Eddie Kirkland is a roadrunner, baby. The 81-year-old blues man lives much of his life behind the wheel, crisscrossing the nation in a 1978 Ford Country Squire station wagon he affectionately addresses as Bodingle. With his guitars, amp and portable P.A. riding in a roof compartment, he’s one of the few blues performers of his generation still hewing to the gig-to-gig, blacktop-gypsy lifestyle. Night after night, he runs down his songs to whatever combo of local blues-lovers the promoter throws on the stage with him, be they deft or inept. And, night after night, he turns them into his band.
He traveled the country with John Lee Hooker in the 1950s and early 1960s. And since a near-disastrous tour with Otis Redding, he’s insisted on driving alone. Seems that back then, the “boys” he rode with were foiled at smuggling a half-dozen bottles of whiskey through a dry county in Alabama.
No one was hurt, but Clyde Stubblefield, who later found fame as James Brown’s drummer, was held for a hefty ransom while Kirkland drove into Georgia for cash. Or so the Kirkland version of the story goes.
“I don’t drink and I don’t use drugs,” Kirkland says. “Never in my life. I never believed in it. The only thing I was mad about was getting married and getting babies.”
Last year, Kirkland drove Bodingle cross-country, “over 7,000 miles,” feeling like hell, but hiding it from fans.
“I was sick. I thought it was something I ate. I got onstage and played. Nobody knew it but me,” Kirkland says.
Not long after returning home to Moultrie, Ga., where he lives with his third wife, he had triple bypass surgery.
While recovering, flat on his back in the hospital, Kirkland asked for his lightest guitar. He doesn’t like to miss a day playing guitar.
“I love it,” Kirkland said. “It makes you want to live. That’s why I come out of my trouble so well.”
Kirkland is identified with Motor City blues, though he has lived in the city less than one-fifth of his years, and though he has played every kind of music from country to jazz.
You can put his name alongside his most famous contemporary and longtime employer, the late John Lee Hooker, and alongside other contemporaries and younger artists who’ve passed away: Dr. Ross, “Baby Boy” Warren, Bobo Jenkins, Mr. Bo, the Butler Twins. Among his surviving peers are Eddie Burns and Little Sonny.
“People who say Eddie Kirkland’s not a Motor City blues artist, well, they’re lying, because I walked the streets here many a day and night playing blues, man. All up and down Hastings Street,” Kirkland says.
“I played as many house parties as anyone else played. I came home from the Ford Motor Company at 11 o’clock, and they were just starting there with them house parties,” he says. “Grab my guitar and go through the neighborhood.”
He arrived in postwar Detroit as a man in his mid-20s looking for factory work. Born in Jamaica to a preteen mother who later emigrated to the United States, Kirkland was raised by a foster family in Alabama. His foster grandmother’s Victrola introduced him to the blues he fell in love with, not to mention country, spirituals and the classics. He says he joined the Sugar Girls traveling medicine show at age 12, knocked around Indiana and Kentucky, and did a stint in the military before arriving here in 1948.
That’s a year serious Detroit blues fans commit to memory, the year another up-from-the-South factory worker immortalized the club scene of segregated Detroit’s Black Bottom. With jagged guitar chords booming under his vocals, Hooker’s first hit, “Boogie Chillun,” took listeners on a bar-hopping tour down Hastings Street, Black Bottom’s main drag, immortalizing such spots as Lee’s Club Sensation and Henry’s Swing Club.
Unfortunately for blues musicians, the club scene revolved largely around jazz and swing. Blues was mainly for house parties.
As Kirkland tells it, the parties could be sparked by the mere sight of a guitar.
“They’d say ‘Hey, come here, man,’” Kirkland says. “They’d want me to come in and play for them and then they’d call their friends. In about 15 minutes there’d be 20 or 25 people there. Put a bucket in front of you.”
Kirkland met Hooker at one of those affairs.
“I was glad to meet a star, you know,” Kirkland says. “He had his record out. Hit record. Everybody was talking about John Lee Hooker. I imagine anybody would be glad to meet a person like that.”
