Eddie Kirkland

Blues musician Eddie Kirkland (1923-2011) was known for the originality of his guitar riffs and unique guitar tunings, his finesse in playing slide guitar and the harmonica, and his songwriting. Like other blues performers from the Wiregrass, Kirkland never fully received the recognition or financial success achieved by other musicians of similar talent. His wandering lifestyle and busy touring schedule earned him the appropriate nickname "Gypsy of the Blues." Kirkland won the prestigious W. C. Handy Blues Award in 1987.

Eddie Kirkland Kirkland was born to a young Dixie Rainey. He often claimed to have been born in Jamaica on August 16, 1923, but his precise birthdate and birthplace remain undetermined to modern biographers. His family has said he was born in Dothan, Houston County, and some sources say in 1928. Researchers believe that Kirkland was living with his mother on the Kirkland farm in Henry County by age one. The pair resided with Mamie Kirkland. She acted as his "foster" grandmother and raised Eddie and his mother together as siblings; he would take her last name. He was exposed to gospel music on most Sundays when Mamie brought him to sing in the local church choir. In addition to gospel music, Mamie also exposed Kirkland to a wide range of country, classical, and blues music by playing her extensive 78 RPM record collection on a wind-up record player for Kirkland.

Kirkland grew up in Alabama in the Jim Crow era. He was poor and rarely attended school and recounted that he mostly worked alongside his young mother picking cotton. Later, his mother married Jim "Mack" Brown, a sharecropper and blues musician. This relationship enhanced Kirkland's interest in music and later offered him a way to participate in the music he enjoyed. His stepfather played at local juke joints and back-road house parties, giving Kirkland a glimpse into the life of a performer. Further, Brown gave Kirkland his first harmonica and guitar lessons. After Brown and Dixie separated, the young Kirkland built his first guitar using a cigar box and screen door wire for strings.

By 1930, the family had moved to Dothan, where Kirkland found a rich blues scene that included street musicians, juke joints, and back-road house parties. Around age nine, Kirkland had saved enough money from picking cotton to buy his first Stella guitar. Kirkland cited local musicians of the Wiregrass region, including a trio of brothers in Dothan, Jewell, Martin, and Ray, as well as "Snell," traveling guitar duo "Stop and Fixit," and "Blind Murphy," as his most significant influences. These Wiregrass roots greatly inspired his artistic sensibilities and provide a window into Alabama's early and rich blues culture.

Kirkland stated that at age 12 he stowed away with the "Silas Green from New Orleans" minstrel-style tent show. He also recalled in interviews and oral histories performing alongside entertainers like gospel and blues singer "Diamond Teeth Mary" McLean, who influenced Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton, and with the comedy and dance duo "Butter Beans and Susie," performers who were known for their sometimes-racy humor. By 1942, Kirkland was living in Detroit with his mother, where he joined, toured with, and recorded with renowned blues guitarist John Lee Hooker. Like many African Americans in the South, Kirkland joined the "Great Migration" to the North and West in search of economic opportunities and political freedom. Kirkland continued to work in and outside the music industry, having short stints in the U.S. Army and as a boxer and on a Ford Motor Company assembly line for a time.

In 1961, Kirkland recorded his first album It's the Blues Man on Tru-Sound Records. The following year he moved to Macon, Georgia, where he joined soul icon, Otis Redding, as a performer and bandleader from 1963 to 1966. He recorded with Stax/Volt Records and had a hit single, "The Hawg," in 1963. Kirkland's career was busy with an extensive tour schedule alongside numerous well-known musicians, including Muddy Waters, Honeyboy Edwards, Ruth Brown, Little Richard, and Johnny Taylor. His considerable and critically acclaimed discography includes albums with many record labels, including King, Prestige, Lupine, JSP, Deluge, Telarc, RPM, Fortune Records, and Capricorn Records. Overall, he recorded 13 albums, 14 EPs/singles, and one compilation and has appeared on at least eight other albums; he was frequently recording or on tour in the following decades until his death. While performing, Kirkland had developed a powerful stage presence that consisted of capes, jumpsuits, and a turban-style headdress. His high-energy performances also included acrobatic backflips and playing his guitar behind his back.

Kirkland remained dedicated to the blues throughout his entire life. He continued to tour, write, and record and play juke joints, backwater bars, and international stages until his untimely death on February 27, 2011, in Tampa, Florida, resulting from a car accident in the Homosassa-Crystal River area. He was buried at Cherry Blossom Memorial Gardens in Lizella, Georgia. According to some obituaries, he was married to Ida Mae Shoulders, with whom he would have at least five daughters and two sons. He was later married again, a union that produced three daughters. Kirkland was well known in the Wiregrass for always returning to Dothan to visit family and friends and to perform.

Selected Discography

It's the Blues Man! (1962)

Front and Center (1973)

The Devil and Other Blues Demons (1974)

Have Mercy (1988)

Where You Get Your Sugar? (1995)

Democrat Blues (2004)

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