Menu

Willie and Jeannette Eason Interview

As a teenager, Willie Eason learned to play the steel guitar by watching his older brother, Troman, who took lessons in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania from a Hawaiian musician he heard on a radio broadcast circa 1937.  In 1939, Willie’s mother withdrew him from high school to join Bishop Lockley’s “Gospel Feast Party,” a group of preachers and musicians that toured the Eastern Seaboard from New York to Miami to perform for revivals, worship services and street corner music ministries.  A skilled musician and a powerful singer with an engaging personality, young Willie Eason soon struck out on his own to busk for tips on street corners throughout the East and in Chicago.

A deejay in Macon, Georgia dubbed him “Little Willie and His Talking Guitar,” and the moniker stuck.  Recordings for gospel record labels increased his popularity on the national level.  His second wife, Jeannette, whom he met in Ocala, Florida, worked with him tirelessly as he plied his trade from south Florida farm labor camps to the bustling streets of Chicago.   Together, they raised more than twenty children, most of whom they informally adopted to assist family members.  Willie and Jeannette Eason also produced concerts featuring top gospel groups of the day in venues that included the Metropolitan Opera House in Philadelphia.  Willie Eason’s engaging personality and animated manner of speaking give us priceless stories of his colorful life. 

– Robert L. Stone

The Robert Stone Sacred Steel Archive:
Willie and Jeannette Eason Interview

00:00
00:00
  • The Robert Stone Sacred Steel Archive: Willie and Jeannette Eason 00:00
Interviewees: Willie and Jeannette Eason
Interviewer: Robert Stone and mike Stapleton
Date: 1/16/1994
Location: St. Petersburg, FL
Language: English

For the archive overview:
The Robert Stone Sacred Steel Archive

This is an interview originally recorded for research purposes. It is presented here in its raw state, unedited except to remove some irrelevant sections and blank spaces. All rights to the interview are reserved by the Arhoolie Foundation. Please do not use anything from this website without permission. info@arhoolie.org

Willie and Jeannette Eason Interview Transcript:

Mike Stapleton:

What kind of bar are you using, Willie?

Willie Eason:

Well I use mostly this one. I’ve been using this one for about 35 years.

Mike Stapleton:

Just a big piece of brass.

Willie Eason:

Yeah, but I just use this because I had left this over at a fundraiser. I had been in Orlando, I think I told you, I played for a fundraiser, and I had been in Orlando, so I used that one, and that helped me keep bouncing around on the string, when you go to hit it. Because sometimes you get some of the rattle in the strings. I guess when you’re recording, you got to watch everything but I know sometimes you sit there, almost a whole day in the studio. You’re half hoarse, then you’ve got to come back again to set up everything in the studio for you to record. So-

Mike Stapleton:

How do you got this tuned?

Willie Eason:

In a A tuning. A tuning, what they call A tuning. We got the-

Robert Stone:

You got A, C sharp, E?

Willie Eason:

Well these three is tuned just like this.

Robert Stone:

Right, A, C sharp, E.

Willie Eason:

Right, so if I have to play the same song, if I have to play the words with the song I can play it on bass, because they’re tuned just like the front. See, now for instance, see if I just wanted to play a verse like this, take you see The Old Rugged Cross. See, I’m just playing a song, so I have to play the words of it. I’m not singing or nothing, and I let the congregation sing, if they say, “play a hymn.” So you have to do it like this. See, that’s a new pick and it sure make you make mistakes, but sometimes the audience, they don’t know, so you can get over them. You can go about that. See, this is the words. You know that song.

Mike Stapleton:

You do a lot of slanted bars too.

Willie Eason:

Yeah, a lot of times I do that to make the off key, the off note. You have to. There’s one there, see? And if you go up here, you see? Then when you go up here, it’s hard to do too many slants all the way up here, but back from here back I will slant a lot.

Mike Stapleton:

Put your slants on here.

Willie Eason:

Yeah, especially if I’m playing solos. You see, if I’m playing solos, then I can start slanting, that’s right.

Mike Stapleton:

I saw this. A lot of the other guys don’t do that.

Willie Eason:

No, because see, a lot of that they didn’t learn. Though I guess, probably playing so long, and getting it to be a part of me. Don’t forget, sometimes the guitar, I’ll be so hoarse doing a program, but I had to make the guitar make up for it. And see, just giving you an idea here, because sometimes I’ll be playing, things just come to me and I start putting it on the guitar, and you have to do that to fill in. Because see, I don’t have to tell you, Pentecostal people, they get to going, somebody start in a key over here, that means I got to change key, and they’re singing in the 12  keys, you don’t know where they’re going to start at, and you got to be able to play wherever they’re singing at.

