Born Freddy King, on September 3, 1934, in Gilmer, Texas; died December 28, 1976; son of J.T. Christian and Ella Mae King;.
One of the finest blues guitarists to emerge during the late 1950s, Freddy King, though born in Texas, rose to musical promise in Chicago's West Side blues scene. His well-executed thumb and finger-picking style brought forth numerous instrumentals which influenced American and British bluesmen from Eric Clapton to Peter Green. King's 1961 instrumental hit, "Hideaway," has appeared in the repertoire of nearly every blues band performing the modern Chicago style. Though he ventured into rock and funk-oriented material in later years, his vocals and guitar work--occasionally hindered by unsuitable material and back-up musicians--were never without prowess and high-level intensity. His live performances remain legendary.
Freddy King was born the son of J.T. Christian and Ella Mae King on September 3, 1934, in Gilmer, Texas (in the 1960s his first name was listed as Freddie). His mother, a guitarist, taught him to play the instrument around the age of six. He too received lessons from his uncle, Leon King. In 1950, at age sixteen, King moved to Chicago with his mother, and not long after took a job in a steel mill. Around 1952 King formed Every Hour Blues Boys, a group which featured Chicago guitarist Jimmy Lee Robinson. In 1953 King and Robinson joined the band of harmonica player Little Sonny Cooper, with whom King made his recording studio debut for the Chicago-based Parrot label. A year later, he joined Earlee Payton's Blues Cats and again recorded on the Parrot label. Though he attempted to attract the interest of Chess Records, the label passed claiming his sound was too close to that of B.B. King's. According to King several years later the label did utilize him as studio musician. As King recalled in Blues, "I did a lot of studio work as a session man, like with Howlin' Wolf on 'Spoonful' and 'Howlin' For My Darling" (King is presumably the second "unknown" guitarist listed on the session).
Despite the Chess label's criticism that King's sound was imitative of B.B. King, Jeff Hunnusch pointed out that, in The Blackwell Guide to the Blues, "When compared with that of the popular blues artists from the 1950s, King's style was something new." Influenced by Lightin' Hopkins and Muddy Water, B.B. King, and T-Bone Walker, King created what he termed an "in-between style," a modern interpretation of the era's most famous blues guitar innovators. He attributed his melodic style to the alto saxophone lines of Louis Jordan, another musician known for full-tone and musically economical approach. By using a thumb and finger-pick King developed a highly percussive sound by plucking and dampening strings with his palm. "I never played with a pick," he explained in Blues Guitar, "I used to play with my fingers and I met Jimmy Rogers and I seen he and Muddy Waters used those two picks, so they showed me too. I used three, but then Eddie Taylor, he showed me how to get speed out of it, see." King also received instruction from Robert Junior Lockwood, the former tutor of B.B. King.
In 1954 King formed his own band and worked local clubs. Two years later, he made his first single, "Country Boy / That's What You Think," with Robert Junior Lockwood on the El-Bee label. He performed at clubs on the South and the West Side of Chicago with guitar greats like Otis Rush, Magic Sam, and a young Luther Tucker. "We'd go around and listen to each other," recalled King as quoted in Blues Guitar. "Then we'd trade licks. Me, Otis, Magic Sam, and Jody Williams--I taught Luther Allison how to play." Arkansas-born guitarist/bassist Willie D. Warren recalled, in a private interview, his early years in King's band: "We were playing two guitars mostly with drums and harmonica all up and down Madison [Street]. This was before he had the hit with 'Hideaway'--before 1958 ... He used to jump flat-footed up on the them tables ... He scared me because I thought he was going to hurt himself--you know he wasn't no little guy. Man, he could really jump and get it on."
