It’s a version of “Stand By Me” you’ve never heard, one that whips, bends and stretches the soft Ben E. King classic into fireball rock.
Six, maybe, seven minutes long. The portly old bluesman – dressed, as always on stage, in a light blue, three-piece suit and black beret – handles the vocals. He looks like he’s ready to bite off the microphone.
“Darling, darling, stand by me. . .”
The crowd of about 75 that fills Bruce’s Tavern in Springfield on this Saturday night is into the groove. Collectively, they nod their heads or tap their feet. It may be Springfield’s most integrated and diverse audience: black and white, young and old, well-dressed and casually attired.
As the two-hour set unwinds, Eddie Snow – the old bluesman – loosens up and flashes an occasional smile. Snow, 68, puts the five-piece band (most of whom are half his age) through its paces. There’s no song list, just a musical flow that’s as exhilarating as riding in a fast car with the windows down.
To his left, Eddie’s son, James Snow, plays bass. During “Stand By Me,” James launches into a thumping solo, then hands it back over to “Pop,” whose rough voice soars.
“Whenever you’re in trouble, won’t you stand by me. . .”
Behind the piano, Eddie Snow pounds away at the keys like he’s kneading bread dough. He toys with the song, tossing in a line here and there from “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and others.
When it’s over, the audience hollers its approval. The band takes a step back.
“Ain’t nothing but a party, baby,” the elder Snow tells the crowd, “ain’t nothing but a party.”
Then he kicks into another number.
Music like this doesn’t happen overnight. For Eddie Snow, it took a lifetime of playing clubs in places like Osceola, Ark., and Cairo, Ill.
Then, three years ago, it took James’ careful prodding to bring it back after a 20-year silence.
Exhausted from countless nights performing, “Wildman” Eddie Snow quit the music business in 1967. Just like that. Troubles with a record company and an abundance of booze had taken its toll.
In the early ’70s, Eddie and his wife, Emma, moved to Springfield to be with one of their daughters, whose husband had died. Later, with his father living in retirement, James Snow (also a Springfield resident) badgered Eddie to play with his band.
“It was very, very hard,” says James, sitting in his home on Brown Street. “Pop is stubborn. He was still disappointed by the way things had turned out. So he didn’t want to start anything up.”
Emma didn’t approve, either.
“I would have preferred him to play church music; I’m a religious person,” she says. “You can’t combine the two. You have to leave one alone.”
But James finally persuaded his dad to join him at the studio while James recorded “So Sorry” – a tune influenced by one of Eddie’s originals – for an Illinois Central Blues Club compilation tape.
“He sat behind this well-tuned Yamaha piano,” James says. “We put headphones on him, he hit a couple notes, and he hasn’t stopped playing since.”
The Snows have performed approximately 200 gigs – often under the name of Eddie Snow and the Snowflakes – throughout central Illinois. In addition, Eddie plays periodically at the Monday night blues jams, sponsored by the blues club, at Bruce’s Tavern, 1031 South Grand Ave. “It’s better playing now,” Eddie says. “I’ve settled down to it.”
In December, James received a $2,999 grant through the Illinois Arts Council’s Ethnic and Folk Arts Program to study the blues with his father. They’ll use a portion of the money to record a demonstration tape and to continue playing most weekends.
The grant award also names Eddie as a “master artist.” “So often I’ve seen his energy, that natural ability to affect the audience,” says James, 31, a computer consultant. “To have that much music in him . . . it’s a beautiful sight. It’s like magic. It comes from within.
“We’re a typical father-son; sometimes we get upset with one another. But as soon as the first note starts, we’re into the musical mix. Music is a dominant force in our lives.”
Eddie Snow knows diddley. Bo Diddley. He also knows B.B. King and Bobby “Blue” Bland. He’s played with them, too.
Growing up on a farm in West Memphis, Ark. (5 miles from Memphis), Snow developed a blues piano style that allowed him to record at the legendary Sun Records with famed producer Sam Phillips. Along the way, he met a who’s-who of blues and rock legends.
“I started playing when I was 5,” Eddie says. “My mother played spiritual songs. Preachin’ songs. She wasn’t playing the blues. But my dad had a nightclub and, at that time, there were just piano players.”
One performer, Eight Rock – a bonafide blues name if ever there was one – served as an influence.
“He played a good blues piano. He played two pieces, one slow, one fast, over and over,” Eddie says. “I would just sit and watch. I played what he played. I’m self-taught. It came naturally.”
When Eddie was 15, his father died. In need of money, Eddie quit school and played piano professionally.
“I had five brothers, two sisters and my mother. I was the oldest kid and I had to come out and be the man,” Eddie says. “I started playing in clubs until the sun came up each night for a big, fat $2. I was fortunate to have a job. That $2 bought a lot in those days; I was making more than an average person working in the fields.”
