Freddie King - Biography

Freddy (later Freddie) King was one of the leading exponents of Chicago blues guitar. His influence is evident on subsequent blues guitarists, instrumental rock and roll bands, and especially on the guitar-dominated blues-rock that developed from the British blues revival. King placed on Billboard’s pop as well as rhythm and blues charts with songs combining his plaintive, wailing vocals with his stinging, often percussive, guitar leads, but achieved his greatest success with a series of oft-covered instrumentals. King was one of the last truly legendary figures of blues music and, as is not uncommon with legends, a great deal of contradictory, unverifiable, and downright incorrect information has accumulated around the story of his life, beginning with his name.

King was born September 3, 1934, in Gilmer, Texas, a small town a bit more than 100 miles east of Dallas. Although various sources have claimed that his birth name was Frederick Christian, Freddie Christian, Freddy Christian, or even Billy Myles (the professional name of songwriter William Myles Nobles), his daughter Wanda King maintains that his mother, Ella Mae King, named him Freddy King. The birth certificate on file with the Upshur County Clerk, however, reads simply “Fred King.” When King was six years old, he began to learn guitar from his mother and one of her brothers, Leon King: there is no basis to the admittedly impressive assertion made in the liner notes of at least one of the many compilations of King’s material that he had “mastered the guitar at the age of six.” King reported that his major initial influences were bluesman Sam “Lightnin’” Hopkins and, interestingly (but unsurprisingly, given his ubiquitous popularity), proto-rock and roll bandleader Louis Jordan, whose saxophone lines King diligently imitated on guitar.

King’s mother moved to Chicago in 1949 with his stepfather, Ben Turner. At the insistence of King’s father, J.T. Christian, King stayed in Texas to finish high school. Sources differ as to exactly when King joined his mother, but he was certainly living with her in Chicago’s West Side (not the South Side, as is often erroneously assumed) by 1950 and working in a steel mill not long after. King later recounted that, at the age of 16, he began sneaking into the Zanzibar club at 13th and Ashland, where Muddy Waters was then holding forth with his band, which included guitarist Jimmy Rogers and legendary harmonica player Little Walter. Among other clubs he remembered visiting in his first years in Chicago were the Kitty Kat Club, Silvio’s, and Red’s Place.

According to his daughter Wanda’s official Freddie King website, King told of making a bet with friends one night that he would not only get into a club, but would manage to play with the house band. After accomplishing both tasks, the owner of the club reportedly attempted to make the still-underage King leave but was thwarted by the intervention of Howlin’ Wolf, who had moved to Chicago in the winter of 1953 and held forth at the Zanzibar while Waters moved to Sylvio’s. According to King, Howlin’ Wolf told him, “Young man, you pick that guitar like a old soul.” In King’s account, he was playing an acoustic guitar that evening. Guitarist Hubert Sumlin recalled a presumably later occasion when King borrowed the monstrous (for its time) Wabash brand amplifier that Sumlin used in Howlin’ Wolf’s band and played at a volume that blew out the 15 inch speaker.

King was still fingerpicking his guitar in the classic country blues style when he arrived in Chicago, but was soon influenced by Muddy Waters and his guitarist Jimmy Rogers to use a thumb pick and finger picks. Although King recalled that Waters and Rogers used two picks, King was using a thumb pick and two finger picks until Eddie Taylor showed him “how to get speed” playing with two picks. An important component of the stinging lead style that King developed was the use of a plastic thumb pick with a metal fingerpick (although some close observers claim that he sometimes also utilized his bare middle finger), as well as the use of his palm to dampen the strings to further emphasize the attack of the notes. King also cited Robert Lockwood, Junior (a.k.a. “Robert Junior” Lockwood), as a mentor.

King formed the Every Hour Blues Boys in 1952 with Jimmie Lee Robinson, who had previously performed in a duo with Eddie Taylor. Robinson later stated that he was in a welfare office, having just gotten out of prison, when he met King. King told Robinson that he had an upcoming gig but no band. Further complicating matters was that King lacked an electric guitar and amp. Robinson got a friend to loan King a guitar and amp for the show, launching a partnership that would last several years. They soon brought drummer Frank “Little Sonny” Scott into the band; some sources state that King and Robinson left Scott behind in 1953, when they joined harp player Little Sonny Cooper’s band, but King later said that Scott also played with Little Sonny Cooper during their frequent shows at Walton’s Corner. Years later, Walton’s Corner was bought by T.J. McNulty, who was playing in King’s band at the time, and renamed TJ’s.

King played on Little Sonny Cooper’s sessions for Parrot Records (run by Chicago disc jockey Al “Swingmaster” Benson, and no relation to the later English label of the same name), though none of the recordings were released. King also played in Earlee Payton’s Blues Cats, who also recorded for Parrot; again, no releases resulted. In 1956, King recorded “Country Boy” and “That’s What You Think,” which were paired for 45 release by Chicago’s El-Bee records in 1957. On “Country Boy,” King dueted with El-Bee owner Margaret Whitfield. Whitfield also appeared as a vocalist on Jimmy Rogers’s “Trace of You”; more notably, she ran the Chicago nightspot The Hollywood Rendezvous Club (not to be confused with drag comedian Ray Bourbon’s L.A. club, the Rendezvous), where Little Walter Jacobs regularly performed. Although some writers have unaccountably assumed that Whitfield was King’s wife, King had been married since 1952 to a fellow Texas transplant named Jessie Burnett.

By 1958, King was able to quit his job at the steel mill, as he was earning sufficient money from his musical endeavors. In addition to playing taverns and clubs alongside other up and coming notables such as Otis Rush and Magic Sam (who was King’s neighbor), he was also doing session work. Among the recording sessions that King later reported playing on (without receiving credit): Muddy Waters’s “Blow Wind Blow” (recorded September of 1953) and “I’m Ready” (recorded September of 1954); at least some of Magic Sam’s 1957 recordings for Cobra; and Howlin’ Wolf’s “Howlin’ For My Darling” (recorded July of 1959) and “Spoonful” (recorded in June of 1960). Hubert Sumlin has confirmed as well as denied King's appearance on the Howlin’ Wolf recordings. King unsuccessfully auditioned for Chess Records, perhaps several times between 1956-1959. He was reportedly told that his vocal style was too similar to that of B.B. King.

King attracted the attention of pianist and talent scout Alphonse “Sonny” Thompson, who signed him to Federal, a subsidiary of Cincinnati’s King Records, in 1960. Thompson had topped the R&B charts in 1948 with his instrumentals, “Long Gone” and “Late Freight,” for Miracle Records. Thompson subsequently signed to King Records, where he recorded his composition “Drown in My Own Tears” with his future wife Lula Reed as featured vocalist in 1951. Thompson’s band continued to back Reed when she moved to the Chess subsidiary label Argo in June of 1957. In 1959, Thompson became the Chicago A&R man for King Records when Ralph Bass left King to join the Chess staff.

One version of King’s initial meeting with Thompson, endorsed by King’s daughter Wanda on the official Freddie King website, is that it occurred at Chess Records in 1959 while King was making his final bid for a record deal with them; other sources maintain that vocalist Syl Johnson introduced the two in 1960. King was on one occasion quoted as saying that Thompson came to Mel’s Hideaway Lounge specifically to hear him; it is of course possible that Thompson went to Mel’s Hideaway at Johnson’s behest.

King was in the King Records studio on August 25, 1960, the day before his first Federal/King Records session was scheduled; on the spur of the moment, he offered to replace the session guitarist and wound up playing guitar on the entire session Sonny Thompson produced that day of Otis “Smokey” Smothers, another Howling Wolf associate who had been turned down by Chess. On the following day, August 26, King made his first recordings for Federal. He was backed by King Records session players, including producer Sonny Thompson on piano. The first release from this session was “Have You Ever Loved A Woman”/“You’ve Got To Love Her With A Feeling”: both sides were vocal numbers, contrary to those who maintain that King’s Federal singles all had vocal selections backed with instrumentals. “You’ve Got To Love Her With A Feeling,” a remake of Tampa Red’s 1938 “Love With A Feeling,” made Billboard’s R&B charts as well as briefly penetrating its Hot 100 for two weeks, where it topped at 93.