Somebody’ll pick up a song over here, When the Saints Go Marching In. Another one’ll drop over here (singing). Like that, and you got to know where to pick them up at.

Robert Stone:

I know, it’s amazing. We’re both musicians, so when we see that-

Willie Eason:

Oh, no wonder he knows.

Robert Stone:

But when I say, when I watch Aubrey or Henry Nelson, they just start playing. I say, “How’s he know what key these people are in?” Because somebody out of the congregation’s singing, and-

Willie Eason:

They don’t get- some of the keys on the piano and organ that I’m not familiar with as good as I am other keys, and I’ll be so glad I can switch up. Sometimes I try to go up in another key, until I get them down in that key. If I want to get them in the F, see the chords F and G, B flat, and B flat is my main key, do you know what I mean? I’ll go ahead and play a little bit in C, I just fold them three or four chords there, just to be going along with the service. But then you got other people just be there playing, and they’re out of key, and the people singing are in another key. They disrupt the service.

Mike Stapleton:

Boy, especially on a fretless instrument, you get someone in between keys somewhere-

Willie Eason:

That’s right, that’s it. That’s it, yeah.

Mike Stapleton:

See, we both play fiddle, and it’ll happen with us. They’ll get between notes, and then you can’t match either one of them.

Willie Eason:

That’s it.

Mike Stapleton:

Broken string don’t work.

Willie Eason:

You got that too. Well you know, because you’s a musician, you know. There’s a lot of people, when you be sitting there doing it, I said, “Well these people don’t realize.” All they’re doing is having a good time, and they’re throwing back on you, for you to keep the service intact and spiritual, because it do throw off the service. It throws the service off. You singing in one key, and the music is playing in another key.

Mike Stapleton:

A lot of times they don’t know what it is, they just feel it’s not right.

Willie Eason:

Absolutely, absolutely. You got it.

Mike Stapleton:

Doesn’t look right.

Willie Eason:

I’ve heard a lot of the musicians do it, like be playing the Hawaiian guitar. So I showed them that you can play in all keys, and I just would show them, go back five… See, I play by the crosses here, and I show them, if you want to get an off key you go up three, come up in here like that. And some of them start playing that, but other than that they just play the regular four chords.

Mike Stapleton:

Whatever their ear sends them to is what’s going to happen. So did you start playing steel first? Was that your first instrument?

Willie Eason:

Yes. I started playing a wooden guitar, the old wooden guitar.

Robert Stone:

Acoustic. How old were you?

Willie Eason:

When I started playing that, I had to be about 15, I was playing it. But I was still playing the Hawaiian style across my lap, but it was pretty big in my lap.

Mike Stapleton:

Did you have a guitar where you raised up the strings, or was it a regular Hawaiian guitar?

Willie Eason:

No, when I went to electric, the only one I raised strings on was, and I wasn’t used to playing it, was the 16-string, see. The 16-string, let me see now. It was double-neck. I could play E7 over there and I could come back to my A tuning here. I could make my runs over here, on the E7. See, like I said, just like I said. I could, then I may hit up here an E7, and I make a run. But if I make the run, then I make it on E7, because it sounds better. This sounds better with the more Hawaiian style on the E7.

Mike Stapleton:

So you had a double-neck.

Willie Eason:

And I just played, but I feel comfortable, I even come back to it from a seven string to a six. I feel more comfortable there. I feel more comfortable there, because to me I can get just as much music out of the six strings, and I know Bishop Harrison from Bishop Jewell, he played the double-string. He played the 16. They had about five or six pieces, about six pieces in their band, see? One time I played for Bishop Lockley, he had about four pieces.

Mike Stapleton:

Now Bishop, what was his name? Bishop Lockley?

Willie Eason:

Bishop JR Lockley.

Mike Stapleton:

How do you spell his last name?

Willie Eason:

L-O-C-K-L-E-Y.

Mike Stapleton:

Okay, and where was he out of?

Willie Eason:

Well when they took me, they was living in Brooklyn, New York, because I went back there when I was 16 years old. That was after I got interested in it, it was hard for my mother to keep me in school, so she took me over to him, and so I went to traveling at that age. And of course, just a quick story behind that. I hate to go into that. After I found out what they was using me for with the big tent services and all, and I wouldn’t get nothing out of it, and they’re taking up all these offerings and whatnot. I had come up in a time when musicians didn’t get paid, so that’s what made me go to the streets. And I don’t know what Henry Nelson told you, I made my living from the street.

