Willie Claude Eason
1995 Florida Folk Heritage Award
Willie Eason (1921-2005) was a pioneering figure in the African American “Sacred Steel” guitar tradition of the House of God, Keith Dominion Holiness-Pentecostal churches. He influenced dozens of musicians and inspired many to play the steel guitar for worship services in nearly 200 House of God churches found in more than two dozen states. Florida is home to more than 40 House of God churches, more than any other state.
Eason was born in the Lickskillet community of rural Schley County in southwestern Georgia. He moved with his family to Philadelphia while still an infant. Inspired by his older brother, Troman (1905-1949), he began to play the steel guitar in church when he was a teenager. In 1939 he quit high school to travel throughout the eastern states with House of God Bishop J. R. Lockley and the Gospel Feast Party Band to play for House of God worship services and revivals. He used the steel guitar to imitate the ornamented, improvised singing he heard in church and became known as “Little Willie and his Talking Guitar.” His reputation increased as he made seven 78 rpm records in the 1940s and 50s for black gospel labels. In the 1950s and 1960s he was a successful producer of gospel music concerts that featured the top acts of the day. Between the 1940s and 1960s Eason often worked in Florida, but he and his family did not move permanently to St. Petersburg until 1986.
Eason was a powerful singer and an engaging performer. Today the electric steel guitar is at the top of the musical instrument hierarchy in House of God churches and “Sacred Steel” music is known worldwide. Willie Eason was tremendously influential in establishing the steel guitar as the dominant instrument in the House of God and in shaping its musical tradition.