Earl the Pearl Banks: A Legend Gets His Due 

Earl the Pearl

Dan Wireman

Earl the Pearl

At 81 years old, Earl "The Pearl" Banks is one of the most seasoned blues guitarists in the Mid-South, with experience reaching back to the 1940s. He can typically be seen plying his craft on Beale Street, where he is memorialized with a brass note, but this Wednesday, he moves to Midtown, as Lafayette's Music Room hosts a tribute to his career. After arriving by police escort, he'll receive a gift from the city and then proceed to knock the socks off any blues fan within a half-mile radius.

So you grew up in Germantown?

Earl Banks: I was born on Joe Kirby's place. As in Kirby Road, Kirby Woods Mall. I was born March 17th. He named me Pat. It was St. Patrick's Day. But my mother named me Earl. I guess in the early '60s they gave me the nickname "Earl the Pearl."

And you originally played piano, right?

I started out on piano. When I was about five years old, my grandfather, he bought my aunt a piano, and she never did learn how to play it. And I learned how to play it. After I got a certain age, I got in a lot of bands, and the club didn't have a piano sometimes. I had to go over in the corner and just sit there and look. I said, "All right, I'm gonna play guitar." Long about 1955 or '56, I went and bought me a guitar and an amplifier. Cost $315 in those days. And I learned how to play that guitar. I been messing with guitar ever since.

You were playing piano with Joe Hill Louis?

Right! Right, when I was 10 years old. You know, I never hear nobody talk about him now. He was a one-man band. He'd come on WDIA, I think on Saturdays, and play 15 minutes. He was Joe Hill Louis the Be Bop Boy. He didn't pay me, but I was helping him sound good. But he messed around, and I think he passed away. You know, he used to work for D. Canale. Back in those days, he was playing in Moscow, Tennessee. I was in Moscow every Friday and Saturday night when he'd be up there. It wasn't nothing but corn fields and corn liquor. You know, whiskey. It was government-funded whiskey. Back in them days, it wasn't nothing but the crapshoot goin' on, and corn liquor in the juke joint. It was a nice crowd. People from Brownsville, Covington, Somerville, Bolivar, they would come down. One way in and one way out.

click to enlarge Earl the Pearl - DAN WIREMAN
  • Dan Wireman
  • Earl the Pearl

Joe Hill Louis' guitar tone was amazing. When you picked up guitar, did you try to get his sound?

No, really it was a guy named Fred Ingram. He had a Fender; it was a good looking guitar. He was a little short, dark fellow. I guess he was about four-foot something, and, man, he could play that thing. And I said I wanna play like him. Well, he called me Pat. He said, "Pat, if you wanna learn how to play a guitar, stop using them clamps." Cheaters, they called 'em. Clamps, you know where you clamp down on the neck of it?

Like a capo?

Yeah, somethin' like that. Some people used to have pencils and put em around. I call 'em cheaters. So I quit using that thing, and I did very well.

When I was in Germantown, my band was Banks and the Blue Dots. That was back in the '50s. That was Teenie Hodges, his daddy Leroy Hodges, Ottie Golden, and Willie Moody. So I took Teenie Hodges when he was 12 years old and learned him how to play the guitar and put him in my band. He's the one who wrote all the hits with Al Green.

Who was your favorite guitar player back in the day?

I admired Fred Ingram and B.B. King. Then Albert King came along, and I started listening to him. But B.B. King, he really is my idol. I still try to play like him now. I hit some licks, but I know it ain't like him. I got my own thing going. It ain't went too far. But I'm still moving.

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