John Lee Hooker had just released his debut hit single “Boogie Chillen” when he met fellow Detroit blues guitarist Eddie Kirkland. A year later, in 1949, the pair began recording and touring together, playing Hooker’s tunes at clubs from the Motor City to the Mississippi Delta.
This would be the start of Kirkland’s astoundingly prolific career as a traveling bluesman — not to mention his job leading Otis Redding’s band in 1962.
Today, Kirkland, 87, still drives thousands of miles every year playing high-energy shows across the map. even making roadside repairs on his high-mileage vehicle when necessary. This hardcore tour regime earned him the title “Gypsy of the Blues.”
Kirkland recalls not only playing music with Hooker, but also acting as somewhat of a bodyguard and tour manager.
“I would fight for him,” he said. “John couldn’t fight: He was a little-bitty man. I fought for him and I kept him from losing a lot of money.
"After a show, if he was with a woman or something, I would take his wallet out of his pocket until the next morning. He’d say, ‘Where is my wallet?’ I’d say, ‘I got your wallet right here in my pocket. I got it because you were drinking last night and they would’ve robbed ya.’”
Looking back, Kirkland admits he and Hooker had their ups and downs.
“When he put out ‘Boom Boom’ (in May 1962) it was a hit,” Kirkland said. “I’m the one that helped write that song and didn’t get any credit for it. Probably wouldn’t have been nothing if I didn’t give him the idea to put those stops in it.
"John came over to my house and asked me to go back out on the road with him. See, I had quit. I said, ‘The only way I’ll go back out on the road with you is if you give me $1,000 down.’ He went somewhere and got $1,000 and came back.”
It was during that tour that their friendship hit its lowest point: Hooker ditched him midway through.
“We went to St. Petersburg in Florida for a job down there and he slipped off without telling me, for his first trip overseas,” Kirkland recalled. “He didn’t tell me nothing about it. I wouldn’t have known if one of the boys in the band hadn’t taken him to the airport. He came back and told me, ‘Your friend
just caught a plane overseas.'” It wasn’t until 15 years later that the
two bluesman made amends.
“When I played a concert with Foghat in 1976 or ‘77, he saw me and started crying. That’s when he apologized. You couldn’t stay mad at him,” he said.
“We started talking again and associated with each other till the day he died.
I enjoyed every bit of it. I wish he was still out here.”
While it’s a big part of his story, Kirkland’s acquaintance with the blues happened long before he met Hooker. He was introduced to the blues in the late 1920s in his birthplace of Dothan, Ala.
“People picked cotton down there in the hot weather,” Kirkland said. “Sometimes it was over 100 degrees, there was no shade. People got the blues and sang spirituals out there. I heard it in the field when I was 2 or 3 years old. I’d listen to it and it grew on to me.
"They’d work a half day in the field on Saturday, then go back home and have a big bonfire on the plantation. Musicians from miles around would come and play banjos, fiddles, accordions, whatever. It was some of the best music you’ve ever heard in your whole life.”
Kirkland’s ticket out of the South came in 1935 when he was 12 years old, when he left home by himself for the first time. He stowed away with a traveling minstrel show that passed through his town. After the show agreed to hire him on the chorus line, it became his first professional job as a performer.
“My mother had moved to Detroit, so in 1942 I went there too,” Kirkland said. “That’s where I grew up. I married my first wife there. She had nine children with me — one died and left me with eight. I love all of my kids. I got a daughter who lives in Lansing, I hope to see her at the show.”
In Detroit, he plugged into the emerging blues scene. Aside from his work backing people, Kirkland recorded solo records (sometimes billed as Eddie Kirk) with King Records in 1953 and at Fortune Records in 1958. In 1961 he recorded an acclaimed full-length album “It’s the Blues Man!,” with legendary saxophonist King Curtis backing him. His latest album, “Booty Blues,” was released in 2005.
After seven decades in the business, Kirkland said he has touched on more than just the blues.
“I got my own style. I’ve played the lowdown dirty blues, disco, rock 'n' roll, psychedelic, soul, funky, I’ve played country — I’ve done it all,” he said.
“My first wife told me, ‘I bet you love that guitar better than you love me.’ The wife I got now, she told me the same thing. I said, ‘I love you, baby, but I love my guitar, too. If you walk out and leave me, my guitar ain’t goin’ nowhere.’ I can take it everywhere.
"That’s what keeps me alive. There’s not many 87-year-old men driving as many miles as me.”
9:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 19. Leroy’s Classic Bar & Grill, 1526 S. Cedar, Lansing. $5. 21 and over. www.eddiekirkland.com