Born Willie Lee Egan, 1 October 1933, near Minden, Louisiana
Singer / pianist Willie Egan is a boogie-woogie bluesman of undeserved obscurity. Born to poor sharecropper parents in bayou country, he moved to Los Angeles at the age of nine, to live with an uncle who had an old upright piano. Living next door was a music teacher named Arthur Alexander who taught him to play boogie woogie. Willie has mentioned Amos Milburn, Hadda Brooks, Camille Howard and Nellie Lutcher as his main influences. But the impact of Fats Domino is also undeniable and some of the melodies that Willie composed are barely disguised rewrites of Domino tunes.
Egan has claimed that his first record, "Dream House Blues"/"Whipped Cream" came out in 1949, on John R. Fullbright's Elko label. However, no evidence has been found that this record actually exists. Two tunes that did get a release on Elko (911) are "It's a Shame"/"Willie's Boogie" (1954), the latter being an instrumental. "It's A Shame" has recently been uploaded to YouTube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k95Y5DBEYM4 and was later rerecorded for Mambo under the title "What A Shame". Egan made his best records in 1955-56, for the Mambo and Vita labels in Pasadena, owned by Larry Mead. At least six singles were released, good rocking material that demonstrated why he was known in L.A. clubs as the House Rocker. But poor distribution and scarce airplay kept him from flourishing outside of several ghetto markets. Johnny Otis called him Eggins and some of his records are credited to Willie Egans or Willie Eggins (for instance "Wow Wow", probably his biggest seller). With only a few exceptions, Willie composed his own material. "Wear Your Black Dress" is his best recording in my opinion, though it got a lukewarm review in Billboard ("Only fair material and performance", April 14, 1956). He would rerecord the song in 1983 (see below). In 1957 Egan teamed up with Marvin Phillips, one half of Marvin and Johnny, who had scored R&B hits on Specialty and Modern. There were several Johnnys and Willie was the last. Two singles were released, one very bad, one excellent ("I'm Tired Of Being Alone" on Swingin'). Willie's last solo record was "Rock & Roll Fever"/"Chittlins" (Dash 55001), which was released in March 1958.
When Egan lost his uninsured equipment in a nightclub fire (probably in the late 1960s), he retired from performing and found a job as a hospital orderly in Los Angeles. But the story does not end there. In 1982, the British label Krazy Kat compiled most of his solo singles on an LP called "Rock n Roll Fever : Willie Egans 1955-1958". The sales of this album proved remarkably strong in many European countries. The Krazy Kat people thought that Egan had died, but R&B promoter Steve Brigati tracked him down in South Los Angeles and told him his album was a hit. A bemused Willie (who was living on unemployment benefits) asked "What album? I haven't recorded anything in 25 years." It was not long after this conversation with Brigati that Ace Records (the UK label) flew Egan, Big Jay McNeely, Chuck Higgins and Young Jessie to England for a concert at the Electric Ballroom in London (September 1983). During his stay in London, he recorded a well-regarded studio album called "Going Back To Louisiana" (Ace CH 95, released in 1984), with the British group Juice On the Loose. The highlight of this LP is probably Egan's version of Amos Milburn's "Chicken Shack Boogie", which you can hear on YouTube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YQ9lJdVuiLM
Interviewed by The Times in 1983, Egan said : "From all them records, I didn't make no money. In them days you heard a lot about royalties, but none of us ever saw any." Back in the US, he made a few recordings for the Lonesome Town label with Little Richard's former band, The Upsetters, and enjoyed a brief success on the college circuit. But Willie's taste for gin oftentimes made him an unpredictable performer, and in addition there wasn't much call for an old boogie-woogie bluesman in the music market of the eighties and nineties. After a long struggle with cancer, Willie Egan died on August 5, 2004, in Daniel Freeman Memorial Hospital in Inglewood, Los Angeles.
CD: Willie Egan, Come On (Relic 7047). This 1993 release has 14 tracks by Willie (the Mambo and Vita recordings) and 11 tracks by other artists (Big Boy Groves, Harmonica Slim, Effie Smith, Jimmy Thomason). Annotated by Jim Dawson. Reissued in 2009 on the Document label, with new liner notes by Dave Clarke.
The same 14 tracks, complemented by two outtakes, have also been issued as "Wow Wow - Rockin' the Blues : The Complete Vita / Mambo Sessions", first on Empire Musicworks (2005), then on Essential Media (2008).
For more info see the obituary by Spencer Leigh :
Acknowledgements : Jim Dawson, Myrna Oliver, Jason Ankeny (All Music Guide).
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