And not only that, I’m the father of 15 children, and I fed all them children. I had one daughter, she’s down at the Mantel now, she’s still in the reserves. She was in Saudi Arabia for… When I played for Lockley, but let me get back to this. When I was making on corners, like in Chicago? They liked to hear me sing, and I won’t try to mess with it too much now. Let me see. (singing) See, these are the songs that I had to do these type of lyrics. (singing – In the year of 1945, good president laid down and died. You know how all of the poor people felt, they received the message they lost Roosevelt …) Wait, that’s a little too low. Let me try to get a higher key. (singing) Then I go up there, that’s… (singing) See, below I play that. I just want, let me sing one verse of that for you. I have to rehearse it. (singing)

Oh, singing two songs. Excuse me, I’m singing two songs. I’m singing you Pearl Harbor, and then I’m trying to sing a little bit of the… She knew what I was doing. I don’t sing these songs, and people try and get me to sing them. I don’t sing these songs no more. Don’t let me do nothing on the guitar. I’m just going to let that background. Let me do a little bit of Roosevelt. Yeah, just let me do a little bit of Roosevelt, one verse of Roosevelt, then I’ll do a verse of Pearl Harbor, so you’ll see where I was getting both of them mixed up. Let’s see. (singing)

I don’t play that thing no more. Okay, now I’ll show you. That was one verse of Tell Me Why You Like Roosevelt. But these are lyrics people used to like to hear- do on the street. That has about six verses to that. That’s how long each verse is.

Speaker 4:

I like the one with the paint brush in it.

Willie Eason:

Huh?

Speaker 4:

The one with the paint brush?

Speaker 5:

Oh yeah, Elizabeth Shoumatoff?

Speaker 4:

Yeah, I like that one. I like that one.

Mike Stapleton:

You got a request.

Speaker 4:

I like that.

Willie Eason:

That’s the first part of the song. Okay, if I make the… Wait a minute. How to I start in the… You know something, I don’t believe this.

Speaker 4:

You have the brush-

Willie Eason:

Let me see. (singing)

Speaker 4:

Don’t you rush (lyrics).

Willie Eason:

(singing) Now you see? Now that was the first verse. The verses are very long. So when I sung on the street, I got a guy come up there. I had an undertaker that used to come and give me five dollars. He’d say, “Sing it again.” Well then I couldn’t just keep singing them verses. I thought, “I’ve got a great big crowd around me.” Then I go back, what I done, I liked to sing the four verses I noticed they loved to hear. You can look at your audience and tell what they want to hear. And that’s when the money, they start throwing the money at you, so you go back to them verses. It’s like (singing). This is the song I’m getting confused with it. (singing) See, I’m getting the two songs mixed up, because the verses, it goes something alike. But these was lyrics that the people wanted to hear.

Robert Stone:

So you just carried a small amp with you and your guitar, and set up?

Willie Eason:

No, I had bigger amps then.

Mike Stapleton:

You had a big one.

Willie Eason:

This is more compact. If I go to a program now I can handle this here. But that other stuff, rolling on wheels and all that stuff.

Speaker 4:

You had a megaphone type back then.

Mike Stapleton:

Yeah, boy them things were heavy on those days.

Willie Eason:

Well I put four wheels on mine. I put four wheels, no I could roll-

Mike Stapleton:

I can see why.

Willie Eason:

Yeah, then all that, I let someone else help. I had a big handle on it, so they just picked it up and carried it in the church.

Mike Stapleton:

And then the storefronts would let you plug in?

Willie Eason:

Oh yes. Oh yeah, oh yeah. Oh yeah, if I’m on the street, what they’d do, like I come to your door here, this is your house. And I’d tell you, I’d say, “I’m a gospel singer, and I’d like to remember the service in a song, if you don’t mind.” And a lot of people, I made a lot of people happy. And don’t forget, in Jacksonville, Florida, I could go and tell you historical things that happened. Some of them used to just laugh. So one lady, she came out, and this was on Ashland and Davis in Jacksonville.

And I went to this project where these people lived, and back in those days, the people, they had these aprons like they was in the kitchen, and they’re making this dough flour. They rolled it to make the bread and stuff. And this lady that cried as soon as I start playing. I hit a good, fast number. Something I could sing fast, like they never heard a man… Something I come at. And I start playing the guitar and they say, “Oh, listen to that instrument. It’s saying the word.” Well this is what I want to get them, to start getting, I arouse them. This lady come out and she said, “My goodness, I’m wanting to go to church, and I couldn’t get to church, and God sent the church to me.” And she just shouting- you know- Yeah, I could tell you so many things.

