In 1971, I was asked by Pete Lowry, the owner of Trix Records, to go with him to Chapel Hill University in North Carolina, and be part of the house band at an historic concert there. It was to be the first blues concert held on campus. The great Peg Leg Sam was there, as well as Eddie Kirkland, Frank Edwards, Tar Heel Slim, Roy Dunn and Guitar Shorty, among others.
Pete took us, the drummer Denis Minervini and I, to meet Eddie at the motel where he was staying. When we arrived, he had to crawl out from under his Ford station wagon to greet us. He was replacing the transmisson; something he had learned while working at the Ford factory in Detroit. He loved his Fords. Little did I know that I’d be driving around in, and crawling under, those Fords for the better part of the next 12 years. (Once, when the seam on the gas tank split open on some desolate back road, Eddie produced 2 dozen packs of chewing gum and told us all to start chewing – he used the chewed gum to seal the crack and we were on our way!)
Eddie Kirkland Band 1976, bass player and writer Bill Troiani to the right.
We always seem to drive south in the summer and north in the winter. From Quebec to Macon, Georgia, and back again. There was always four of us and all our gear stuffed in the Ford. We had a PA system, a full drum kit, at least 4 guitar amps, my SVT cabinet and Eddies gig clothes – lots of gig clothes. Half the equipement had to be piled on the roof, covered with tarps, and tied down with rope and old guitar cables. Eddie had a 4 foot long antenna for his TV attached to the back, and from a distance we looked like a cabin cruiser sailing out for marlin.
n If you travel from the U.S. to Canada, or visa versa, you quickly learn to use the major border crossings, where the border guards have more important things to do than hassle the band. On our way to Nova Scotia one time, we had no choice but to cross at a small town in Maine. The guard wanted us to unpack all our equipement for inspection, a very time consuming task. Eddie turned to me and said, “Let me handle this”.
He opened the back of the Ford and pulled out his guitar. It was in a thin, fake leather case that was tied at the fat end with shoe laces. The guitar was a hollow body japanese copy of a Gibson ES-335, with Eddie’s name in large, glued on letters across the front. He had replaced the volume control with a large knob from an oven, so the volume went from Low to Broil. It had 3 pickups originally, but Eddie had added 2 more, using a hammer and nails. The wires were held in place with gaffer’s tape, and it was all grounded with tin foil.
Eddie stood there, holding the guitar, as the guard scratched his head. - Is all your stuff like this? the border guard asked. Oh yeah! said Eddie proudly. Well, I guess you can go. Eddie smiled and laughed for the next 50 miles.
We played small rooms, huge festivals and radio shows. I was rather young and in awe of Eddie, so I was always trying to do my best. Once, during a 2 month road trip, I stopped drinking for a few weeks thinking it would improve my performance. I was very proud of myself, and after awhile I told Eddie. Eddie, who never drank and wouldn’t even use aspirin, looked at me and said - You play better after you’ve had a few.
He had the rather disconcerting habit of starting shows with tunes we’d never heard before, especially at large festivals and live radio broadcasts. I finally asked him why and he said, - So the band will pay attention and play less. (i.e. “Less is More”)
In the mid 70s, we’d drive quite often to Quebec. Out on the Gaspe peninsula, the Quebecois had the habit of mixing Hashish with their tobacco and smoking it during the show. The smoke would drift up on stage at the smaller venues. At one particularly “cloudy” gig, Eddie came up to me and asked, (for the first and only time), - Am I playing allright?
We didn’t fly much, but when we did the metal plate in Eddies head would always set off the security alarm. He had been shot in the back of the head once. I believe it was shortly after he recorded with the King Curtis Band in 1961, (IT'S THE BLUES MAN! Reissued: Fantacy/Stax, Tru Sound 15010). The metal plate replaced the part of his skull that had been blown away.
In 1981, Eddie and I were invited to play in Sweden. Our backing band was to be Sven Zetterberg and Stoffe “Big Tex” Sundlof. (Eddie christened Sven “Pee Wee” on that trip). It would be our first time overseas, so we had to apply for U.S. passports. The passport office in New York City is always very busy. The line stretches down the stairs, out the door, and around the block. We stood on line for what seemed like hours. I knew from experience to have all the relevant documents, photos and my birth certificate ready. If you get all the way to the passport counter and don’t have something they require, they wave you away and hollar, “Next !” I asked Eddie if he had everything. He said, “No”. I said - You have to have proof that you were born in the U.S.A. or they won’t issue a passport. - I wasn’t born in the U.S.A, he replied, - I was born in Jamaica.
I didn’t know what to do, but I respected Eddie so much I held my tongue. When we got to the end of the line, he went to one counter and I to another. While the passport officer looked over my papers, I saw the Eddie being escorted to an inner office. Now I was worried, but before Iong Eddie emerged with a passport in hand!
I asked him how he pulled that off with no birth certificate. - I told them that no records were kept on little black babies when I was born. He was issued a temporary passport for the trip, and a permanent one within months.
I spent almost 12 years with Eddie Kirkland, through many personnel changes, good and bad times. It was 12 years well spent, as far as I’m concerned. Eddie was a “Prince” of a man, ask anyone who played with him, and he’ll be missed.
March 17, 2011, Oslo