Cover Story

Soul Survivor

After a major health scare, songwriter and piano man David Egan rebounds with another career milestone.

On an April afternoon, a British film crew is packing up its audio and video equipment from the living room of the cozy house David Egan and his wife, Rhonda, recently bought in Lafayette, and Egan is spinning contentedly on the piano stool behind his portable Yamaha keyboard. He's just finished an hour worth of interviews and performance footage for a documentary on swamp pop supergroup Lil' Band O' Gold, plans are being made for a late-afternoon run for burgers at Judice Inn, and Egan is booked for headlining gigs at Festival International and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. The glorious spring weather is an added bonus; it's a good day to be alive in south Louisiana.

Now that the cameras are turned off, Egan lifts up his shirt. A purple scar stretches from his rib cage all the way around to his back. There are also two small adjoining dots from separate incisions where doctors cut him open last September and removed a cancerous tumor on his right lung. The 6-foot-4-inch Egan drops his booming voice a few notches.

"We closed on this house on Sept. 7, and my surgery was Sept. 9," he says.

It was a terrifying time for the 51-year-old singer/songwriter. He and his wife have a 4-year-old son. They'd finally saved up and bought their first home. Professionally, Egan was basking in the positive reviews of BeauSoleil's Gitane Cajun, which he'd co-produced, and it was only two years ago that he'd released his acclaimed debut solo album, Twenty Years of Trouble, after lengthy tenures in esteemed Louisiana bands A Train and Filé.

And then there were the songs. Joe Cocker, Etta James, Irma Thomas and more have recorded Egan's compositions, but Egan had a fresh batch of tracks that were his best yet. As he went into the hospital that September morning, there was no way of knowing whether his new material would ever become more than lyrics and music tucked away in Egan's notebooks.

Nine months later, Egan is cancer-free and celebrating one of the most gratifying artistic achievements of his career. On Solomon Burke's new album Make Do With What You Got, The King of Rock 'n' Soul delivers a heart-wrenching version of Egan's "Fading Footsteps." The honor's magnified by the heavyweights whose tracks fill the rest of the album: Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, Hank Williams, Robbie Robertson, Van Morrison and Dr. John.

"We listened to about 1,000 songs before choosing the 10 on Make Do With What You Got," says producer Don Was, who's helmed albums by the Rolling Stones, Bonnie Raitt and Willie Nelson. "The first time Solomon heard David Egan's version [of 'Fading Footsteps'], it went straight to the top of the list. … I can't think of any other song that so effectively conveys that particular sense of emptiness and betrayal.

"We were looking for songs that Solomon could sing with total honesty," continues Was. "After we first listened to it, nobody could speak. We were all propelled into our own individual, introspective states of funk, all able to project our own unique and disparate set of neuroses onto the lyric. That, of course, is the mark of a truly great song!"

Burke was equally affected. "I think he's a genius writer," he says. "I thought it was such a unique song, where we get the tastes and textures of history, and it's a great method he's using. The first time I heard it, I fell in love with it. The beauty of it was I was trying to put together a package of unique songs that told a message spiritually; this album is based upon great songs, great stories and new avenues. This is one of those new songs that people will take hold of — it has its own stuff, its own style, its own avenue."

The effusive praise from Burke and Was is sweet validation for Shreveport, La., native Egan, who grew up in a musical family. His mother, Jasmine, was an acclaimed opera singer. His upbringing gave him the opportunity to see numerous symphony and opera performances, as well as local appearances by jazz luminaries like Dave Brubeck. The Egan household was frequently filled with visiting artists; classical piano giant Van Cliburn once serenaded a young David Egan with a living room performance of "Happy Birthday."

"I gained a lot of tolerance of crazy characters and Philippine dance troupes and guest conductors from Switzerland and opera people and cast parties at the house on school nights until 4 o'clock in the morning," he remembers. "It was always real crazy and colorful and interesting, with people gathered around the piano."

When his mother was performing or traveling, Egan received a grittier music education. The nanny and maid who helped out the Egan family played 45s by Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Little Richard and the popular R&B and rock 'n' roll acts of the day. She let the Egan children watch TV the nights that Elvis Presley and The Beatles made their historic appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show.

"I remember thinking, 'This is some strong juju,'" says Egan.

By the time he was in his late teens, failed stints at LSU ("I got thrown out for throwing water on people coming out of the stadium," says Egan) and a half-hearted stab at acting finally convinced Egan to pursue music full-time. He earned a music degree from North Texas State University, where he honed his chops and played in a large jazz vocal choir, and left Shreveport to write and sing jingles for a Memphis publishing company in 1979.

But Tennessee wasn't kind to Egan; his Memphis job dried up quickly, and he moved to Nashville and tried to break into songwriting circles in Music Row. Sleeping on a friend's floor, he took a job as a tour bus driver and carted tourists around to the homes of Barbara Mandrell, Conway Twitty and Marty Robbins.

"It was hard," remembers Egan. "I had tour guide anxiety dreams every night. You'd have to cram 14 people into these vans, and I got into altercations with the people I was supposed to entertain and had complaints leveled against me. All the while I was taking my tapes around and trying to write a few songs, but was so exhausted and full of rage over the abuse I had to take. You're groveling for tips, too, and to this day, I will never put a tip jar anywhere I play. I swore after that job I'd never grovel or pander for tips again."

Then he got a call from back home asking him to join Shreveport R&B and blues ensemble A Train. Egan grew up next to Bruce and Buddy Flett, the brother team at the heart of A Train, and the band had already recorded a couple of early Egan songs on its first few albums. With the recent addition of powerhouse female vocalist Micki Honeycutt, A Train was riding high and packing nightclubs on the Gulf Coast circuit with its raucous blend of Louisiana soul, funk and roots music.

