The following article is reprinted with permission from one of the American Blues Scene’s most beloved writers, Suzanne Swanson, who has been proud to call Honeyboy Edwards, the legendary Blues guitarist, a close personal friend for a number of years. The celebrated American hero, who was the oldest living bluesman in the world, was ninety seven when he passed away peacefully. Suzanne attended Honeyboy’s funeral in September of last year, and was kind enough to share her personal journey in dealing with the loss of an icon and friend.
A hushed reverence and a welcome rush of cool air met us as we entered the McCullough Funeral Home, on E. 75th Street, in South Side Chicago. The temperatures were unseasonably hot. For days, it seemed, the city had been gripped by heat and humidity of the upper 90’s that first day of September 2011. A few family members were already seated at the front of the large, oblong room that comprised the area that would be our center point for celebration and grief for the next two days.
There was our beloved David ‘Honeyboy’ Edwards lying in an open, deep wine/brown coffin, presiding over all of us. Six large floral sprays stood guard. On the coffin, a beautiful wide bouquet of six dozen deep red roses served as a token of love from his immediate family. A smaller garland of similar red roses sat near Honeyboy’s head with a gold banner proclaiming it was from his grandchildren. There, dressed in a beautiful dark purple suit, bright red tie and matching pocket puff, was the “Last of the Great Mississippi Delta Bluesmen” , Mr. David ‘Honeyboy’ Edwards.
Honeyboy was ninety-six years young when he lay back on his bed for the last time in the early hours of Monday, August 29th, 2011. His birthday had been June 28th, putting him in his ninety-seventh year.
Drawing close, I saw a jaunty fedora angled over his head, color coordinating perfectly to his suit. As I gazed upon the frail form, my eyes filled with tears. Here was a friend who had touched my heart in a profound way!
I had flown seventeen hundred and eighty odd miles to honour this great musician because he had shared a small part of his life with me. He had spoken words of wisdom to me. He had taken an interest in me when his business manager and musical partner, Michael Frank, CEO of Earwig Music Co. Inc., had commissioned me to take photographs for a product release on the Earwig record label.
The connections went back to 1980 actually when the Blues Professor, Eddie Lusk, the Hammond B-3 bandleader, and guitarist, Phil Guy, (younger brother of Buddy Guy), became life-long friends of mine. They are both gone now but I treasure the unconditional friendships that we shared. Because the blues music community across North America is a tight, interwoven group, particularity in Chicago, where these musicians lived, I was given the gift of becoming part of their ‘extended family’. My years as a musician and professional concert photographer placed me in the flow of being able to promote and assist these remarkable artists whenever we were in the same town or on tour.
However, life’s circumstances had prevented me from attending the funerals of The Professor and Phil. This time, I was able to honour and show my deep respect. It would become a three-fold tribute, an important closure to members of my ‘family of choice’.
As I stood silently weeping, my thoughts rushed back to the short tours I had been on with Honeyboy, Michael Frank, Les Copeland, Jerry Zybach, Curtis Salgado, The Tommy Castro Band, John Primer, Bob Stroger, Bob Corritore, Chris James, Patrick Rynn, Johnny Drummer, Grady Champion Band, and others.
What a joy it had been to listen to Honeyboy share his distinctive Mississippi Delta music, his recollections of life going back to age five (he told me), and his sage advice on living a fulfilled and satisfying life. In all my years in the music industry, I have never witnessed any other performer go to the extremes to be so gracious or accommodating to his audiences and fans. Others have learned from this example, two bands immediately come to mind being the members of Foghat and Ten Years After. No matter what the venue, Honeyboy would take the time after a gig to sit, pose for photographs, sign the CD products or DVD’s that would be sold, the posters, memorabilia brought forward, personal guitars, and chat in a private manner, touching his adoring fans throughout the world.
This senior statesman of the Delta Blues was generous to a fault of his time spent reaching the minds and hearts of countless millions of individuals over the course of his life. He championed educating children in the Chicago school system about the blues music that he dearly loved. I have listened to many musicians who played with him share stories of how he patiently encouraged them or would test their proficiency by changing up a tune or two to see if they were listening and attentive.
He gave us all so much.