Like I was playing Just a Closer Walk with Me. You’ve heard that song. And I was playing that song once. I said (playing)… And then I said (playing) … But you see, when I was doing this, see when I started doing it this lady said, she was standing but she was half high, and she said, “Don’t do that no more.” So I just do it for a minute, I go way down there and I said (singing), and I go way down the five keys and I come back. She said, “I told you not to do that no more.” And do you know what she done? The guitar was in my lap, because see at that time I didn’t have this belly. And so she just sit down on the guitar, and three or four men couldn’t hardly pull that lady off that. She said, “I told you not to do that.”

I have so many, I could tell you some things that, you’re talking about [inaudible 00:21:21], I wouldn’t even want to tell some things that happened. But I made real good money. In Chicago I would sit down and make, just over the weekend, Friday, Saturday, Sunday I could make about $500, just people throwing it. But I had men told me, I saw it later, but for some reason, I believe I could’ve been a millionaire just over three or four times, but the only thing about me, I was too honest. In other words, I have guilt if I do you wrong. The guilt rests on me. I’ve even tried to try to get in my mind, to try to go after some of the money that… Even when they had me in the studio once, they had me there and they said…

So I used to be a promoter. I used to promote five or six, as high as 10 groups at one time. Like James Cleveland, the Soul Stirrers, all them. I used to promote all of them. Shirley Cecil, all of them. I used to promote them. I don’t know whether Henry Nelson told you that or not.

Robert Stone:

Yeah.

Willie Eason:

Yeah, they would’ve told you, yeah, I was a promoter. I remember one time I had put 5500, that’s the Met, Broad and Poplar in Philadelphia, and they wouldn’t let me put, the fire marshal wouldn’t let me put nobody else in the building. They had them standing all over on the walls, and whatnot. And that was the Davis Sisters’ anniversary. That’s who I promoted there.

Robert Stone:

When was that?

Willie Eason:

That was-

Robert Stone:

When were you promoting?

Willie Eason:

Now that program with the Davis Sisters, in ’59. I remember that. That was 1959 in Philadelphia at the Met, Broad and Poplar.

Robert Stone:

So in the ’50s you were promoting?

Willie Eason:

Oh yes, oh yes. I was promoting on in through the ’60s. I got to be a pretty big promoter. When I met Sam Cooke, he was going to Deuce Harbor High School. I promoted, I used the auditorium at Deuce Harbor High School in Chicago. Right there on, I can’t think of the name of that street. State Street in Chicago, that’s where I promoted at. One time I had, my aggregation was, I had both groups of the Blind Boys from Alabama and Mississippi. And then what happened was, they had to even stay at my house. Then I had the Davis Sisters on that program. And at the time both of them had hot records. So that’s what you go by, anyhow. You pull those hot records, that’s what pulls the people. And what I done, I had my placard. I had to use big placards. And it read, “Will the famous Davis Sisters defeat both groups of the Five Blind Boys?” and that was my seller. I tell you.

Mike Stapleton:

That was your draw.

Willie Eason:

Yeah, and I’d have them stand in line, and Chicago blocks is long. I don’t know if you’ve ever been there, but they’re long. Long blocks, like almost three blocks of the regular block. People standing all the way down. Couldn’t hardly get them in, that’s right. And the money was coming in through the window. My wife asked me, I had to go get change. We had run out of change. And my wife was ticket girl, plus her mother, and she said, “What are we going to do?” I said, “Look, I’m going to go and get change. All I ask you, keep that door,” where they come into there, that door to where you enter, where the cashier was. I said, “Don’t let nobody come in that door. Just rake the money on the floor,” because the drawer was full. And I just hat them rake the money over, down on the floor. That’s right. That’s right. These things, like I say, I never forget that. The big things that happened in my life.

Robert Stone:

Sure, sure. How about your recordings? You said you’ve done, what? Three or four?

Willie Eason:

I tell you, Canyon Queen is out of Cincinnati, but I was trying to study, was I in Atlanta when this guy, when they took me in and done that session. I only done four sides. That was a 78 record.

Robert Stone:

And when would that be about?

Willie Eason:

I’m only going to guess. All I can do is guess. Let’ see. Every time I say that, but I’m not… I’m trying to think, the main number. See, that song wasn’t the main number. Because see, they take the selling side, that’s the seller. But they just said, “Do three other numbers to make the session.” I had to do the four numbers. That’s on a 78 record. You remember the 78s. So I know, In Every Time and… No, it’s No Grumblers There.

Mike Stapleton:

No Grumblers There.

