James “Skip” Easterling, a singer from Slidell who recorded a mystically funky 1971 remake of the Muddy Waters classic “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man,” died Nov. 21. A resident of Carriere, Mississippi, he was 70.
The song appeared on Joe Banashak’s New Orleans label, Instant Records, and was a major hit in New Orleans and on African-American radio stations across the South.
“It shot up to No. 1 so quick that it took Banashak and everybody by surprise,” Easterling told The Advocate in 2004.
“So, before you know it,” he said, “I was being booked to do shows with black entertainers at nightclubs, pavilions, gyms, even for black politicians running for public office.”
At those shows, black audiences from Florida to San Antonio were surprised to see that the singer was a young white man.
“It really threw them for a flip,” Easterling said. “But I never had one problem playing in any black club anywhere. They treated me like a star, made me feel like I was the second coming of Moses, because the record was so hot.”
Easterling, a New Orleans native raised in Slidell, was 14 when he signed with Banashak. Two of Banashak’s record labels, Minit and Instant, released national and regional hits by artists such as Ernie K-Doe (“Mother-In-Law”), Chris Kenner (“I Like It Like That,” “Land of 1,000 Dances)” and Art Neville (“All These Things”).
Because Allen Toussaint, Banashak’s top artist and repertoire man, had left to serve in the Army, Banashak simply added Easterling’s voice to instrumental tracks Toussaint previously had recorded.
When Toussaint later expressed dissatisfaction with Easterling’s singing, Banashak hired pianist and songwriter Eddie Bo to work with Easterling. Bo wrote “The Grass Looks Greener” for Easterling and then encouraged the nervous singer during a recording session at Cosimo Matassa’s New Orleans studio.
“Eddie Bo talked to me on the side,” Easterling recalled. “He said, ‘Look, Skip, you sing the way you feel it in your heart. That’s called soul. What you white people call feelings, we black people call soul.’ I said, ‘He’s right. Because I was raised Pentecostal, so it’s been right there all along.’ ”
Huey “Piano” Smith radically rearranged “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man” for Easterling and co-produced the recording with the late Tex Liuzza.
“Skip’s a naturally singing white boy,” Liuzza recalled decades later. “I mean, just as soulful as anybody singing at the time.”
Despite the song’s national potential, it remained only a regional hit. Banashak rejected Atlantic Records’ offer to distribute the song, hoping it could instead return Instant Records to national prominence.
“That’s not Joe Banashak’s fault,” Easterling said in 2004. “That’s in God’s plan. If it would have went into Atlantic, in Jerry Wexler’s hands, I might not be living on the frog pond today. I might be either dead or living in a fine mansion. But whatever be the case, I’m happy that I’m with my wife and my family.”
A memorial service for the singer will be held from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday at Honaker Funeral Home, 1751 Gause Blvd. West, in Forest Lawn Cemetery, in Slidell.