In 1960 King was introduced, through the connections of Syl Johnson, to A&R (Artist & Repotoire) man and pianist Sonny Thompson of the Cincinnati-based King/Federal label. That same year, he signed with the label and recorded a wealth of material often featuring Sonny Thompson, drummer Philip Paul, and Bill Willis, and Fred Jordan. For his first session for the label he appeared as back-up musician on sides for Mississippi bluesman Otis "Smokey" Smothers. The day after his session with Smothers, King entered the studio and cut six numbers including "Have You Ever Loved a Woman," and "Hideaway," a tune dedicated to a Chicago nightclub, Mel's Hideaway Lounge. King related that he first heard the tune from Hound Dog Taylor and worked up a rendition with guitarist Magic Sam. Willie Dixon, however, in his autobiography I Am the Blues, related the origin of the instrumental's authorship: "There were two or three people playing their own Hideaway but the guy who really wrote 'Hideaway' was a guy called Irving Spencer...He was playing that 'Hideaway' for years before anybody paid attention to it." Nevertheless, King's interpretation of the number, with riffs borrowed from the Peter Gunn television show theme and Jimmy McCracklin's "The Walk," hit the charts and continues to be a standard for blues bands worldwide.
In 1961 King scored six singles on the R&B charts. In the wake of the success of "Hideaway" and "San-Ho-Zay," he recorded numerous instrumentals including "The Stumble," "Driving Sideways," and a superb rendition of country-western swing musician Herb Remington's number "Remington's Ride." Over his six-year span with King/Federal, 1960-66, he also recorded acclaimed vocal numbers such as Tampa Red's "You've Got to Love Her With a Feeling," "When the Welfare Turns its Back on You," and "I'm Tore Down," as well as duet-numbers with singer Lula Reed, wife of pianist Sonny Thompson. But, as explained Steven C. Tracy in Going to Cincinnati, "DJ troubles for King Records prevented Freddy from having hits after 1961, even though his output was of the highest caliber."
In 1969 he appeared at the Ann Arbor Blues Festival and recorded the album Freddy King Is a Bluesmaster for Atlantic's subsidiary label Cotillion, an effort which featured jazz saxophonist and Ray Charles alumni David "Fathead" Newman. In Blues King expressed his initial experience with the label, "When I first came to Atlantic, King Curtis was the producer, and he'd let me do exactly what I wanted." But eventually as Tim Schuller explained, as quoted in Meeting the Blues, "The label seemed bent on presenting him as a reinterpreter of standards, but his gut level playing wrenched new life from weathered classics like 'Call it Stormy Monday' and 'Ain't Nobody's Business If I Do."
Unlike his earlier work in the 1950s and in the early 1960s, King's clean, bright tone gave way to a louder, rawer amplified sound, often bearing a distorted edge--one that heavily influenced numerous rock guitarists like Eric Clapton. In a 1969 Down Beat review, Pekar observed that "Freddie King is another bluesman whose work deserves more recognition"... "His playing has something in common with B.B. King's but he is obviously his own man." As he added, "King is a fine technician and his playing swings more than most blues guitarists."
In 1971 King recorded for Shelter records and enjoyed a working relationship as co-producer with the Leon Russell. After years of recording instrumentals, the label sought to feature both his voice and guitar work. In Blues Guitar King recalled, "It's taken me a long time to get back into the vocals. Everybody wanted to hear the instrumentals. I always did do both, but they wouldn't push the vocals. When I really started singing again was with Shelter." He made several Lp's for Shelter, including Getting Ready, recorded at Chicago's Chess studio, and Woman Across the River. Getting Ready featured Don Nix's number "Goin' Down" which, with the accompaniment of Booker T and the MG's bassist Duck Dunn, is an example of King's explosive musical energy. Following his Shelter recordings he appeared on the SRO label, which produced records that blended live performances with studio material.
