SOUTHHAVEN, MISS. R.L. Burnside 80, who in the last decade has risen to national acclaim for his unique "rolling and tumbling" blues style, passed away Thursday morning near his home in Southhaven, Mississippi. Alice Burnside, his wife of 56 years, was by his side.
Born November 23, 1926, Mr. Burnside began developing his North Mississippi sound after hearing John Lee Hooker's "Boogie Chillun." Though primarily a farmer and fisherman until the mid - '80s, Mr. Burnside's band, R.L. and the Sound Machine, dominated the local music scene.
That all changed in the early 90s when a documentary film based on author Robert Palmer's book, Deep Blues, featured Mr. Burnside as one of its highlights. Palmer soon produced Mr. Burnside's Too Bad Jim for Fat Possum Records, an album that is still considered one of the most influential and important blues albums of the 90s.
"R.L. was a real pleasure to be around," said longtime manager and friend Scott Hatch. "He had a certain intimacy and a real connection with all of his fans. He'd let anybody backstage. A lot of times it created problems because a lot of people didn't really understand that kind of rapport with his fans."
In all, Mr. Burnside recorded nearly 20 albums since 1992. His sons, Duwayne and Gary, along with grandson Cedric Burnside, who each record for BC Records, carry on the Burnside legacy by performing a style rooted in the work of their father.
"He was the first one to do that sound," said Duwayne. "And the first is always the best. I loved him, and this really hurts me, but we want to let all of his fans out there who loved him know how much we appreciate them. This is very hard, but it's all good."
Duwayne Burnside and the Mississippi Mafia: Live at the Mint, was recorded in Los Angeles in Oct. of 1997 with R.L. on several tracks. The album represented a "passing of the torch from R.L. to Duwayne," said Hatch. "It was a very special night for R.L."
"We're all very close," echoed brother Melvin, the oldest of 13 siblings. "And we already miss him. He was straight up..."
Mr. Burnside had open heart surgery two years ago, but continued to perform whenever possible. However, his health declined dramatically over the past three months.
"He was the best dad I could've had," says son Gary Burnside. "He was a great musician and a great dad. He was there for all of us, and I'm the youngest. Even though I've got my own band with my own sound, I was happy to know that he was proud of what I have become."
Those wishing to help should send donations to:
Freeland & Freeland Trust Account
P.O. Box 269
Oxford, MS 38655
All proceeds will go directly to his widow, Alice Mae. Besides his wife and 13 children, he leaves numerous grandchildren.
R.L. Burnside :: Biography
R.L. Burnside was born in Lafayette County, near Oxford, Mississippi in 1926. As a young man R.L. moved North into the neighboring Marshall County and began sharecropping. Inspired by John Lee Hooker's '50s hit "Boogie Chillun'," R.L. began singing blues and playing guitar. In addition to the Hooker 45 rpm there were other local forces that influenced R.L. as well, such as Mississippi Fred McDowell and Ranie Burnette. Fed up with the hopelessness of sharecropping, Burnside migrated to Chicago in hopes of finding economic opportunity. Chicago did not work out. In the span of one month R.L.'s father, brother and uncle were murdered. Check out "Hard Time Killing Floor" and the closing "R.L.'s Story" for R.L.'s take on his early years in Chicago. Around 1959 he returned to Mississippi to again work the farms and raise a family. He also started to play music at night and on weekends.
By Adam Smith
R.L.'s first recordings appeared on a 1967 Arhoolie compilation. Although R.L. preferred electric guitar, the fashion of the day dictated that he be recorded acoustically. These recordings earned Burnside enough of a reputation to play festivals and tours at home and abroad. Throughout the '70s and '80s R.L. played with a family band consisting of sons Joseph and Daniel as well as son-in-law Calvin Jackson, known as the Sound Machine. Though a local favorite R.L. and the Sound Machine were barely known outside of North Mississippi.
This all began to change for R.L. in the early '90s when the documentary film based on author Robert Palmer's book Deep Blues featured R.L. as one of its highlights. Subsequently Palmer produced R.L.'s Too Bad Jim for the fledgling Fat Possum label. Along with Junior Kimbrough's All Night Long, Too Bad Jim was one of the most important and influential blues albums of the '90s.
Too Bad Jim brought R.L. to the attention of post-punk musician Jon Spencer. R.L. toured extensively with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and this led to the collaboration between the two, the result was A Ass Pocket of Whiskey, a teenageparty record. Ass Pocket of Whiskey made R.L. an unlikely champion in the indie rock world.
In 1997 R.L. released Mr. Wizard, Fat Possum's debut record on their new distribution label Epitaph. The album featured R.L.'s hardcore touring mates, grandson Cedric Burnside and adopted son Kenny Brown.
In 1998 R.L. released Come On In, which pitted his raw blues against modern electronica, courtesy of producer Tom Rothrock (Beck, Elliot Smith). The album was a critical and commercial success, and one of its tracks, "It's Bad You Know," became a respectable radio hit and was featured in The Sopranos and on its soundtrack.
It's the year 2001 and R.L. Burnside is still breaking down boundaries, and bringing the blues to where it's never gone before. "Wish I Was In Heaven Sitting Down" is R.L.'s story. Listen up.