Also drawn from this session was the 1961 single “Hide Away”/“I Love The Woman” single. “Hide Away,” named after Mel’s Hideaway Lounge, was a regular part of King’s live sets and was the only instrumental recorded at his initial Federal session. Based on an infectious (and oft-borrowed) riff from Hound Dog Taylor’s “Hound Dog’s Boogie,” with elements of Jimmy McCracklin’s 1958 hit “The Walk” as well as the Henry Mancini-composed theme of the television show Peter Gunn, “Hide Away” reached 5 on Billboard’s R&B charts and 29 on its Hot 100. “Hide Away” quickly became a standard, turned to by countless bar bands over the years when an instantly recognizable crowd pleaser was needed.

Willie Dixon later claimed that King had recorded a version of  “Hide Away” for Cobra; this seems doubtful, as no Cobra recordings of King have surfaced. Dixon may have been thinking of Magic Sam’s “Do the Camel Walk,” also based on “Taylor’s Boogie,” which Dixon produced for Chief Records, with further confusion possibly caused by a recollection of Magic Sam’s Cobra instrumental “Magic Rocker” and King’s participation in some of Magic Sam’s Cobra recordings. For what it’s worth, Dixon also claimed that the originator of the “Hide Away” riff was a musician named Irving Spencer.

Given the breakthrough success of “Hide Away,” as well as the continued success of Bill Doggett’s instrumental releases on King Records (reaching as far back as 1956’s “Honky Tonk”) and the more recent guitar-dominated instrumental hits of Duane Eddy and the Ventures, it’s hardly surprising that King’s next recording session (April 5, 1961) should consist entirely of instrumentals, reportedly at the insistence of label chief Syd Nathan. According to King Records session player Bill Willis, who played bass on all of King’s recordings from 1960 through 1962, King was intent upon making hits and was more than willing to accommodate the instrumental trend of the time, as King felt he could do so without compromising his style.

Willis recalled the typical preparation for a Freddy King recording session, King and Thompson working up the material in one day, possibly with some of the session band listening in, the whole band rehearsing the material the next day, and recording the material the day after that. He also recalled that the sessions were easy-going, as he found King lacking the oversize ego that characterized many of the other bluesmen with whom he worked. King’s next single, “Lonesome Whistle Blues”/“It’s Too Bad Things Are Going So Tough,” comprised another two vocal tracks from the first Federal session. “Lonesome Whistle Blues” made the R&B Top 10, it only reached 88 on the Hot 100. This was followed by “San-Ho-Zay,” an instrumental, backed with “See See Baby,” a vocal. “San Ho Zay” made 47 on the Hot 100.

King released another three more singles on Federal (including his foray into the subgenre of Yuletide blues, “Christmas Tears”/“I Hear Jingle Bells”) in 1961, as well as two albums on King Records. His first album, Freddie King Sings (1961 King), consisted of the non-"Hide Away" songs from King’s first recording date plus “Takin’ Care of Business” from a later session. This was followed by Let’s Hide Away and Dance Away With Freddy King (Strictly Instrumental) (1961 King), which was primarily material recorded at King’s second session. Both albums showcase Freddie King at his best. The vocal album features classics such as “You’ve Got to Love Her With A Feeling,” “I Love the Woman,” “I’m Tore Down,” and “Have You Ever Loved A Woman.” King acolyte Eric Clapton recorded “Have You Ever Loved A Woman” numerous times, first and most famously with Derek and the Dominoes, then on various live albums. “Have You Ever Loved A Woman” and “I Love The Woman” were composed by Billy Myles, which is probably the basis for the erroneous assumption that Billy Myles was King’s real name.