Though his albums began featuring rock and funk-style material, King's live shows brought audiences a fierce brand of electric blues, as exemplified in his appearance at the 1972 Ann Arbor Blues Festival, part of which was recorded for Atlantic Records. In the following year, he appeared as a guest artist and co-producer on Jimmy Rodgers' Shelter LP Gold Tailed Bird. In 1975 he toured England, Australia, and New Zealand. Returning to his home in Dallas--where he had settled in 1963--he continued to play festivals and concert dates. Suffering from bleeding ulcers and heart trouble, King collapsed after a Christmas show in 1976. He died of hepatitis and other complications on December 28, 1976, in Dallas, Texas, at the age of 42.
Recently various labels have released a number King's recordings of his 1970s live performances in the United States and Europe. But its his 1960s sides that first brought audiences innovative guitar work and a voice of smooth delivery and high falsetto bends. In this period his guitar passages and improvisations filled choruses with creative melodic ideas, each building upon the preceding statement. King played between treble and muted-bass string figures, which often echoed country or rockabilly figures while also playing highly creative turnarounds.
Throughout his career, King was famed for his explosive onstage energy. In Urban Blues, he commented on fulfilling the expectations of a blues audience: "They expect work, they does, hard work. And if you're working hard and enjoyin' it, they'll enjoy it too." In Meeting the Blues: The Rise of the Texas Sound, Texas singer Delbert McClinton attested to King's dedication to his listeners: "He was a ball of fire, the hardest working guy I ever saw. He'd get up there and blow it all out."
by John Cohassey
Freddy King's Career
Began studying guitar at age six; performed with the Every Hour Blues Band 1952; recorded with Sonny Cooper's band 1953; recorded with Earlee Payton's band on Parrot label in 1954; in the same year, formed his own band; 1956 made solo debut for the El-Bee label; recorded with King Records 1960-66; moved to Dallas 1963; played Ann Arbor Blues Festival and signed with Atlantic Records 1969; signed with Shelter Records 1971; performed at Ann Arbor Blues festival 1972; toured England, Australia, and New Zealand 1975; worked at the Antibes Jazz Festival, Antibes, France 1974; recorded with SRO label until his death in 1976.
- Selective Works
- Freddie King Sings, King 762.
- Freddy King Goes Surfin', King.
- Freddy King Gives You a Bonanza of Instrumentals, Federal.
- Takin' Care Of Business, Charly 1009 (UK).
- 17 Original Greatest Hits, Federal.
- Freddie King is a Blues Master, Atlantic, 1969.
- Woman Across the River, Shelter.
- Texas Cannonball, Shelter.
- Gettin' Ready, Shelter, 1970.
- Burglar,RSO, 1974.
- Larger Than Life, RSO, 1975.
- Freddy King 1934-76, RSO, 1977.
- The Best of Freddie King, MCA.
- Rockin' The Blues Live, Crosscut.
- Live in Nancy Vol. & Vol. 2, Crosscut.
- "Texas Cannonball" Live, Double Dutch.
- Live at the Texas Opry House, P-Vine.
- Blues Guitar, The Men Who Made the Music From the Pages of Guitar Player Magazine, edited by Jas Obrecht, 1993.
- Dixon, Willie, with Don Snowden. I Am the Blues: The Willie Dixon Story. New York: Da Capo, 1989.
- Green, Alan. Meeting the Blues: The Rise of the Texas Sound.
- Dallas: Taylor Pub. Co., 1988.
- Blackwell Guide to the Blues Records. edited by Paul Oliver.
- Cambridge, Massachusetts: Basil Blackwell Inc, 1989.
- Keil, Charles, Urban Blues, The University of Chicago Press, 1966.
- Neff, Robert, and Anthony Connor, Blues, David Godine, 1975.
- Rowe, Mike, Chicago Breakdown: The Music and the City, Da Capo, 1981.
- Tracy, Steven C. Going to Cincinatti: A History of the Blues in the Queen City, University of Illinois Press, 1993.
- Periodicals Down Beat, August 7, 1969.
- Additional information for this sketch came from an interview with Willie D. Warren, July 30, 1993, Detroit, Michigan.