Hooker liked Kirkland’s playing enough to bring him for a recording session at United Sound Studios, where producer Bernie Besman was compiling the early echo-laden Hooker sides that wound up on the Modern label.
“I backed him up. ‘Turning over a New Leaf,’ I wrote that song. ‘I’m in the Mood,’ I was behind him on that one. I was on a whole lot of records. I recorded with him clean up to the ’60s.”
By 1951, Hooker’s records had become big enough to warrant steady roadwork, and Kirkland was invited.
For three years, he’d held down a steady foundry job at Ford’s Rouge plant; he could count on that $360 check every two weeks. But he’d dreamed of making music for a living since he was old enough to ponder such things.
“If I’d have stayed on I’d be retired. Probably be dead, too, like a lot of my friends,” Kirkland says. “They died in their 60s. I don’t know anyone still around who worked in the foundry.”
Life on the road was plenty of fun, but not very profitable. “It was good to be out there with a star, man, but I had a family. I wouldn’t bring home enough money to my family. When I met John Lee Hooker, I think I had about five kids, maybe six. It was a problem for my first marriage.”
When Kirkland reminisces about his decade gig-hopping with the Hook in the South, he mimics the blues star’s stutter and jokes about the idiosyncratic timing that was part of Hooker’s musical signature.
Seems two black men gobbling pavement in a brand-new 88 Oldsmobile weren’t always smiled upon.
“Oh yeah, John Lee always liked to have a nice, decent car,” Kirkland says. “Pull up to a gas station, the man would ask him, say, ‘Whose car is this? Your boss?’ John Lee was scared to death. He’d say, ‘Yeah.’
“It was tough down there, but John Lee wasn’t about to fight nobody. Any fighting came toward him, I had to do,” Kirkland says. “When these women like him and their men didn’t like that, he’d come to me and I’d take over. Know what I mean?”
Near the end of the 1950s, Kirkland began concentrating on his own musical career and pulling away from Hooker, who kept a tight hold on the purse strings even as he landed higher-paying gigs. Kirkland led his own group, worked on his own sound, and was successful enough, for a time, to buy a home and support his family. He worked four nights in a typical week.
But for the versatile Kirkland, there was a question of how to define himself. That’s what Savoy Records owner Herman Lubinsky told Kirkland when the bluesman came looking for a deal. Kirkland never approached Savoy again, but he eventually took the advice to heart.
“It was a while before I really did that, after I seen I had to do it. That’s when I changed up,” says Kirkland, whose first and only LP of the 1960s, It’s the Blues, Man, came out in 1961 on Prestige Records.
By that time, Kirkland had recorded a stack of 45s for labels like RPM, King, Fortune and Lupine.
The latter was a Detroit label where Kirkland laid down frenzied blues tracks like “The Grunt,” “Train Done Gone” and “You Know I Love You” that demonstrate the confluence of rock ’n’ roll, rhythm and blues, straight blues and soul.
Those sessions were wild and boisterous for their time, maybe too much so, the songwriter says in hindsight.
“You really got to be in the time you’re in right now,” Kirkland says. “See, most of my songs, I wrote them too further ahead. That’s what hurts you. A lot of my material was too further ahead.”
At the same time, Kirkland was acutely aware that the blues were becoming passé to young Detroit audiences. He went so far as to audition (unsuccessfully) for Motown.
Eventually, Hooker proposed one more Southern tour. Kirkland’s wife said a decade of raising children while her man was AWOL had been enough.
“My wife said, ‘You go on the road with Hooker, you don’t come back,’” Kirkland says. “So I went on. I was getting tired of the Motor City anyway.”
Bluesman Eddie Burns, one of Kirkland’s musical friends from those days, remembers a more mysterious Kirkland departure.
“He just left, destination unknown,” Burns says. “He stayed out there and he’s still out there. He’s kind of a strange guy.”
But Kirkland never severed his ties to Detroit. He still returns regularly.
