Burns, Eddie 1928–
Eddie Burns 1928–
Blues harmonica player, guitarist, vocalist
Of all the phases in the long history of American blues music, the one with the strongest influence over musicians beyond the genre may well have been the period just after the blues took root in the cities of the northern United States. In the urban blues of the 1940s and early 1950s, electric guitars and other amplified instruments reigned, and the music found its home in crowded nightclubs where factory workers unwound after a week’s hard labor. Still, the music retained important traces of its rural Southern roots, relying on distinctive rhythmic patterns, ultimately of African origin, percussive no matter the instrument they were played on. Detroit was one of the centers of this new urban blues, and John Lee Hooker was its greatest exponent there. Eddie Burns, a Hooker sideman, was the Detroit tradition’s survivor.
Burns was born on February 8, 1928, in Belzoni, in Mississippi’s Humphreys County. His father was a sharecropper and a traveling medicine show singer and musician, and his grandfather operated a juke joint, one of the thousands of small gathering places where Southern blacks ate, drank, and heard music on weekend nights. Mostly raised by grandparents, Burns grew up in various towns around the Mississippi Delta, heartland of the blues. His brother Jimmy Burns grew up to become a noted Chicago bluesman. Eddie Burns taught himself to play the harmonica and made a guitar with a broom handle for its neck.
By the time he was in his mid-teens, Burns was living in Dublin, Mississippi, and playing the harmonica on street corners for small tips. “The people there would work hard all week, then half of Saturday too, so when they got off, they were ready to go,” Burns told the Washington Post. “They’d go out Saturday evening and stay out till Monday morning. And I’d know where they’d go. So I’d just hang outside and play.” He honed his style by listening to 78 rpm records of musicians like Big Bill Broonzy and Tommy McClennan. Burns was also influenced by both of the bluesmen who called themselves Sonny Boy Williamson, and he sometimes performed with the one whose real name was Rice Miller, as well as with boogie master Pinetop Perkins, during the World War II years in Clarksdale, the Delta’s prime jumping-off point for the road north.
Burns left Mississippi permanently around 1946, doing railroad work for a time and landing temporarily in Waterloo, Iowa. He found work performing at the local Black Elks chapter there but hoped for bigger and better things. By 1948 he had moved on to Detroit. His first musical activity there came with a gospel group called the Friendly Brothers, which had some success performing at local churches. But soon Burns was circulating in the local blues community and playing at parties. He signed on with John Lee Hooker’s band, and at a recording date in 1948 or 1949 the label owner noticed his harmonica playing (perhaps on the blazing “Burnin’ Hell”) and offered him a chance to record a single.
The 20-year-old Burns obliged with a composition of his own called “Bad Woman Blues,” but the owner pointed out that he needed another song for the
At a Glance…
Born on February 8, 1928, in Belzoni, MS; married; six children.
Career: Blues performer, 1940s-.
Awards: Michigan Heritage Award, 1994.
Addresses: Label— Delmark Records, 4121 N. Rockwell, Chicago, IL 60618.
record’s B side. Burns improvised one on the spot and called it “Papa’s Boogie.” That session and a few others in the late 1940s and early 1950s stimulated Burns’s career. Billing himself variously as Big Daddy, Little Eddie, and Big Ed, Burns was a fixture at such Detroit clubs as the Harlem Inn and the Tavern Lounge. He worked along Hastings Street, the main artery of Detroit blues and jazz, and memorialized the neighborhood in the song “Detroit Black Bottom.” Burns supplemented his musician’s income with daytime work as a mechanic.
By the mid-1950s Burns was well enough known that he was brought to Chicago to record for the influential Checker (“Biscuit Baking Mama,” 1954) and Chess (“Treat Me Like I Treat You,” 1957) labels. These records failed to sell well, but Burns still roosted near the top of the Detroit scene. He added another nickname, Eddie “Guitar” Burns, to his repertoire after he sharpened his skills on that instrument and backed Hooker on his classic album The Real Folk Blues. Many of Burns’s early recordings as a solo artist were collected on the Moonshine-label compilation Treat Me Like I Treat You.
The Hooker Real Folk Blues album showed Burns’s familiarity with styles rooted back home in the Delta, but he could also adapt himself to the Detroit rhythm-and-blues material that would soon coalesce into the wildly popular Motown sound. In 1961 Burns recorded “Orange Driver” (including the lyrics “Can you remember, baby, when you lay down ‘cross your bed?/You was drinkin’ that orange driver, baby, yes, and talkin’ all out your head”) and other sides for the Harvey label headed by rhythm-and-blues singer Harvey Fuqua. An active Detroit sideman in the 1960s, Burns nevertheless struggled financially. He was recognized as a better guitarist and harmonica player than singer.
Around 1970, after his favorite Hastings Street haunts had been demolished to make way for urban renewal and work in Detroit had become scarce, Burns retooled his style once more. The blues were being rediscovered by new audiences, and Burns gained fans half his age with a 1972 European tour (during which he recorded an album called Bottle Up & Go for the British Action Replay label) and with college-town dates like a slot at the 1973 Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival, an event that did much to give rise to a Midwestern blues revival scene.
Burns toured Europe once more as part of an “American Blues Legends” tour in 1975, and he gradually built up a circuit of appearances he made around the Midwest. By the 1980s he was fronting a quartet of his own. As he approached senior citizen status, Burns really set his album recording career in motion for the first time. Eddie Burns, recorded for the Blue Suit label in 1989, was the first of several Burns releases to hit store shelves in the 1980s and 1990s. The Detroit album contained a song called “When I Get Drunk” (containing the lyric “When I get drunk, tell me who’s gonna carry me home?”) that, in the words of the Rolling Stone Jazz and Blues Album Guide, “could become a classic.”
Still going strong in the early twenty-first century, Burns released the album Snake Eyes in 2002. The album featured Burns’s brother Jimmy on guitar, and Sing Out! magazine called it “a relaxed outing of self-searching, lean blues… a terrific effort.” In a way, Eddie Burns had lived the whole history of the blues, from its Delta origins to its enshrinement as a classic form of American music. “You can never forget the culture from which you came,” Burns had told the Washington Post in 1987. “And these kind of blues hold the key to understanding the black man’s roots. It comes straight from the struggle of slavery, and the hard times we all had after that. I can’t forget that.”
Bottle Up and Go, Action Replay (UK), 1972.
Treat Me Like I Treat You (compilation), Moonshine, 1985.
Eddie Burns, Blue Suit, 1989.
Detroit, Blue Suit, 1989.
Eddie Burns Blues Band, Evidence, 1993.
Snake Eyes, Delmark, 2002.
Lonesome Feeling, Black & Blue, 2002.
Harris, Sheldon, Blues Who’s Who, Arlington House, 1979.
Herzhaft, Gerard, Encyclopedia of the Blues, 2nd edition, Brigitte Debord, trans., University of Arkansas Press, 1997.
Larkin, Colin, ed., Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Muze UK, 1998.
Santelli, Robert, The Big Book of Blues, Penguin, 1993.
Swenson, John, ed., The Rolling Stone Jazz and Blues Album Guide, Random House, 1999.
Sing Out!, Summer 2003, p. 121.
Washington Post, June 27, 1987, p. D1.
“Eddie ‘Guitar’ Burns,” All Music Guide, www.allmusic.com (February 5, 2004).
—James M. Manheim
"Burns, Eddie 1928–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 20, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/burns-eddie-1928
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