The instrumental album includes “Hide Away,” “San-Ho-Zay,” “The Stumble,” “In The Open,” and “Heads Up.” Among the more noted performers to record cover versions of “Hideaway” are Eric Clapton (during his stint with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers), Travis Wammack, and saxophone legend King Curtis. "San-Ho-Zay" has been recorded by Magic Sam, Jr. Walker and the All-Stars, and Mexico’s Los Hitters, who retitled it “Guitarra Hitter’s” (Los Hitters also recorded an original instrumental, “Mary Y Juana,” that was very much in the King mold). “The Stumble” was recorded by Dave Edmunds’ Love Sculpture, Peter Green (during his stint with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers), Jeff Beck (with the Yardbirds on a live BBC recording that has turned up on bootlegs, then decades later with studio musicians for the soundtrack of the Danny DeVito/Governor Schwarzenegger film, Twins), and Gary Moore; it has also turned up on live recordings of prog-rock pioneers Soft Machine. “In the Open” is covered by Stevie Ray Vaughan on his live In The Beginning album (1992 Epic).

King’s hitmaking status not only gave him an increased profile in the Chicago blues scene, but allowed him to be booked on various package tours featuring rhythm and blues and rock and roll acts. He was back in Cincinatti to do more recording in early 1962, including some pop-oriented R&B vocal selections with Lula Reed, who was by that married to Sonny Thompson. This collaboration resulted in various singles, as well as the Freddy King, Lula Reed, and Sonny Thompson Boy-Girl-Boy album (1962 King), sometimes referred to as Two Boys And A Girl). The most noted of the King/Reed songs is “Do The President Twist”; although it failed to make much impression upon the listening public, this enjoyably hokey attempt to cash in on both the Twist and Kennedy crazes has attained a certain cachet among collector-enthusiasts.

Also recorded in 1962 were the tracks that made up Bossa Nova And The Blues (1963 King), which is the mixed bag that the title suggests but a fine album nonetheless. “Bossa Nova Blues” (a reworking of “Hide Away”) and “The Bossa Nova Watusi Twist” (a goofily unwieldy title that would seem to indicate either desperation or a presciently pomo sense of humor on the part of the titler), an effectively moody instrumental, seem the only overt attempts to piggyback on Bossa Nova’s brief popularity in the United States. While there are latin-tinged rhythms evident many of the vocal selections, most are rhythm and blues numbers that lean towards soulful pop of the type favored by Northern Soul fans. “The Welfare (Turns Its Back on You)” is the sole example of wailing blues in the classic Chicago style on this eclectic, but highly enjoyable, album.

1963 also saw King Records make several attempts to cash in on the surf music and surf culture craze, titling one of King’s instrumental singles “Surf Monkey” and releasing the notorious Freddy King Goes Surfin’ (1963 King), which was merely a re-release of the Hide Away and Dance Away album with a cover featuring a semi-silhouette photo of two white couples with two surfboards, quite probably from the same photo shoot as the Surfin’ On Wave Nine compilation (1963 King). King was under the impression that King Records had not only dubbed in audience noise, but changed the titles of the songs, but the titles are actually the same as on the “Hide Away and Dance Away” album. This seems to demonstrate how little King was concerned with the titles of his instrumentals: in fact, “Hide Away” and “Just Pickin’” were the only two that he recalled christening.

King had a series of vocal/instrumental singles on Federal in 1964: “Meet Me At the Station”/“King-A-Ling,” “Someday After Awhile”/“Driving Sideways,” and “She Put the Whammy On Me”/“High Rise” were all fine work, yet none were commercial successes. King attributes this to Syd Nathan’s waning influence on Top 40 radio stations. While Nathan was certainly, and unsurprisingly, concentrating much of his resources on maximizing his success with James Brown’s records, the rise of Soul Brother Number One was also an indication of a change in popular taste. For the time being, however, King could still count on well-attended live shows. Between constant touring and spending time with his family, who had relocated to Dallas in late 1962, King had increasingly little time for recording. For the instrumental side of King’s next single, Federal had to reach back to his second session for “Onion Rings,” which had failed to make the cut for the Hide Away And Dance Away album.

