R. L. BurnsideR. L Burnside was born on 23/11/1926 in Lafayette County, Mississippi. His full birth name was Robert Lee Burnside. His first name is variously given as R. L., Rl, Robert Lee, Rural, Ruel of Rule. His father left when R. L. was young and he grew up with his mother, grandparents and several siblings. His early musical influences came from church singing and fife and drum picnics. He played the harmonica and first took up the guitar at the age of 16. He would learn from Mississippi Fred McDowell who lived nearby. He would also be taught by his uncle in law Ranie Burnette (a popular player from Senatobia), Henry Harden, Son Hibbler, Hess Vortis and Burnside's brother in law. Burnside's first performance was at the age of 21 or 22.
In the late 1940s, Burnside moved to Chicago, where his father had lived when he separated from his mother. There Burnside worked at jobs in metal and glass factories. He would also be in contact with his cousin in law blues musician Muddy Waters as well as being part of the blues scene on Maxwell Street. He had a disastrous first year in Chicago, within the year his father, two brothers and two uncles were all murdered in the city. Three years after moving to Chicago, Burnside went back south.
During the 1950s, Burnside moved between Memphis, Tennessee, the Mississippi Delta and the hill country of northern Mississippi. Whilst he was in the Delta, he met Robert Lockwood Jr and Aleck "Rice" Miller. Around this time, Burnside killed a man, possibly at a craps game. He was convicted and incarcerated in Parchman Farm. His boss arranged to release him after six months, as he needed Burnside's skills as a tractor driver.
Burnside would send the next 45 years in Panola and Tate counties in northern Mississippi. He mostly kept to remote dwellings and was working into the 1980s as a sharecropper, growing cotton and soybean, fishing on the Tallahatchie River and as a truck driver. He later moved to Holly Springs.
In 1967, he was recorded for the first time by George Mitchell a journalism graduate. Mitchell discovered Burnside on the advice of Othar Turner. Six of the songs recorded were released by Arhoolie Records after two years. Nine of the other songs were released on later records.
In 1969, Burnside recorded another album of acoustic material for Adelphi Records. It would not be released for thirty years. Recordings made in 1975 were delayed being released as well. Also in 1969, Burnside performed for the first time outside the US at a show in Montreal with Lightnin' Hopkins and John Lee Hooker. As a solo performer, he toured Europe three times.
In 1971, Burnside started tutoring the slide guitarist Kenny Brown.
In 1974, Burnside performed at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. He would perform at the festival 9 times. Also in 1974, Tav Falco filmed Burnside performing with Kenny Brown in the Brotherhood Sportsmen's Lodge, Como.
In 1978, Burnside was filmed by Alan Lomax for the TV documentary "The Land Where the Blues Began".
In 1979, Burnside's new band Burnside's Sound Machine was recorded by musicologist David Evans for his record label High Water. The band included his sons Duwayne and Daniel on guitar, his son Joseph on bass and his son in law Calvin Jackson on drums.
In the late 1970s or early 1980s, Burnside met Junior Kimbrough and started a partnership. About a decade later, his own "Burnside Palace" had shut down and the family lived next to the Kimbroughs' new "Junior's Place" in Chulahoma, Mississippi and collaborated with the counterpart musical family.
In 1980 and 1983, Burnside's Sound Machine joined him on tour in Europe.
From 1980 to 1986, Burnside recorded for the Dutch label Old Swingmaster label and for the French label Arion, mostly solo or with harmonica accompaniment. Johnny Woods played on some occasions, Curtis Salgado played in one New Orleans session.
In the mid-1980s Burnside retired from farm work to work on his music career. He would work for around 12 years with New Orleans harpist Jon Morris Neremberg.
In 1982, Burnside performed at the World's Fair.
In 1984, Burnside performed at the Louisiana World Exposition.
By one report in 1985, Burnside had been Europe 17 times.
In 1986, he performed at the San Francisco Blues Festival.
By the mid-1980s, he toured about once or twice a year.
In 1990, Robert Palmer filmed the documentary "Deep Blues" which featured Burnside prominently.
In 1991, Burnside began recording for the Oxford, Mississippi label Fat Possum Records.
In 1992, Burnside released "Bad Luck City" featuring the Sound Machine with Fat Possum Records. Also in 1992, Burnside was performing in New York and attracted the attention of Jon Spencer of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion.
In 1994, Burnside released "Too Bad Jim" with support from Calvin Johnson and Kenny Brown. After Jackson moved to Holland, Burnside performed with Brown and drummer Cedric Burnside, his grandson.
In 1995, Burnside started touring with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion as an opening act and as a guest performer.
In 1996, the album "A Ass Pocket of Whiskey" was recorded with Spencer's band, but was credited to Burnside. The album gained critical acclaim.
After parting ways with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Fat Possum Records started experimenting with remixing records with producer Tom Rothrock in an electronic style.
In 1997, Burnside released the album "Mr Wizard" which featured the first track remixed in this style.
In 1998, a whole album was remixed called "Come On In".
Burnside continued to tour and was an opener for the Beastie Boys. He was also a guest on the TV show "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" and performed at private events such as actor Richard Gere's birthday party.
In 1999, the documentary "Hill Stomp Hollar" was shown at SXSW Film Festival which featured Burnside and other Fat Possum, artists. The label did not approve its release. Much of the footage was later released by Fat Possum in "You See Me Laughin'" directed by Mandy Stein in 2003. Also in 1999, Burnside would undergo heart surgery.
In 2000, Junior's Place was burned down. It had become popular with young musicians. Also in 2000, Burnside won a W. C. Handy Award for Traditional Blues Male Artist of the Year.
In 2001, the live album "Burnside on Burnside" was released. It hadn't been remixed like the other Fat Possum records. It was nominated for a Grammy.
In 2002, Burnside received two W. C. Handy Awards.
In 2003, Burnside had more heart surgery after another heart attack in November 2002. In the same year, Burnside recieved another W. C Handy Award.
In 2004, Fat Possum released the album "A Bothered Mind" which featured previously recorded guitar tracks, before Burnside's heart surgery. It also featured collaborations with Kid Rock and Lyrics Born. Also in 2004, Burnside appeared at the Bonnaroo Music Festival as a guest singer, in his last public appearance.
On 01/09/2004, Burnside died at St Francis Hospital in Memphis Tennessee.
In 2014, Burnside was posthumously inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame.