CHICAGO — Grammy-winning Blues musician David “Honey Boy” Edwards, believed to be the oldest surviving Delta bluesman and whose roots stretched back to blues legend Robert Johnson, died early Monday in his Chicago home, his manager said. He was 96.
Edwards had a weak heart and his health seriously declined in May, when the guitarist had to cancel concerts scheduled through November, said his longtime manager, Michael Frank of Earwig Music Company.
Born in 1915 in Shaw, Miss., Edwards learned the guitar growing up and started playing professionally at age 17 in Memphis.
He came to Chicago in the 1940s and played on Maxwell Street, small clubs and street corners. By the 1950s Edwards had played with almost every bluesman of note – including Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, Charlie Patton and Muddy Waters. Among Edwards’ hit songs were “Long Tall Woman Blues,” “Gamblin Man” and “Just Like Jesse James.”
Edwards played his last shows in April at the Juke Joint Festival in Clarksdale, Miss., Frank said.
“Blues ain’t never going anywhere,” Edwards told The 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 uptempo, a shuffle blues, that’s what rock `n’ roll did with it. So blues ain’t going nowhere. Ain’t goin’ nowhere.”
Edwards won a 2008 Grammy for traditional blues album and received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement award in 2010. His death represents the loss of the last direct link to the first generation of Mississippi blues musicians, Frank said.
“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 learned it off of a record.”
Edwards was known for being an oral historian of the music genre and would tell biographical stories between songs at his shows, Frank said. He was recorded for the Library of Congress in Clarksdale, Miss., 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.” He wrote in the book that his father bought a guitar for $8 from a sharecropper and Edwards learned to play in 1929.
“I watched my daddy play that guitar, and whenever I could I would pick it up and strum on it,” Edwards wrote.
Edwards was known for his far-ranging travels and played internationally. In his 90s, he was still playing about 70 shows a year. Edwards would visit with the audience after every show, taking pictures, signing autographs and talking with fans, Frank said.
Edwards earned his nickname “Honey Boy” from his sister, who told his mother to “look at honey boy” when Edwards stumbled as he learned to walk as a toddler. He is survived by his daughter Betty Washington and stepdaughter Dolly McGinister.
“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.”