King made it to Cincinnati in August of 1964 for what was to be his next to last recording sessions for Federal/King Records. Most of Freddy King Gives You A Bonanza of Instrumentals (1965 King) was drawn from this session, and it features King at the peak of his form. Especially notable is “Remington Ride,” a composition by former Texas Playboy steel guitarist Herb Remington that was originally recorded for King Records while Remington was in underrated hillbilly be-bopper Hank Penny’s band. Although some sources claim that Remington and other members of Penny’s band appeared on King’s version, both Remington and Penny were long gone from the vicinity of King Records by 1964. Be that as it may, King’s brilliant rendition is a fine reminder of the essential yet oft-ignored cross-pollination between the blues and hillbilly/country music.

Another LP, Freddy King Sings Again, is listed in some discographies as King Records 931, which would make it a 1965 release. However, this may have merely been a scheduled release that never saw the light of day, a not uncommon occurrence in the last years of King Records before it was acquired by Starday. If it was in fact released, it was in sufficiently limited quantity to make it by far the scarcest Freddy King LP. More than two years later, in September of 1966, King made his final recordings for King Records. It is sometimes claimed that King was backed by Lonnie Mack’s band, even though the only musician besides King and Mack known to have played on the session is drummer Frank Charles, who does not appear to be otherwise connected to Mack (Mack’s drummer on recordings at the time was Ron Grayson). Two of the four songs recorded, “Girl From Kookamunga” and “Double Eyed Whammy,” were covers of Tommy Ridgley compositions (credited to King and T. Rizby when released on King Records as singles, backed with “You’ve Got Me Licked” and “Use What You’ve Got” respectively). Interestingly, Ridgeley’s original version of  “Double Eyed Whammy,” which was released in 1961, features a riff similar to the main riff of King’s “San-Ho-Zay,” but King’s cover of “Double Eyed Whammy” omits that riff.

In 1966, King made a series of remarkable appearances on the legendary R&B/soul music show The!!!!Beat, which have been collected on VHS and DVD (DVDs of the programs in their entirety have also been released). It has frequently been claimed that King came to the attention of King Curtis as a result of these appearances, though these claims all seem to be the all too common parroting of a single unsupported claim. Curtis had already recorded a version of “Hide Away,” so he was certainly aware of King before 1966, but it wasn’t until 1968 that Curtis was able to get King signed to Atlantic subsidiary Cotillion Records.

Two albums produced by King Curtis resulted, both with the new spelling of King’s first name: Freddie King Is A Blues Master (1969 Cotillion) and My Feeling For the Blues, (1970 Cotillion). Backing band the Kingpins favor a relaxed approach, even when injecting a certain amount of funk, as on the reworking of “Hide Away” on Blues Master. Many King fans, especially blues purists, tend to regard these albums as King at substantially less than his best, with the exception of an acoustic version of Guitar Slim’s “Things I Used to Do” that stands in sharp contrast to the slick rendering of the other blues chestnuts covered on My Feeling For the Blues. Nonetheless, there are also those who hold the laidback, soulful blues rock of these albums in high regard. King, for his part, was only dissatisfied that his guitar was mixed too low on the first of these albums.

As a live performer, King had dealt with the decreased demand for blues performers on the black entertainment circuit by taking advantage of opportunities afforded by the popularity of his English blues rock disciples (though it should be mentioned that King had a substantial following among young whites in the US throughout the Sixties, as did Jimmy Reed). He was sometimes backed by bands such as Steamhammer and Killing Floor when he toured Europe in the late Sixties; he found that the British bands played loud, even by his standards, but had no difficulty in dishing out guitar pyrotechnics suited to the heavy blues rock style popular at the time.