Willie Eason:

No Grumblers There. Just let me do a little bit of it here.

Mike Stapleton:

Sure, go ahead.

Willie Eason:

To show you, I think I can remember a little bit of it.

Speaker 4:

Willie, that wasn’t the main-

Willie Eason:

I know, that wasn’t the main number that they wanted. The main number, they just told me to build around it. Let’s see. (singing) And I remember that much of it.

Robert Stone:

Is that original?

Willie Eason:

Huh?

Robert Stone:

Is that your composition?

Willie Eason:

That’s mine, that’s my comp-

Robert Stone:

Same with the Roosevelt song?

Willie Eason:

The Roosevelt song is mine, yeah. Pearl Harbor. But I tell you what I done. I remember I lost the lyrics. But that daughter that you saw sitting over there, they got together, because they done heard me sing. She remembered some of it, my wife remembered some of it. Every time I get to a part or verse, they would help me think of the rest. So what I done, while we’re done, when I went to the motel, and what we done, we put it back together. So that’s what I done. I put it on paper, so that way if I had to go back and if I had to redo it, because see, I don’t like what they’ve done. See they didn’t let me sing it, my style that I was singing on the street, the way the people craved over it. They made me sing it the Soul Stirrers way.

 This was before Sam Cooke was with the Soul Stirrers. This was Harris, he was leading. And to me, he could out sing Sam Cooke, only Sam Cooke had the wavery voice. That pretty wavery voice. But the old man, we used to call him the old man, Harris. He was the main guy. I remember when, at Deuce Harbor High School, Sam Cooke, that’s where he used to go to high school, before he come out and went with the group. That’s right, and he was waiting to come out, to go with the Soul Stirrers there. That’s how far I go back. So even Sam Cooke, he got carried away. I remember at 47th and Prairie, and I was at 58th and Prairie in Chicago. He wanted to go out in the street because he got to see all them people and whatnot, so they even made some kind of flatbed truck and they used to set me up. And even Henry Nelson can tell you, in Jamaica, Long Island, they used to set me up in a high bed truck, because there were so many people. Just all around me, and I just entertained them, just from the guitar, and they just loved to hear me.

Willie Eason:

And sometimes I’d just have a prayer with them. I remember, that same place, on that bed truck, by Henry Nelson and his wife, her father, they all came out, that was the first time they had ever seen me, and I was on this corner, and people wanted prayer so bad, and whatnot. And I guess they thought I was the man, and what I done, I just had them over. They was all standing. Now some people had got seats, brought their chairs and all, just all over this vacant lot, but I had them all standing on the street because now the police coming. He said, “Look,” he was, “Can’t you make them come in?” Said, “You’ve been standing on the street corner long enough. Can’t you go tell them…” And I tell you, I could tell you, I could go on and tell you some things have happened in my life.

Willie Eason:

But God did bless me down through the years. Even though I was soft-hearted, and let people took me in for my monies and all, God blessed me. I believe though, even now sometimes I let my mind go, but I try to throw it off me, because the Lord really blessed me and gave me a living through it. But I was taken, like the Bishop Lockley and all of them, they just used me, and just took me, and it’s like, “You’re going to hell if you don’t play.” Like frighten you and scare you up, and I got in all that trend and whatnot. But I found out that it was altogether different as I got older.

Robert Stone:

And this is when you were a teenager? Or-

Willie Eason:

Yeah, I was a teenager. I was a teenager, and on into my early 20s, but that’s when I… After I got married, I knew I had to go out and make a living. That’s when I started making a living with it. Really started making a living with it. That’s when I got on the road and started traveling. Had my own car, bought my own first house at 22 years old.

Robert Stone:

Wow.

Willie Eason:

Yeah, in Philadelphia.

Robert Stone:

In Philadelphia.

Willie Eason:

1203 Flora Street.

Robert Stone:

Where were you born?

Willie Eason:

Well I tell you, I thought I was born in Philadelphia, because what I knew myself, I went to school when I was five years old at the Ludlow School, Sixth and Master Street. I got a brother live there now, on Master Street. He’s 78 years old. And I went to school there, but a street between Sixth and Seventh, called Randolph Street. When I knew myself, that’s where I lived at, and when I come to myself, see, all I knew, I was born in Philadelphia. That’s where I thought I was born at, but then after I got in my 60s, and to draw social security and whatnot, the only way I could do it, you got to get the birth certificate. Because all that time, I didn’t have my birth certificate.

