiley Lewis have in common?

They all struck the fancy of Fird (Snooks) Eaglin when he was selecting the material for the recently released album, "Baby, You Can Get Your Gun!," his first record in eight years.

The blind New Orleans singer/guitarist makes his local debut at the two-day Long Beach Blues Festival. Eaglin will appear on the Sunday bill that also includes B. B. King, Etta James, Jimmy and Jeannie Cheatham, John Cephas and Harmonica Phil Wiggins, and Phillip Walker. Today's lineup features the Robert Cray Band, Clarence (Gatemouth) Brown, Johnny Otis, Katie Webster, Lonnie Brooks and Dr. Isaiah Ross.

Eaglin, 50, has acquired a reputation among New Orleans music aficionados for an eclectic repertoire that rivals that of the late pianist James Booker. He operates from a blues/R&B base but Eaglin prefers interpreting outside material to crafting his own songs.

"I don't have original material," said Eaglin in a phone interview from his home outside New Orleans. "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 it and all that. I just take some old junk and put it together."

Eaglin who acquired his nickname from a radio character named Baby Snooks, started off playing a tenor ukulele before shifting to guitar. He was influenced by a number of blues artists, ranging from guitarist T-Bone Walker to slick Chicago piano man Eddie Boyd, and was only 15 when he cut his first single in 1952.

His first album was released in 1958 on the Folkways label and a second appeared on Folklyric in 1960. He cut a series of singles for Imperial in 1960-61 (many of which were reissued on a European album a few years ago) and a five albums were issued by the European label Storyville throughout the '60s.

Eaglin backed Prof. Longhair when the late New Orleans piano legend emerged from a decade of inactivity in 1971. Rounder released one of those comeback sessions as "House Party New Orleans Style" earlier this year.

His performances are wildly unpredictable when it comes to material. He's even been known to drop a funky instrumental version of "Ode to Billy Joe" into the set. That might give his sidemen fits but Eaglin feels more comfortable placing his off-the-cuff style in the context of a band.

"I don't have a set list--I just come up with songs and let the other players know what's going to happen and we take it from there," explained Eaglin. "I've never had that trouble of people not being able to follow me."

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