In the US, a major turning point in his career was his appearance at 1969’s Texas International Pop Festival, where B.B. King, Led Zeppelin, 10 Years After, Sly and the Family Stone, Shiva’s Headband, and Grand Funk Railroad (who, having just signed to Capitol Records, agreed to play without compensation for the sake of exposure). The festival’s promoters, Angus G. Wynne III and Jack Calmes, had previously run the Dallas nightclub Soul City, where Calmes had also played guitar in the house band, backing King on several occasions. After the festival, Calmes became King’s manager. The connections that Calmes made as a promoter, as well as provider of sound and, later, lighting systems for touring bands, allowed him to further expose King to rock audiences primed by years of hearing bands play second-hand blue licks. After King’s Cotillion contract expired, a 1970 show at LA’s Troubadour attracted the interest of Shelter Records principals Leon Russell and Denny Cordell.

Compared to King’s Federal sides, the musical accompaniment on the Shelter albums is subdued (with the possible exception of Russell’s keyboard work, which is at times either inventive or obtrusive, according to one’s taste); there is nevertheless a welcome swagger and bounce in the rhythm section that was lacking on the Cotillion albums, causing many to welcome the Shelter album as a return to form. King reworks a number of classic blues songs on Getting Ready… (1971 Shelter), but his powerful version of the recent Don Nix composition “Going Down” (originally recorded by Memphis blues rock band Moloch on their 1970 Nix-produced album on Stax’s Enterprise subsidiary) was the album’s standout, becoming the signature piece of King’s post-Federal career.

Both The Texas Cannonball (1972 Shelter) and Woman Across the River (1973 Shelter) are similarly calculated to please enthusiasts of that era’s mellow blues rock, although the latter LP swings considerably less owing to absence of bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn’s and the presence of drummer Jim Keltner. King continued to make inroads into the post-hippie rock scene, playing four shows at the Fillmore West in June of 1971 (with Albert King and Mott the Hoople) and opening tours for Creedence Clearwater Revival and Grand Funk Railroad. Grand Funk’s hit, “We’re An American Band,” contains the couplet: “Up all night with Freddie King; I’ve got to tell you, poker’s his thing.”  Drummer Don Brewer, who wrote the song, stated that post-show poker games with King, in which Grand Funk members sometimes participated, were mandatory for King’s band. “He’d pay them and then he’d go win all the money back,” Brewer recounted.

A live recording of a 1974 King concert at Atlanta’s Electric Ballroom, posthumously released as Live At the Electric Ballroom (2006 Shout! Factory), is unsurprisingly less polished than his Seventies studio releases; it is also perhaps the best showcase of his work in that period. In addition to the concert recordings, it also features two songs on which King plays acoustic guitar, about which he displays an unwarranted modesty in accompanying interview segments. When the initial term of King’s Shelter contract expired, Shelter wanted to renew his contract but were unwilling to offer an advance. Clapton encouraged King to sign with Robert Stigwood’s RSO Records. King and manager Calmes showed up to one of the first shows on Clapton’s first US tour as a solo performer in 1974; an abundance of good cheer, in the form of tequila shots, subsequently transpired between Clapton and King. King, apparently unimpaired, played a well-received warm up set; Clapton, on the other hand, played so badly that the audience booed him off stage, much to the displeasure of his manager, Stigwood. King nonetheless went on to open many shows for Clapton, as well as appearing onstage with him whenever King’s schedule permitted.

Burglar (1974 RSO), produced by Clapton, continues King’s musical journey into merging his blues sensibilities with the mellow sensibility prominent in mainstream Seventies rock. As with the rest of his post-Federal/King Records studio work, it is dismissed by some listeners and championed by others. The live cuts on Larger Than Life (1975 RSO) are, unsurprisingly, generally regarded as the album’s most successful, with a firm consensus holding that the least successful is the disco-blues “Boogie Bump,” although there may yet arise some DJ infused with sufficient irony to champion it. Freddie King 1934-1976 (1977 RSO) is a posthumous selection of mostly creditable odds and ends, including Clapton and King performing “Further On Down the Road” together.

Despite developing bleeding ulcers and other health complications, King performed up until the last week of his life. On December 28, 1976, he died at the Presbyterian Hospital of Dallas from heart failure caused by pancreatitis.

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