Because I have an aunt now, but she’s 106, she’s in Plains, Georgia, but she’s still living. She’s a great… She was not one of these here fake healers. I was even healed through her. I remember when I was about eight or nine years old, I couldn’t walk or nothing. And I know she fasted and prayed with me. Oh gosh, I don’t know how many days. I know she went high as 30 and 31 days. No water, no drink. And my mother died, she come off of fasting, she ate the wrong thing. She got a lot of indigestion. She come off a big, about a 18-day fast, and she ate this cabbage at night, and she’s in the country. So but anyhow, they prayed for me, I got all right. They just said I was one of the blessed childs out of the part… My mother was 18. My wife’s mother’s mother was 19. I’m the father of 15. There’s one sitting there, and there’s one sitting there that you saw. So what I got-

Robert Stone:

So where were you born?

Willie Eason:

Oh, come back, I’m glad you brought me back. You’ve got to tell me. Look, I’m getting old. My thoughts waver. That’s why I’m glad you brought me back there. No, so after I got the certificate that showed I was born, I wasn’t even named. I wasn’t even named. They had to go back, the way they had to find the social security, what child was born between this child and that child? That’s how they got there. And I was born in Georgia.

Robert Stone:

What’s the date?

Willie Eason:

Believe it or not, they made me a year older. That’s been recent, that was in the last six years. When I got the certificate, because right now I’m supposed to be 70 going on 72. I’ll be 72 my next birthday. My mother gave me July the 15th, but it’s June 26th. I was born of a midwife.

Robert Stone:

June 26th, what year?

Willie Eason:

1921, instead of 1922.

Robert Stone:

And where in Georgia?

Willie Eason:

This was Waycross County. That’s out at Ellaville, Georgia.

Robert Stone:

All right.

Willie Eason:

You’ve got to bring my mind back. My children, they say, “Daddy, well you know you…” I say, “Yeah,” I say, “I forget, because I have to keep a lot of things on my mind, don’t forget.” Even after you hear me talking, I guess you can see, I went down through it with a lot of things. I’ve been into a lot of things, with the churches and ministers, and so many things. Then I come to be a minister myself. I never went in for… Because that wasn’t my gift, of healing, and all of this here. I’m not no fake.

I don’t put on, like I see a lot of… I know a lot of ministers, whatnot, I’ve had them tell me in Chicago. Say, “Man, you draw this kind of crowd,” and the guy come in my audience in ’47, I’ll never forget that. He took the little perfume bottle. I don’t know if y’all ever seen the little round perfume bottles?

Robert Stone:

Yes.

Willie Eason:

Okay. They used to have gardenias perfume in them and all. He’d take his and put olive oil in them. That man stood back there, and five dollars was like $25 is now. And he stood there, he saw me playing, and drawing this crowd. He said, “You don’t know what you’ve got.” The only thing about me, yeah, I could’ve made the money, but I’d have been guilty. That’s the only thing. If I could only avoid the guilt. But the thing is, I’m like a person, I want to feel free, I want to be free.

Mike Stapleton:

You’ve got to sleep with yourself at night.

Willie Eason:

That’s it. That’s right. That’s why I could never be with none of these hatred groups. I don’t care, Black or White. I could never be with neither one of them, you see what I mean? Because I’m too honest, I don’t believe that. See, all I know is one Adam and one Eve. You know what I’m saying? And I don’t hate. We’ve got a lot of, if you see, we’ve had some… Let me show you some of our pictures. Show there’s white that’s married in all of our family. My wife’s father, he’s Irish and he’s French. And that was back in World War I, see? And so I mean, so I don’t have nothing to do with what these people do or what you do or what you do. Only I try to live my life, and if I saw you, anything, if on the street, anything. And then if I could help you out, that’s how I feel, because I want to be real.

I try to be real, and I guess, yeah, I got hurt. I got hurt, like I said, financially and all of that. But as I think of it, yeah, sometimes it gets to me if I let it get to me, but-

Mike Stapleton:

Live and learn.

Willie Eason:

Yeah, but I really learned the hard way.

Speaker 4:

Like what I tell people a lot of times, what’s amazing is that for me as his child, to have seen him go into the fields and different places throughout various cities and whatnot, playing his instrument. Not having to work any job or anything, and to give us, his kids, certain basic value in terms of respect for life and everything.

Willie Eason:

She finished college up in Ramapo, up in New Jersey. I lived in Jersey, too. Lived in Teaneck, New Jersey, lived in Ringwood. That’s where I lived before I came down here. When he said… You was the one that I was talking to wasn’t it, over the phone?

Mike Stapleton:

Over the phone.

Willie Eason:

So when you called I said, “How in the world could this man get my phone number?” Then it come back to me after he said-

Mike Stapleton:

It was amazing.

