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R.L. Burnside Biography

Home > Music > B > Burnside, R.L. > Biography

Birth Name: Robert Lee Burnside
Born: 1926/11/23
Birth Place: Oxford, Mississippi, USA
Died: 2005/09/01
Years Active: 1960s — 2005
Genres: Delta Blues, Juke Joint Blues, Punk Blues, Folk Blues

Robert Lee Burnside was born on November 23, 1926 in Harmontown, Mississippi and grew up in Holly Springs. He was a blues singer, songwriter, and guitarist who played music for the majority of his life but did not receive much attention until the early 1990s.

Burnside worked as a commercial fisherman by day, and played guitar in local bars by night.

Burnside moved to Chicago in 1944, however tragedy struck over the course of one year when his father, two brothers, and uncle were all murdered in the city.

After hearing John Lee Hooker sing “Boogie Chillen,” in 1948, Burnside was forever changed and began to take his guitar seriously. Burnside took music lessons from Fred McDowell, and cites his cousin-in-law, Muddy Waters, as one of the biggest Influences on his musical career along with Hooker.

1959 saw Burnside leave Chicago and return to Mississippi where he killed a man at a dice game, was convicted of murder and spent 6 months in prison. Burnside's earliest recordings began in the 1960s with George Mitchell producing for Arhoolie Records. Two albums emerged during this time; however, no more recordings would surface until the 1980s. “Mississippi Hill Country Blues” arrived in 1984 on Swingmaster, and a second recording by producer Leo Bruin emerged on Dr. David Evans' “High Water” album.

As the 1990s emerged, Burnside came to the attention of Jon Spencer, of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, who offered him a slot on their tour. As Burnside's music was exposed to a wider audience, he began to amass a large fan base and appeared in the feature film, “Deep Blues.” Spencer and Burnside's collaboration resulted in the 1996 album, “A Ass Pocket of Whiskey,” which met with critical acclaim.

The new-found national attention led to a record contact with Fat Possum Records. 2000 saw the album, “Wish I Was In Heaven Sitting Down” emerge. Burnside took the death of fellow label mate, Junior Kimbrough, to heart and stopped recording music for a while. In 2001, Burnside suffered a heart attack and quit drinking. However, the combination of his friend's death, his health, and his new-found sobriety, left Burnside unable to write or play music. Burnside died in Memphis, Tennessee on September 1, 2005 at the age of 78.