There will never be a musician who will quite fill his shoes.
The visitation at the funeral home began at 2 PM, on the first day of September. A steady stream of devoted family and friends came to say their farewells, and show their respect for this great man. The pews were filled to capacity and overflowed into the foyer and out the front door.
At seven o’clock, Michael Frank, took the podium to welcome everyone. Before encouraging those that wished to share their memories of Honeyboy he gave an honouring recollection of his over thirty-five years association as a friend, business manager, music colleague, record label producer, and “Mutt and Jeff” relationship. Choking back tears at moments of melancholy memories in preparing breakfasts for Honeyboy when they were on the road… to how ‘Honeyboy’ got his name… to humorous chuckles of stories of how the former residents of Shaw, Mississippi, took care of each other in Chicago if trouble broke out in a bar room situation… to how Honeyboy would tease Michael’s extend belly by calling it a ‘Possum Pocket’; Michael expressed his love for his deceased friend. Memories of 252 N. Princess and 43rd. (Honeyboy’s early Chicago home) were remembered. Accounts of how folks came to listen to Honeyboy practice his guitar were peppered with tales of Mississippi connections that were always welcomed warmly when they were received into his home.
Honeyboy and Michael travelled the world together. He would accommodate Michael on giving interviews. He disliked being asked about Robert Johnson and would tell Michael, “Quit asking me!”, when a request was presented to him. To discourage Michael from asking, Honeyboy would put his foot down and say, “What is in it for me?”
Michael wistfully turned and addressed the body of Honeyboy, “No more interviews,” his voice sobbed. “I’ll do them now, Honeyboy. You don’t have to give another interview.”
Then family and friends took their solemn turns at the microphone so they could share their admiration and memories. Daughter, T-Baby, spoke about many visits with her father to Buddy Guy’s Legends, and the way he teased her about eating the chicken dinner. Fruitland Jackson, remembered times playing acoustic sets at Rosa’s, and how he learned so much over the years. Niece, Sharleen, tearfully recounted Honeyboy buying her a stove and two chairs. Each, in succession shared a poignant story, Victor Wallace, Jacqueline Edwards, Dauphine, along with Lynn from the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences. Lynn Orman Weiss, disclosed that Honeyboy loved beautiful women and was happy to be photographed with two daughters of country music legend, Loretta Lynn. Daughter Joanne came forward, Jimmy Jenkins – who voiced of being a ‘roady’ for the night that Honeyboy played the Lincoln Centre. Delores Scott, Cookie Taylor, as well as stories of the late Willie Dixon’s “Blues Heaven” organization were touched upon with deference. Doug MacLeod spoke of playing at the Palmer House, where Honey boy taught him that your personality comes out in your right hand when you play, and that you have to reach out to the people. Doug also recounted a tale about Honeyboy instructing Doug’s wife, Patty, on the finer points of loaded dice, to much chuckling and nodding heads. Remarks were shared from Johnny Drummer, Rick ‘Cookin’ Sherry saying that Honeyboy was truly an “Ambassador of the World”, and Jeff Dale repeating the advice he was always given, “Know the timing. You have to have a sense of time when you play”. Amanda Gresham, as well as Lynn Orman Weiss spoke softly and lovingly while sharing anecdotes. I was able to remind the assembly what a gift Honeyboy was to all of us who came in contact with him. “He inspired us to be better as human beings”. Steve Azzato, a photojournalist, as well as Michael Dyson, of the Blue Shoe Project, imparted their personal tributes in most touching ways.
We all sat spellbound in our sorrow as family members closed the program and Michael Frank once again turned to Honeyboy’s coffin addressing him with a catch in his throat, “You’re always looking for that note on the neck”.
Yes, we all are looking for that special “note”! That special individual who shines the second they walk into a room. David “Honeyboy” Edwards was that person. He was a gift to the world who taught us much about life, music, how to treat and respect your fellow man, but most of all he taught us how to be better at what we do, no matter what it is. Thank you, my friend, for your music, words, and writing which will continue to be with us. Thank you, for teaching us how to be true to our path. You will live long after in our hearts and minds and that is the most precious gift of all.
©Copyright Suzanne Swanson 2012