Willie Eason:

Yeah, but I said to myself, “He had to go something to get that number, to track me down.” But then it come back to me, I said, “Yeah, but you is known, and look what you done done, all over, everybody.” When you said, “Willie Eason,” and everybody would know.

Mike Stapleton:

You left a trail.

Willie Eason:

Yeah, but what it is, a lot of thousands and thousands of people, just wouldn’t know that phone number, or whatnot. They’d know about, I come out of Philadelphia and New York, but they would never know, to try to reach me.

Mike Stapleton:

Well we got you out of the thick of it. Right in the middle of that church. If someone in that church didn’t have your phone number, then wasn’t nobody’s going to have your phone number.

Willie Eason:

That’s right, yeah. Boy, I’m telling you, you said Mary Nelson. She used to be-

Robert Stone:

Mary Lindsay.

Willie Eason:

Lindsay, yeah. Well she got married, she used to be Mary Nelson. That’s Henry Nelson’s sister.

Mike Stapleton:

Right, she lives in Ocala. We were starting talking about the records, recordings you made.

Willie Eason:

Okay, come back.

Mike Stapleton:

What was it, Aladdin? Did you say-

Willie Eason:

Oh yeah, Aladdin, that was on part one and part two. That’s Tell Me Why You Like Roosevelt. Because the song was so long, the verses are long.

Mike Stapleton:

And about when was that?

Willie Eason:

Okay, let me see. Can I… I can only tell you approximately. Let’s see. In ’59 I was in Philadelphia. ’59.

Speaker 4:

Who was the baby?

Willie Eason:

Huh?

Speaker 4:

Who was the baby at the time? Me or Katie?

Willie Eason:

… You had to be the baby. Either was just before you…

Speaker 4:

I was born in ’54.

Willie Eason:

’54, I think this was back ’49. These were back, ’49. Had to go back, like in the… Let’s see, ’54? ’54. That’d be around about ’49, ’48.

Mike Stapleton:

If you were singing about Roosevelt, is that-

Willie Eason:

Roosevelt, that was in… I got a sheet of paper where I took the song from about President Roosevelt, got by the Elizabeth Shoumatoff on that, she was painting a picture of Roosevelt, just before his death. I got that old paper. I found that old newspaper, and I keep that clip. That’s right, because that’s what I took the song from. Elizabeth, she was painting the picture of him. He was in the rocking chair.

Robert Stone:

So that’s what-

Willie Eason:

And he had infantile paralysis.

Robert Stone:

That was in the ’30s.

Willie Eason:

Okay, well then that’s when I done the Roosevelt.

Robert Stone:

And Roosevelt, what label was he on? The reason I’m asking, I think we can probably-

Willie Eason:

Roosevelt is on Aladdin. Aladdin.

Robert Stone:

Aladdin.

Willie Eason:

That was a Black label like Peacock label. See, I’m giving them to you as I remember it. Part one and part two.

Robert Stone:

Okay, because it was long. It was on a 78, so you had both sides of it, same song.

Willie Eason:

It was part one on one side, and part two on the other side. In other words, you see I sung one verse, do you see how long the song is? So ain’t no way in the world for you to get that much on… Now that’s a historical song. It all was taken out too, all out of the paper, where the artist was painting a picture of him just before his death. He was stricken with a cerebral hemorrhage. All that reads just like I’m singing it, only I just made some rhyme at the end, made the word-

Robert Stone:

You were singing and playing the steel, Hawaiian guitar. Was there other instruments on there? Did you have drums or anything?

Willie Eason:

No, believe it or not, you wouldn’t ever believe it. Just like you see me sitting there playing, that’s the way I was playing. I had to play my own background. When I was playing with Bishop Lockley, when we had them five people, you got an electric Spanish guitar, I don’t have to do no filling in. And all that filling in, trying to keep timing and all, I didn’t have to do all of that. But here, I’ve got to try to keep timing. I’ve got to sing the words, you know what I mean? Lyrics. Then backgrounding, then I have to keep my same beat, because I ain’t got no drum, see? Now I’ll tell you, if you had a guy pulling the strings, then that’s okay. That could substitute for a drum. But the drum is the main thing. Right now, if I’ve got a drum, it makes me feel like I’m at ease, because I won’t make as many mistakes. Like I’m coasting, because the drum is filling in. I’ve got good timing.

So you fellows know what I’m talking about. I’ve got timing. But here I’ve got to get my timing, get my timing right. That’s right. Sometimes the audience will slow me down, and I’ve got my timing. Here, I’m supposed to be up here. (singing) But that’s my beat. But when I performed it, they got me down here, got me dragging.

