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Robert 'Willie' Egan, 70; R&B Recording Artist in the 1950s Became a Hospital Orderly

August 11, 2004|Myrna Oliver | Times Staff Writer

Robert "Willie" Egan, a blues singer and pianist who recorded boogie-woogie-tinged R&B on his own and as Johnny in the popular duo Marvin & Johnny, has died. He was 70.

Egan died Thursday at Daniel Freeman Memorial Hospital in Inglewood of cancer, said his son, Willie Egan Jr.

Although he retired from making music in the 1960s as his popularity waned, Egan enjoyed a comeback in the 1980s as Europe rediscovered midcentury rhythm and blues.

In 1983, Egan was an unemployed hospital worker living in a crumbling South Los Angeles apartment when R&B promoter Steve Brigati found him to say Egan's album was a hit in Europe.

"What album? I haven't recorded anything in 25 years!" Egan said.

The album in question was issued in 1982 by England's Krazy Kat Records. Titled "Rock and Roll Fever," it was assembled from remastered 45 rpm discs Egan had made years earlier. The British record company thought he was dead.

Not long after his conversation with Brigati, Egan was performing in London's Electric Ballroom with saxophonist Big Jay McNeely and others.

He recorded a new, well-regarded studio album called "Going Back to Louisiana" for London-based Ace Records, which had sponsored his visit.

Egan later performed in Los Angeles, sponsored by the Southern California Blues Society.

Born Oct. 1, 1933, in a bayou shack near the northwest Louisiana town of Minden, Egan moved to East Los Angeles with his grandmother at age 9. One of his uncles had a piano on the front porch, and as Egan said later, "I started messing around on it."

He learned by listening to recordings of Amos Milburn, Hadda Brooks and Nellie Lutcher, and soon acquired a volunteer teacher.

"There was this man next door, Arthur Alexander; he was a music teacher and he taught me how to play boogie when I was 10," Egan told The Times in 1983.

"I couldn't read music," he once said, "so he'd make little charts using numbers and then he'd write the numbers with a pencil on the keys."

In 1949, Egan made a couple of recordings for the small Elko label. But he hit his stride in the mid-1950s, recording for Larry Mead's Mambo and Vita labels.

Often incorrectly credited as Willie Eggins or Egans, he recorded the successful singles "Wow Wow," "What a Shame," "Come On," "She's Gone Away, But" and "Wear Your Black Dress."

The record company was too small to promote him to national prominence, but Egan recorded and worked clubs through the '50s in L.A. and later in Bakersfield.

His last solo single was "Rock and Roll Fever" in 1958. Later he teamed with Marvin Phillips, who had a series of partners as "Johnny" under the Marvin & Johnny name, for a couple of lackluster records. Eventually, Egan abandoned music to work as a hospital orderly.

"From all them records I didn't make no money," he told The Times in 1983. "In them days you heard a lot about royalties, but none of us ever saw any."

Twice widowed, Egan is survived by his son and three grandchildren.

Services are scheduled for 1 p.m. Saturday at Christ Is the Answer Church on South Vermont Avenue in Los Angeles.

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