Blues Veteran R.L. Burnside Dies
Blues veteran R.L. Burnside, who experienced a late career renaissance after being rediscovered by Fat Possum Records in the 1990s, died today in a Memphis hospital. He was 78.Blues veteran R.L. Burnside, who experienced a late career renaissance after being rediscovered by Fat Possum Records in the 1990s, died today in a Memphis hospital. He was 78. Fans wishing to make a donation can write the Freeland & Freeland Trust Account at P.O. Box 269, Oxford, MS 38655. All proceeds will benefit Burnside's widow, Alice Mae. Burnside is also survived by 12 children and numerous grandchildren.
"His health was declining," Fat Possum founder Matthew Johnson tells Billboard.com. "I'm trying to get an official cause of death, but the hospital can't get it out. He was our man. He was the first artist we signed, and our biggest. We were lucky to have a relationship."
Born in Harmontown, Miss., on Nov. 21, 1926, Burnside worked as a farmer in nearby Coldwater, Miss. As a youth, he was exposed to the blues of such local masters as Fred McDowell and Joe Callicott and began playing in his late teens.
"I watched him," Burnside said of McDowell in a 1996 interview with Billboard. "We lived pretty close to him at one time. I watched him and picked up a lot of stuff from him (and guitarist) Ranie Barnett. They was guys that was all around, close. I watched them play, and I kinda put my style with it.'
In 1967, fife-and-drum bandleader Othar Turner led folklorist George Mitchell to Burnside, who recorded several performances released by Arhoolie Records in 1968. For many years thereafter, he performed regularly in local juke joints, including one run by bluesman (and future labelmate) Junior Kimbrough.
By the '70s, his notoriety had spread to the point that he toured in Europe and recorded for Swing Master in the Netherlands and Arion in France.
It wasn't until the '90s that Burnside gained fame in the U.S. He appeared in director Robert Mugge's 1991 documentary "Deep Blues" and on the 1992 Atlantic soundtrack album. He cut two acclaimed albums for Fat Possum; the records, "Bad Luck City" (1993) and "Too Bad Jim" (1994), were produced by writer Robert Palmer, whose 1981 book was the basis for Mugge's film. In 1996, he also recorded an album with underground rock act Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, "Ass Pocket of Whiskey" (Matador).
After 1999 heart surgery, Burnside kept his appearance schedule to a minimum, but continued to release music for Fat Possum, including last year's "A Bothered Mind," which debuted at No. 6 on Billboard's Top Blues Albums chart.