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Posted at 11:50 AM ET, 03/ 3/2011

Eddie Kirkland, blues singer and guitarist, dies at 88

By Terence McArdle

Eddie Kirkland, 88, a blues singer, guitarist and harmonica player who worked with John Lee Hooker and Otis Redding and was known for his high energy shows, died in Florida on Sunday. He had been in a car accident while returning from a gig.

Mr. Kirkland brought a preaching, gospel intensity to his performances; a by-product of his Pentecostal upbringing. He also commanded attention on stage with both his stage acrobatics - he sometimes played guitar on his back - and his bright red wardrobe. Mr. Kirkland wore the color in bejeweled headpieces, sashes, capes and jump suits and refinished many of his guitars with a combination of bright red and silver metallic paint.

And like so blues singers of his generation, he lived a remarkable life. A native of Jamaica, Mr. Kirkland claimed that his mother gave birth to him when she was 11. He never met this father, a Cuban fisherman.

A member of the Kirkland family who ran plantations in Kingston, Jamaica as well as Louisiana and Alabama arranged for Mr. Kirkland's mother to come to the U.S. to work on his plantations in New Orleans and Mobile.

"The only way for me to get a passport was a record of my school," Mr. Kirkland said in an interview with Blues and Rhythm. His passport gave his birth date as 1928, the year he started school, not his actual birth year 1923 - a fact that caused much confusion about his birth date. He recalled that the school was "a building with an oil can sitting in the middle of the floor with pipes running up through the ceiling. That's the way you could kept warm."

Later, Mr. Kirkland and his mother, traveled by foot from Mobile to southeast Alabama.

"People told mama: 'you need to go over in southeast Alabama, where they raise cotton, corn and peanuts and stuff like that -- there you can get a job,'" he recalled. "So that's what she did. She started walking with me. She had a little trouble on the way, she got raped on the way, but we made it. We ended up in Henry County, Alabama."

His first guitar was a self-made instrument made from a screen door wire attached to a cigar box. When he was 10, Mr. Kirkland ran away from home to play harmonica in the Silas Greene medicine show.

His travels eventually brought him to Detroit in the late 1940s where he became a mainstay of the Hastings Street blues bars. The Detroit blues style of the 1950s, rawer and less refined than the comparable music coming out of Chicago. Detroit's biggest blues star was guitarist John Lee Hooker, a musician who ignored the conventional rules of pop music meter. Mr. Kirkland, who accompanied Hooker throughout the 1950s, was one of the few musicians who could master Hooker's idiosyncrasies.

A stint as Otis Redding's guitarist in the early 1960s, brought him to Stax Records in Memphis where he recorded "The Hawg" (1963), a driving dance number that featured his heavily amplified and distorted harmonica.

Producer Peter B. Lowry, who recorded him for the Trix label in the 1970s, said on a list-serve that Mr. Kirkland was "still trying to conquer the world one saloon or pub at a time. He deserved so much better than what his life dealt him with his massive talent. This will be first time in his life that he has stopped moving forward at full speed."

By Terence McArdle  | March 3, 2011; 11:50 AM ET
Categories:  Terence McArdle  | Tags:  Eddie Kirkland  
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