In the mid ’50s, several blues players, including Eddie, went to record for the fledgling Sun Records. After hanging out at the Memphis studio for several months, Eddie got his chance to work with Phillips.
“On July 19, 1955,” Eddie says, “I recorded four songs: `Bring Your Love Back Home To Me,′ `Ain’t That Right,′ `I Could Put You Down,′ and `I’m a Good Man.′ ” The songs were distributed by Sun Records in England, but not in the United States. When Eddie called Phillips to ask about the records, Phillips would not explain why he didn’t release them domestically.
“I was hooked on a bad five-year contract,” Eddie says. “He (Phillips) had the rights to the record, and he could do what he wanted with them.”
Sun Records also served as the first recording home of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash. Blues, like country music, had a significant impact on these artists who helped define rock.
While Eddie rehearsed “Bring Your Love Back Home To Me” at Sun Records, a visitor walked up to him.
“It was Elvis Presley,” Eddie says. “He came over to my piano and said, `Why don’t you let me make that record? I like it.′ I was young then and said, `This is my own record, I’m going to do my own thing.′”
“Now I’ve wished a thousand times that I had gone on and let him make that record. I might have gotten to go on the road with him.”
Instead, Elvis recorded “Mystery Train,” considered one of his best by critics, a song written by bluesman Junior Parker. ”(`Mystery Train’) was the last record Elvis made at Sun,” Greil Marcus writes in the book, “Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music.” “Inspired by the feeling of going up against the old meaning of the tune, or determined to beat out Junior Parker, the black man, or simply thrilled by the music, Elvis sings this song with shock: he rebels against it. There’s fire in his singing.”
Who knows, Eddie says – that could have been my song.
Like a lot of people, James Snow has listened to his dad’s stories with skepticism. For someone to say they played at Sun Records in the mid-’50s is like saying, “Yeah, I was there at the birth of rock ‘n roll.”
But James is convinced they’re true. He’s seen the records, listened to the music and knows the man. Several others believe the stories, too, including Tom Teague, executive director of Central Illinois Blues Club, who calls Eddie “our No. 1 success story.”
And Joe Keene, vice president of Sun Studios, Inc., in Memphis, verified that Snow recorded at Sun Records in July 1955. According to documents, Keene said, Presley was indeed recording there at the same time. ”(Eddie’s) a hard guy,” James says, “but I’d like to see him get some kind of acclaim. I’m proud to be a part of this tradition.”
Guitarist Bill Evans, 50, of Cantrall has played blues music in the Springfield area for 30 years. Since 1988, he’s performed regularly with Eddie.
“You always hear of great blues musicians who don’t make it big but who keep on going,” Evans says. “That’s Eddie.”
Helping raise 10 kids (ages 19 to 37 now), Eddie Snow performed for 15 years at the Oasis Motel and Lounge in Cairo.
Now, Eddie spends his days relaxing. He’ll hum the blues often. Walking through Sears the other day, Eddie was stopped by a worker who asked if he was humming the blues.
“I love the blues,” the worker said. Eddie promised to bring her a tape of his music.
Daily, Eddie practices quietly on the keyboards in his apartment on Brandon Drive. He’ll also listen to tapes of Buddy Guy, Little Milton, Ray Charles, B.B. King, Percy Sledge and Elvis.
“I can pick up things by listening to them,” Eddie says, “then rework them when I play live.”
Health problems linger. Eddie suffers from diabetes, but since returning to playing blues he’s improved, James says.
“His attitude has changed,” he says. “He’s not as irritable.”
Still, at 5 feet 6 inches tall, Eddie’s weight has increased by 90 pounds from a lean 126 during his “Wildman” days.
“I remember as a little kid being lifted on my sister’s shoulders in the hotels he played at,” James says. “He’d be knocking up dust on the stage, jumping up on that piano and playing with his elbows. I saw him on TV a couple times as kid. And he was always playing in the house. Always.”
Suddenly, James shifts the conversation to talk about the Snows’ future.
“This is going to be our year,” James announces. “We’re changing the flavor of the blues, we really are. We’re making an honest effort to do that.
“Pops doesn’t allow any of us to drink while we’re playing. As a result, we come together with a much tighter sound. Blues music isn’t just depressing music anymore. It’s music everyone can enjoy. We promote the positive side of the blues. We give them two backed sets of powerful, progressive blues.
“Sometimes I tell Pop, `You’re giving them too much for $2.′ ” Eddie sits listening to his son. Though Eddie is quiet, James’ enthusiasm must be contagious.
James then lists off possible gigs – maybe a spot in LincolnFest or the state fair. As James speaks, his son, 8-month-old James Jr., starts crying in another room.
Eddie smiles as the baby wails.
“Now,” Eddie says, “that’s the blues.” Eddie says.