No one really knows what caused 87-year-old bluesman Eddie Kirkland to U-turn his old Ford wagon smack into the front of a Greyhound bus, east of Homosassa. He performed the last show in his more than eight-decade career — a private corporate cigar gig at Dunedin Brewery — and was on the road by 1 a.m. on Sun., Feb. 27. "Eddie never stayed in motels. Always slept in his car," said guitarist Sarasota Slim, who played backup in Kirkland's band that night.
Kirkland's manager, Hedy Langdon, tried to explain the musician's addiction to the road. "Eddie couldn't think 'til he got on the road. He would stop at a rest stop, close his eyes, then just get up and start driving until things came clear to him. The road was his life." If so, then Kirkland must have noticed he was going south on Highway 98 instead of north, in the direction of his home in Macon, GA. First break in the median, the man they called "Gypsy of the Blues" whipped the wagon around. It was 8:30 a.m.
The Greyhound pushed the mangled mess 200 yards. The radio was playing full blast as passengers pulled the dying Kirkland from the wreck. "Loud radio," said Hedy. "That's Eddie. Just being himself."
Eddie Kirkland spent more than 30 years hanging around St. Petersburg's healthy blues scene. Born in Jamaica in 1923 to a 12-year-old mother, he grew up in a lowdown shack, working with his mother in the Alabama cotton fields, singing and playing for coins at the local train depot. "I'd come back with the money in my pocket," he told me back in 1983. "Workin' age of 5, man!" He'd climb out the window at night in search of music, and return to a mother who tolerated a son who could play the guitar with his tongue or a beer bottle and do backflips off the porch without missing a note.
Kirkland left home at 12 to join Silas Green's Minstrel Show, and five years later met legendary blues rocker John Lee Hooker in Detroit. Kirkland was Hooker's bandleader during the early '50s, but the ferocious stomping lion that was Eddie Kirkland proved to be too much competition for Hooker; he finally abandoned Kirkland at Milledgeville's Shady Rest Club and took off for Europe in 1955.
Depressed, Kirkland sat at the Shady Rest bar sipping a coke (he didn't drink alcohol) and was confronted by a drunken patron waving a gun. Kirkland pulled his knife and the attacker died at the bar. The judge told his mother that when a man comes down from Detroit and kills a local Georgia boy, he's got to do time: three years' hard labor on the Georgia chain gang.
After prison, Kirkland moved to Macon, where he began working with the likes of Ruth Brown and Little Richard, Joe Tex and Booker T's MGs. Finally, Otis Redding hired him as bandleader. In 1970, with a hit record, "The Hawg," soaring up the charts, he took the stage in Eatonville, Ga. and as he turned to give his drummer a signal, a bullet from a madman's gun went through the back of his head. Complications from the injury plagued Kirkland the rest of his life, but he covered the scars with a signature turban and went on to play in blues shows all over the Northeast, gaining the attention of critics, promoters and Mick Jagger, who invited Eddie to open a few of the Stones' U.S. shows.
In the early '80s, he rolled up to the Stuffed Pepper on Central Avenue in St. Pete in an old station wagon packed with a TV and all manner of antennas, amps and blankets. In a town dominated by bluesy characters with names like Rock Bottom and Reverend Boneshaker, Kirkland jammed with them all. "Musicians would try to be polite and suggest that he might be out of tune, but wouldn't exactly say that. We might say, 'Ah Eddie, what tuning is that?' and he would say, 'Spanish,'" said Sarasota Slim.
During his last years, there were numerous awards, hospital stays (open heart surgery) and more tragedy in 1998: the murder and rape of his beloved 15-year-old daughter Monica in Macon, a crime that's still unsolved. But the "Road Warrior" kept traveling and performing — even writing and performing two cuts on Foghat's 2010 LP.
"Only a Greyhound bus could take him down," said Langdon. "Isn't that the blues? Had to be a Greyhound. Nothing else could have stopped Eddie Kirkland."