Honeyboy Edwards' death ends era of original Mississippi bluesmen

The Grammy-winning blues musician David 'Honeyboy' Edwards has died in Chicago at the age of 96.

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David "Honeyboy" Edwards, a Grammy-winning guitarist believed to be the oldest surviving member of the first generation of Mississippi blues musicians, died on Monday in his Chicago home at the age of 96.

Edwards only stopped performing in April. He played his last shows at the Juke Joint Festival in Clarksdale, Mississippi, before his health declined and he cancelled concerts through to autumn, according to his manager, Michael Frank, of Earwig Music Company.

"That piece of the history from that generation, people have to read about it from now on," Frank said. "They won't be able to experience the way the early guys played it, except from somebody who's learnt it off of a record."

Born in 1915 in Shaw, Mississippi, Edwards learnt the guitar growing up and started playing professionally at the age of 17 in Memphis, Tennessee.

He moved to Chicago in the 1940s and began playing on the small clubs and street corners of its blues hub, Maxwell Street. By the 1950s, Edwards had played with almost every bluesman of note - including Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter, Charlie Patton and Muddy Waters. Among his hit songs were Gamblin' Man and Just Like Jesse James.

"Blues ain't never going anywhere," Edwards told Associated Press in 2008. "It can get slow, but it ain't going nowhere. You play a lowdown dirty shame slow and lonesome, 'my mama dead, my papa across the sea, I ain't dead but I'm just supposed to be blues'. You can take that same blues, make it up-tempo, a shuffle blues, that's what rock 'n' roll did with it. So blues ain't going nowhere. Ain't goin' nowhere."

In 2008, Edwards won a Grammy for the best traditional blues album, and last year was given a Grammy Lifetime Achievement award.

Known as an oral historian of the music genre, he would tell biographical stories between songs at his shows and was recorded for the Library of Congress in Clarksdale in 1942.

"He had photographic memory of every fine detail of his entire life," Frank said. "All the way up until he died. He had so much history that so many other musicians didn't have and he was able to tell it."

Edwards gathered those stories in the 1997 book The World Don't Owe Me Nothing: The Life and Times of Delta Bluesman Honeyboy Edwards. According to the book, he learnt to play on a guitar his father bought for US$8 from a sharecropper in 1929.

"I watched my daddy play that guitar, and whenever I could I would pick it up and strum on it," Edwards wrote.

"He had his own unique style," Frank said. "But it was a 75-year-old style and it was a synthesis of the people before him and in his time."

In his 90s, Edwards was still playing about 70 shows a year, meeting the audience after every show, taking pictures, signing autographs and chatting to fans.

He earned his nickname "Honeyboy" from his sister, who told his mother to "look at Honeyboy" when Edwards stumbled as he learnt to walk as a toddler. He is survived by his daughter Betty Washington and stepdaughter Dolly McGinister.

* Associated Press