It’s still the city where he raised his first family of nine children, where two daughters, a son and a grandchild live, and where one daughter is buried. It’s also the city where he reunited with his mother and became close. She, too, is buried here.
“Whenever I come home, I won’t let nothing stop me from visiting my mama, because she wasn’t just my mama. She was my best friend,” Kirkland says.
Renamed Eddie Kirk, Kirkland became part of the Stax-Volt team in 1963 when he released the self-penned 45s “The Hawg, pts. 1 and 2” and “Them Bones”/”I Found a Brand New Love.”
As part of his association with Stax, he not only fronted his own band, but also became music director for Otis Redding for one tour.
“I was tearing [Redding’s] butt when I come on,” Kirkland says. “I come on — and at that time I was doing guitar work, man — flips, all that stuff, and that was hurting him. When I went back to Macon, the manager called and said Otis wanted to fire me. I said, ‘You don’t have to fire me, I quit.’”
Kirkland claims he didn’t get a dime from Memphis’s most famous soul label, even though “The Hawg” sold 500,000 copies with little promotion.
“‘The Hawg’ was dead on time because there was a lot of dancing songs out there,” Kirkland says. “Rufus Thomas come out with ‘The Dog.’ What he did, he was in the studio in Memphis when I was cutting ‘The Hawg,’ and he come back the next day with the idea for ‘Do the Dog.’”
After leaving Stax, Kirkland returned to his first musical love — straight blues, his way. And it’s been that way ever since. He’s recorded a handful of albums for just as many small labels, surfacing from time to time in the company of rockers ranging from ’70s blues miners Foghat to recent upstarts the Reigning Sound. He’s been through rediscovery after rediscovery, but none has been very lucrative.
Not surprisingly, Kirkland has bones to pick with record labels from Detroit to Chicago to Memphis, as well as with European labels that have reissued Kirkland’s material. Kirkland’s Stax-Volt sides have been included in the label’s reissues, but Kirkland still hasn’t been compensated.
“We’re fighting it. We’re also trying to get some money out of Chess, a label that cut one of my songs, ‘I Must’ve Done Somebody Wrong.’ I did that in 1958 on Fortune. Elmore James cut it. Then, in 1970, the Allman Brothers cut it. I wrote it, but let me tell you, it’s hard to get money out of them.”
Kirkland perseveres in the fight for royalties just as he perseveres on the road, says his ally in both, his manager Heidi Langdon, a 48-year-old librarian from Maine who was captivated by Kirkland when she saw him perform at a festival seven years ago.
“He’s got no Social Security and he doesn’t believe in the welfare system. My job is to keep finding him venues to play at, but it’s getting harder and harder,” she says.
It was his quiet confidence as much as his music that made Langdon want to work with him.
“He has this untouchable faith that something’s going to come through,” Langdon says. “I’ve never seen anything like it. He believes that someday he’ll be at the right place at the right time. He’s not driven by the money; he’s driven by the spirit.”
So he keeps on the road despite Bodingle’s breakdowns, lonely nights sleeping in the car, tiffs with stingy performers and other pitfalls.
So he plays some nights with bands that are hip to his material and other nights with clueless sidemen who need the chord changes shouted out between the lyrics.
So he focuses on the energy and excitement of his own particular brand of blues.
So at any given point in a song he might take his hands off his guitar to marshal an audience into action.
So he tells the story of his blues anew nightly.
“I try to make a beautiful story,” Kirkland says. “We all know a woman got us by the tail, but I never say a woman’s no good. My mother was a woman. She brought me into this world at 12 years old — went through hell. I like to sing songs about love.”
Eddie Kirkland appears Sunday, Dec. 12, at the Tenny Street Roadhouse (22361 W. Village Dr., Dearborn; 313-278-3677) where the Detroit Blues Society presents Kirkland and Little Sonny with lifetime achievement awards.
This story is the 14th part of our Century of Sound series, tracing Detroit’s musical heritage over the last hundred years.Mike Murphy is a Detroit-area freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]