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Soul Survivor 

Lafayette singer-songwriter David Egan moves his career into high gear -- after facing life-threatening illness.

The British film crew is packing up its audio and video equipment from the living room of the cozy house David Egan and his wife recently bought in Lafayette, and Egan is spinning contentedly on the piano stool behind his portable Yamaha keyboard. He's just finished an hour's worth of interviews and performance footage for a documentary on swamp-pop supergroup Lil' Band o' Gold, and plans are being made for a late-afternoon run to the legendary Lafayette burger joint, the Judice Inn. Egan has a full slate of weekend gigs ahead of him, including appearances at Lafayette's Festival International and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Add in the glorious spring weather and 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 Egan's 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,' says Egan.

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 the esteemed bands A Train and Filé.

And then there were the songs. Joe Cocker, Etta James, Mavis Staples 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 notebooks.

Eight months later, Egan is cancer-free and celebrating one of the most gratifying artistic achievements of his career. On soul legend Solomon Burke's new album Make Do With What You Got, Burke delivers a heart-wrenching version of Egan's 'Fading Footsteps.' The honor's magnified by the heavyweights whose songs fill the rest of the album: Bob Dylan, Jagger/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. We felt that, behind a brave face of literacy and wit, David had eloquently captured the profound pathos of a moment that's burned into the souls of all struggling artists. In fact, anyone who faces an uphill battle can relate. At some point, you realize that the faithful -- your troops, your partners, your lovers -- no longer believe in you. It dawns on you in one awful, tragic moment. 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!'

Was' effusive praise is sweet validation for Egan, who in 1979 left Shreveport to write and sing jingles for a Memphis publishing company. Egan had a music degree from North Texas State University, where he honed his chops and played in a large jazz vocal choir. 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,' Egan remembers. '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 Miki 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,' Egan says. '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 Cajun 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. It was so happy and so sad.'

Egan's New Orleans and barrelhouse piano licks made Filé a unique band in the Cajun dancehalls, 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. 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.'

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.''

Scott Jordan is managing editor of The Independent in Lafayette.

click to enlarge 'Three or four years ago,' David Egan says, 'I had that - click when I left Fil and decided to try and play the - game on my own terms and be the guy, be the - artist.' - TERRI FENSEL
  • Terri Fensel
  • 'Three or four years ago,' David Egan says, 'I had that click when I left Fil and decided to try and play the game on my own terms and be the guy, be the artist.'
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