Mike Stapleton:

It’s tough to slow down. It’s easy to speed up. Man, it’s tough to slow down.

Willie Eason:

See what? And see a lot of people, they don’t understand. Unless, like you said, if you’s a musician, you know what’s happening to me. Like my daughter, who’s over there. She sang, but she just hates to venture out. I’ve been trying to push her. She sang with a choir, a beautiful choir. But I just can’t get her to… Every time I go somewhere, “You ain’t got none of your sons and none of your daughters?” And everybody I’ve taught in my immediate family, I taught them like the people in churches, and that’s how they was able to play Hawaiian for their churches and all. That’s right, because I know a lot of it they picked up they self, because I listen to a lot of them play, and they pick up a lot of that they self, but I’m the one starting them. Because they play different styles.

Mike Stapleton:

Who taught you to play steeL.

Willie Eason:

I’ll tell you where I got the idea from. My style is my own, but where I started from, my oldest brother, a fellow came from Hawaii. This was a Hawaiian. And I didn’t ever know, I always thought, I listened to the Hawaiian music on the record or whatnot, it would sound like they had electric guitar until I went to Hawaii and I had to play in Hawaii. And that’s when I… That’s right. She was stationed in Hawaii. That’s how I got there. Me and my wife went over.

Robert Stone:

But that was later.

Willie Eason:

Yeah, that was… You want to call me back, because my mind- I’ll tell you, because there’s too much on my mind. If you ask-

Robert Stone:

When you were starting out, your-

Willie Eason:

Yeah, I’m coming back, yeah so-

Robert Stone:

Your brother Troman, he played.

Willie Eason:

Yeah, so he played. But this guy come from Hawaii, and before he went back he started teaching my brother how to play the Hawaiian music, and I used to try, if I caught his back turned I would try to see if I could do it. I was about seven, eight years old.

Mike Stapleton:

And Troman was what? 10 years older than you?

Willie Eason:

Had to be. He had to be, yeah. 10 or 11 years older than I am. I can tell you, about 10, because I got a brother 78. That was Charlie. Then Blondie was older than Charlie, so Blondie would have had to have… 78, 79, 80. So Blondie would have to be about 80, and then Mamie if she was living, and then Troman. So it’d have to be about 10 years. He’d have had to be about 10 years older. So, because that’s where I got the idea, from listening to him, and I bought this old wooden box I told you about. Beat box. And that’s how I started trying to pick out the notes on that, listening to him. Now I’ll tell you, one of the first songs I played, Home Sweet Home. And then the old Sweet By and By. We shall meet on the other shore. Those are songs I used to play.

Mike Stapleton:

Did they ever teach you Hawaiian songs?

Willie Eason:

The only Hawaiian song that I played a little bit of was Blue Hawaii.

Mike Stapleton:

Blue Hawaii.

Robert Stone:

Do you remember who this Hawaiian guy was that Troman learned from? Got a-

Willie Eason:

No, I’ll-

Robert Stone:

Was that right in Philadelphia?

Willie Eason:

That was in Philadelphia, yeah. This guy, believe it or not. I’ve never seen him. I’ve never seen that guy. I never seen him. I was small, I never seen him.

Robert Stone:

Just heard about him.

Willie Eason:

But all I know, that he had the sheet music in front of him, and he would play. What they would do, they would take the note music and transfer it into what they called-

Mike Stapleton:

Tablature?

Willie Eason:

Os, Os like… If you’re going to hit the strings straight across without curving the bar, then you have a straight line of Os. Each O was for that string. But if you was going to hit the second string, it wouldn’t be an O there. It would be an O on the second string, on the second line. So you know how music lines read. They used to make an old F sign before the music there. Well he read that type of a sheet, but he transferred it from the notes, like do re me fa sol la ti do, you remember that?

Mike Stapleton:

Sure.

Willie Eason:

Well he took the notes, the notes were made always with that black oval, that line up like that. But they would transfer that music over to these numbers.

Mike Stapleton:

Like a graph.

Willie Eason:

Yeah, and so I even learned to read Home Sweet Home. Yeah, I learned how to read it on the guitar, and I played Home Sweet Home. Nearer My God to Thee was my second song. That’s right. And then after I learned that, I was brought up in the Holiness Church, Pentecostal. So I just had the rhythm already there. It was already there.

Robert Stone:

Now were your parents ministers, or anything in the church, or just active members?

SIGN UP FOR OUR NEWSLETTER

Stay in the loop on our latest news, events, and website additions.