Friday, November 30, 2012

Blues Legends - Freddie King

One of the fabled "Three Kings" of the blues, Texas guitarist Freddie King only lived 42 years, but he made quite an impact during his short life, influencing such notable guitarists as Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Mick Taylor, Lonnie Mack, Jerry Garcia, Peter Green, and others.  His guitar work showed the influence of Texas guitarists like T-Bone Walker and Lightnin' Hopkins as well as Chicago string-benders like Robert Lockwood, Jr., Eddie Taylor, and Jimmy Rogers....part of what made his sound so unique at the time.

Freddie King was born in September, 1934, in Gilmer, TX.  His mother and his uncle started teaching him guitar when he was six, and he learned how to play the rural acoustic country blues like Lightnin' Hopkins.  By the time, he was a teenager, he had moved with his family to Chicago and discovered the wonders of electricity, falling in love with the electric Chicago blues sounds of Taylor, Walker, Lockwood, Rogers, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Elmore James, and Little Walter.  He soon formed his own band, the Every Hour Blues Boys, with guitarist Jimmie Lee Robinson and drummer Frank "Sonny" Scott.

King also worked as a sideman with the Little Sonny Cooper Band and Earl Payton's Blues Cats, recording an unreleased session with Payton for Parrot Records in 1953.  Over this span, he also worked with many other Chicago artists, like Rogers, Lockwood, Hound Dog Taylor, Memphis Slim, and Little Walter.  He finally got to make his own record in 1956, for El-Bee Records, "Country Boy," a duet with singer Margaret Whitfield, with Lockwood playing guitar.

King also tried to land with Chess Records during this time, but was rejected repeatedly because he sang too much like B.B. King, which apparently at one time must have been a bad thing.  He recorded a session with Willie Dixon at Cobra Record in the late 50's, during Dixon's period of estrangement from Chess, but nothing has ever been heard of the session.  Despite his lack of success making a record, King was making a big name for himself on Chicago's West Side, where a new style of blues was taking form.

In 1960, King signed with Federal Records, a subsidiary of Cincinnati's King Records.  At Federal, King made an immediate impact with his first single, "You've Got To Love Her With A Feeling," which made the pop charts.  The flip side of the single, "Have You Ever Loved A Woman," was also popular.

From the same session, King recorded the instrumental, "Hide Away."  Named for one of Chicago's most popular clubs, "Hide Away" was adapted by King and Magic Sam from a Hound Dog Taylor instrumental.  The track was released as the B-side of his single, "I Love The Woman," and became a major hit, charting at #5 on the R&B charts and #29 on the pop charts, which was unheard of at the time for a blues instrumental.  In the 60's, every rock and blues band worth their salt included a version of "Hide Away" in their repertoire.

Based on the success of "Hide Away," King and producer Sonny Thompson eventually recorded thirty instrumentals, which included "The Stumble," "Sen-Sa-Shun," "Side Tracked," "San-Ho-Zay," and "High Rise."  He continued to record vocal tracks as well ("Lonesome Whistle Blues," "I'm Tore Down," "(The Welfare) Turns Its Back On You") , and King eventually released an album of vocals (Freddy King Sings) and instrumentals (Let's Hide Away and Dance Away With Freddy King:  Strictly Instrumental and Freddy King Gives You A Bonanza of Instrumentals).   Yes, the spelling of King's first name during this time was different, but he eventually changed it to the "i-e" version during the latter part of his career.  These records were successful then and continue to be popular with blues and guitar fans today.

In 1968, King signed with Atlantic Records subsidiary Cotillion, and released two subsequent albums, both produced by R&B saxophone legend King Curtis.  Soon after King parted ways with Cotillion, he appeared at the 1969 Texas Pop Festival, which led to King signing with Leon Russell's Shelter Records, where he was treated very well and recorded three popular albums, including Getting Ready, which included the Don Nix-penned rock/blues standard, "Goin' Down."

King's style shifted to more of a rock-edged one during the 70's.  As a result, he was becoming popular with blues and rock audiences.  His busy schedule sometimes included nearly 300 shows a year during his peak.  He signed with RSO Records in 1974, Eric Clapton's label.  Clapton produced and played on King's initial RSO recording, Burglar.  King then launched a tour that covered America, Europe, and Australia, then released a second RSO album, Larger Than Life.

However, the relentless touring, stress, and poor diet (there was a rumor that King was prone to drink Bloody Marys instead of solid food to save time when setting up for shows) was beginning to take a toll on King.  His health began to decline and he developed stomach ulcers, which led to his death of complications from the ulcers and acute pancreatitis in December of 1976.  He was only 42 years old.

Sadly, Freddie King sometimes falls between the cracks when the discussion of great blues guitarists gets started.  This is in part because of his untimely death in the mid 70's, at a time when the blues was at a low point, popularity-wise.  His influence is still widely felt though.  Anyone who has listened to Clapton or Stevie Ray or Jimmie Vaughan can hear the influence of King and since they continue to influence new guitarists, it's a guarantee that Freddie King's influence will continue.

Recommended Listening:

Hide Away:  The Best of Freddy King (Rhino):  King was at his best during his time with Federal Records and this Rhino set captures the best of King's stint with the label.  All the essential instrumentals (including the fantastic title track) are here and so are all of King's standout vocal performances as well.  There are three tracks from his later work with Cotillion and Shelter, but the primary focus is on the early  recordings.  If this is all the Freddy King that you ever have in your collection, you're not doing too bad, but I would recommend at least one of the Federal instrumental albums plus the vocal set that was mentioned above for a more complete look.

Ultimate Collection (Hip-O):  This 18-track set covers King's entire career from his Federal recordings through the Cotillion, Shelter, and RSO recordings.  If you want a comprehensive look at this great guitarist, this is the place to go, but the results are a bit uneven because the latter recordings lack the consistency, and sometimes the quality, of the Federal material.  Still, it's a solid, well-rounded set that won't disappoint.

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