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Eddie B. Burns, 1928 - 2012

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“Eddie B. Burns was born on February 8, 1928 to Albert and Eddie Mae Burns in Belzoni, Mississippi. He was the oldest of ten children. On Thursday, December 12, 2012, at the age of 84, Eddie went home to be with Jesus.

“As a young child, Eddie’s parents were sharecroppers, and he disliked picking cotton. Eddie Mae would tell of how instead of picking cotton Eddie would run through the cotton fields watching the birds flying free and imitating them. He said he wanted to be free like the birds. Seeking freedom and job opportunities, he headed north.”

So begins the obituary for Eddie printed in the program for his home-going celebration at the Lemay Church of Christ on Detroit’s east side on December 20. Eddie had been baptized and joined its congregation in 1996, and unlike many, his eulogy was delivered by a preacher who knew and loved Eddie, his wife Alma, and their family.

Eddie had 15 children with Alma and his first wife, Carmen Laberdie. They and their children and their children’s children filled literally half the church at the home-going. That’s how beloved a man Eddie Burns was. And oh-by-the-way, he was a brilliant musician too.

Eddie arrived in Detroit in 1948. Days he worked in an auto plant, nights he haunted clubs and house parties. In 1949 Eddie was blowing harmonica with guitarist John T. Smith at a house party in Black Bottom when John Lee Hooker heard him through a window. Hooker dropped his plans, entered the house and asked Eddie if he could sit in. Three days later Eddie made his first recording with Hooker, who was already a rising star on the strength of his 1948 recording of “Boogie Chillen’.”

Eddie remained with Hooker for many years, playing harp on recordings, holding down club engagements when Hooker was away promoting his records, and ultimately taking over his regular spot at Detroit’s legendary Harlem Club. He continued to develop his guitar chops, and on Hooker’s seminal “Real Folk Blues” sessions for Chess in 1966, Eddie played guitar throughout.

Eddie was a mainstay in the thriving Detroit blues scene throughout the 60’s. In the 1970’s he toured Europe with his own band several times and in the 1980’s continued to tour the U.S. and record. In 1994 he was honored with a Michigan Heritage Award. The citation asserts, “Eddie is the only pure blues musician to live and perform continuously in Michigan…His maintenance of blues tradition while contributing new compositions and effects on the guitar and harmonica makes Eddie Burns a key bearer of the living blues tradition.”

Aaron “Little Sonny” Willis was one of Eddie’s closest friends and musical associates. In the program for Eddie’s home-going he is included as family. Like Eddie, he fled the south seeking freedom and a job, arriving in Detroit in 1957. Like Eddie, he worked in the auto industry by day and haunted clubs by night. The very first joint he visited was the Plantation Bar on Russell Street, and Eddie was on the bandstand. “He had that place locked down,” said Sonny. “That was his main gig.”

In his eulogy at the home-going, Sonny noted that his very first time on the bandstand was when Eddie let him sit in, and that Eddie’s last time on the bandstand was with Sonny at Detroit’s Music Hall during the 10th Annual Motor City Blues & Boogie Woogie Festival in 2008. Sonny was in semi-retirement himself at the time, and he agreed to the performance primarily because he was asked to play with and pay tribute to his long-time friend and band mate.

Eddie’s health was already failing and he could no longer play the guitar, but he sang and played harmonica through three songs and received a thunderous ovation as he left to sit in the wings with Alma for the rest of the set. From the stage Sonny said, “There might not have been a Little Sonny if it hadn’t been for the first man you saw walk out here to perform.” He then dedicated Z. Z. Hill’s “I Found Love” to Eddie and Alma.

Sonny spoke often afterwards of how much that appearance meant to Eddie, about how much joy the performance and recognition gave him. We didn’t need Sonny to tell us that at the time because we could see it in the smile on Eddie’s face. But then it was rare to see Eddie without a smile on his face. It was infectious, and Eddie spread warmth in every room he walked in to. He was one of the most gentle, gracious, and generous people we have ever been privileged to know.

A little over a year ago Eddie was admitted to an assisted living facility, but he came home for a last Thanksgiving. The house was packed with family, and Eddie gave as much love as he received. Three weeks later we went to sleep, peacefully and for the last time.

I am not dead. I did not die;
I simply chose to live another life.
I have no pain, so don’t weep
You might disturb my peaceful sleep
My soul is free like a morning breeze,
No cares, No worries, No needs.
Don’t worry about me being alone, I have a new home
I am with Jesus, I can’t be alone, I am happy as can be.
So, don’t stand at my grave and cry
‘Cause I am not there, I did not die.
Eddie B. Burns



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