Egan took the gig and started to blossom as a songwriter, with Honeycutt wrapping her velvet voice around Egan songs like "Best of Love Turned Blue." But after a heady six years, A Train imploded in 1986 in a perfect storm of substance abuse, inter-band love affairs and a near-miss record deal with RCA. "It was also the same time that the whole oil and gas industry bottom fell out," remembers Egan. "These were the people who filled up our halls, and all of a sudden, Lafayette turned into a ghost town, and the same thing happened all over the region."

A two-year stint in Jo-El Sonnier's band followed, and accordionist Ward Lormand asked Egan to join the Creole/Cajun band Filé in 1990. "I had a lot of deep conversations with Ward about this mysterious Cajun music thing, and what it was all about, and it really seemed to touch me," Egan recalls. "It was so happy and so sad."

Egan's New Orleans and barrelhouse piano licks made Filé a unique south Louisiana band, and Egan wrote and sang a number of songs ("I Just Can't do Right," "Too Much Wine," "Forbidden Love") that became Filé staples. Then his big songwriting break came in 1992, when Joe Cocker recorded "Please No More" on his Night Calls album. Night Calls sold more than a million copies, and Egan's mailbox started filling up with royalty checks.

"I got some $1,000 and $2,500 advances on the song which sustained me at that time," remembers Egan. "Then kablooey! I got a check for $20,000 and a few more big ones after that. You think I knew how to handle it? No. I was pretty reckless. I picked up a lot of bar tabs and restaurant tabs and bought a lot of gifts and did a little gambling."

Cocker's record company reserved the rights to another Egan song for a follow-up album. When the deal fell through, the royalty checks dwindled. But financial realities were tempered by his growing recognition as a top-flight writer of deep soul music. The rest of the 1990s brought a handful of timeless performances of Egan songs: Johnny Adams cut "Even Now" on the last album before his death; Percy Sledge's quivering falsetto was a perfect match for "First You Cry," and Irma Thomas, Tracy Nelson and Marcia Ball cut three of Egan's songs on their acclaimed Sing It! album.

Those honors and a growing weariness of the hardscrabble touring life of Filé finally emboldened Egan to step out on his own in 2002 — another pivotal moment for his creative process. "Before I was writing with the goal of, 'I want a B.B. King cut, I want an Eric Clapton cut, I want a Bonnie Raitt cut,'" says Egan. "Three or four years ago, I had that click, when I left Filé and decided to try and play the game on my own terms and be the guy, be the artist. The songs themselves, if I don't sing 'em, I can't wait for somebody to come around and sing 'em, and I started writing in my own real inner voice."

The results were evident on Twenty Years of Trouble, Egan's 2003 solo debut. On songs like the title cut and "Fail, Fail, Fail," Egan displays a deft blend of humor and woe. They're undeniably blues songs, but informed by a sophisticated musical sensibility that brings jazz-inflected time signatures and bridges to the mix. Part of their genesis has been Egan's steady Lafayette gigs at venues such as Blue Dog Café and Bella Notte, where he's complemented his traditional nightclub songbook with standards for a quieter crowd.

"This trumpet player Jeff Norton approached me and asked me to come and do some cocktail gigs with him," says Egan. "That's like going and playing grownup for me. You've gotta know what you're doing to do that stuff. That's been really good and really inspiring to go and actually play some Miles Davis and John Coltrane and Bill Evans tunes. That guy at the cocktail lounge playing those jazz standards is a real hero to me; I really admire the guy who, when you call out a tune like 'Stella By Starlight,' he knows it."

He found another superb creative outlet in side project Lil' Band O' Gold, complementing bandmates Warren Storm, Steve Riley and C.C. Adcock with his simpatico piano playing and swamp pop-infused compositions such as "First You Cry."

"Lil Band O' Gold isn't full-time, and everyone has their own operation going, so it only raises its head once in a while," says Egan. "It gets hot for a week or two for a time, then you might not do anything for five months, so when you do it again, it's fresh and fun and on the edge. The energy is great, and the chemistry between all of those parts is something you can't put together anywhere else but with those people. I like the sum of it all. When I'm starting the intro to 'Seven Letters,' and Warren [Storm] starts singing that, that is so sublimely swamp pop heaven that I'm in the catbird seat of the entire world right then."

Sitting at the piano in his living room, Egan pulls his shirt back down over the scar from his surgery. "My sickness gave me a perspective I wouldn't have had otherwise," says Egan. "There's a gratitude for every day now. 'Fading Footsteps' was written for nobody, but it's what was in my heart and soul at the time, and darned if one of the greatest soul singers didn't come along and cover it. I'm always searching for the next song that's going to have a profound effect on the listener. The song that makes people go, 'Whew, that was heavy. That dude has been reading my mail.'"

Notable versions of David Egan's songs

"Fading Footsteps" Recorded by Solomon Burke, 2004

"Please No More" Recorded by Joe Cocker in 1992 and Etta James in 2003

"First You Cry" Recorded by Percy Sledge, 1994

"Wake Up Call" Recorded by Jimmy Witherspoon in 1992 and John Mayall and Mavis Staples in 1993

"Sing It" and "People Will be People" Recorded by Irma Thomas, Marcia Ball and Tracy Nelson in 1998

"Even Now" Recorded by Johnny Adams, 1998

"Too Much Wine" Recorded by Nathan & the Zydeco Cha-Chas in 2000 and Filé in 1999

David Egan
Friday, June 24, 9 p.m.
Artmosphere, 902 Johnston St., 233-3331

Sunday, June 26, 10:30 a.m.-2 p.m.
Blue Dog Café,
1211 West Pinhook Rd., 237-0005