Freddie King

Freddie King

One of the key figures in guitar blues
Date of Birth: 03.09.1934
Country: USA

  1. Biography of Freddie King
  2. Early Career
  3. Breakthrough and Success
  4. Later Career and Legacy

Biography of Freddie King

Freddie King, one of the key figures in blues guitar, had a tremendous influence on English musicians who created blues-rock in the 1960s. He was born on September 3, 1934, in Gilmer, Texas, to J.T. Christian and Ella May King. Although neither B.B. King nor Albert King were his relatives, the former undoubtedly influenced him, and the latter claimed that Freddie was his stepbrother.

Freddie was introduced to the guitar by his mother and his uncle, Leon King, who started teaching the six-year-old boy. His first instrument was a Silvertone acoustic guitar, followed by a Kay guitar, and after purchasing his first Gibson, Freddie never played anything else. He started with country blues, but as a teenager, he became passionate about the electric guitars of the Chicago style. In December 1950, his family moved to Chicago, where the teenager found work at a steel foundry. However, he never forgot about music. In an interview with Bruce Iglauer in 1971, he said, "When I finished school, we left Texas; I was sixteen. We lived right around the corner from the Zanzibar Club, and I met Muddy Waters. I'd sneak around the back door - Muddy would let me in - and I'd sit by the stage, listen. They had Jimmy Rogers playing there, Muddy, Elgin and Little Walter, the whole band." His interactions with musicians from the clubs on Chicago's West Side and his childhood memories of Blind Lemon Jefferson and Mercy Dee Walton, whom he had heard in Texas, gave King a comprehensive understanding of the blues, from its roots to its more urban, edgy sound. "When I was working in Chicago, that's when I first started playing in a band," he said in the aforementioned interview, "But I played guitar when I was six years old. My style is somewhere in between Lightnin' Hopkins or Muddy Waters and B.B. King or T-Bone Walker. It's an intermediate style, you know? I play both the old way and the urban way." Freddie played in many bands, both others' and his own, and by 1958, he had left his exhausting foundry job for good. His distinctive feature was his guitar style, which he called a "heavy hand attack." He avoided using a slide and played with both plastic and steel picks alternately, controlling the sound by muting the strings with the back of his hand. As a result, his guitar sound was easily recognizable and simultaneously unique.

Early Career

King began playing in local nightclubs with various groups until he formed his own band called The Every Hour Blues Boys, in which he played with Jimmy Lee Robinson. Later, King played in harmonica player Little Sonny Cooper's group and Earlee Payton's Blues Cats (Payton also played harmonica). He made his first studio recordings with these groups, which were released on the small Parrot label in 1953 and 1954. When Parrot went bankrupt, one of the co-owners started a new company called El-Bee and recorded Freddie's debut single, "Country Boy/That's What You Think," which went unnoticed. Around the same time, King also recorded for the Cobra label (which, for example, released the first recordings of the remarkable bluesman Otis Rush), but this material was never released. The famous blues label Chess declined to sign King, considering him too similar to his namesake B.B. However, Freddie worked at Chess as a session musician, and his distinctive sound can be heard on such classic recordings as Howlin' Wolf's "Spoonful."

Breakthrough and Success

Freddie King recorded his first single, "Country Boy," in 1957 for one of the small independent labels. Thanks to his tireless club performances, Freddie's reputation grew, and soon, based on the recommendation of pianist Sonny Thompson, he was offered a contract with Federal Records. His first session for the label, which took place on August 26, 1960, set the tone for all his subsequent recordings. It was held in Cincinnati, where Freddie had to travel, leaving his band in Chicago. Instead of them, Freddie recorded with studio aces such as Bill Willis on bass, Philip Paul on drums, and the aforementioned Sonny Thompson on piano.

It was during this time that he and Thompson co-wrote Freddie's most famous piece, an instrumental named after the club where Freddie often played: "Hide Away." It was a true encyclopedia of blues riffs borrowed from Hound Dog Taylor, Jimmy McCracklin ("The Walk"), Hollywood composer Henry Mancini ("The Peter Gunn Theme" - the famous theme from the film, versions of which were recorded by everyone from surfer Duane Eddy to the progressive rockers Emerson, Lake & Palmer), and included a lowered chord that Freddie had learned from his friend Robert Lockwood. "Hide Away" was a resounding success, reaching the fifth spot on the rhythm and blues charts and twenty-ninth on Billboard's Top 40. This song became an essential part of the repertoire for bands playing in bars and clubs. "If you didn't know how to play 'Hide Away,'" recalled Jimmy Vaughan, Stevie Ray Vaughan's brother, "you might as well go home with your guitar." Additionally, although he never intended to, Freddie earned a reputation as an instrumentalist. "They all forgot about vocals," he later recalled, "and I kept recording instrumentals. They really thought I couldn't sing, you know - they thought I was a guitarist, that's all." (It's worth noting that the classic version of the song "Have You Ever Loved A Woman?" was sung by Freddie and was recorded during the same session as "Hide Away.") The American trend for guitar instrumentals, sparked by The Ventures and the aforementioned Duane Eddy, turned all six singles recorded in 1961 into hits. In 1961, Freddie released two LPs - one with vocals and one entirely instrumental. Some of the tracks from these albums became blues classics: Magic Sam and Albert King performed "San-Ho-Zay," Peter Green and Dave Edmunds recorded a version of "The Stumble," and a young Mick Taylor shone for the first time with John Mayall on "Driving Sideways."

Over the span of six years at Federal, Freddie recorded about a hundred compositions, mostly without vocals, with titles like "The Bossa Nova Watusi Twist" or "Surf Monkey." Freddie only named two of his instrumentals: "Hide Away" and "Just Pickin'." The rest of the titles were chosen by the company's managers, who tried to squeeze as much money as possible from the surf, Hawaiian, Brazilian music trends, and so on. This intrusive management eventually led Freddie to break his contract with the company: "Why did I stop working with them... For two years, I didn't record anywhere, I only made money from concerts... Because they made me do what they said! They have a desk rat there, he sits at his desk all day while you play for people. Basically, he sits there, he doesn't see anything - he doesn't see how people dance, or how they react to what you play; you come to record, and he tells you: 'Play this!' Whether you like it or not - play it. To hell with them!" Freddie's dissatisfaction was also due to the fact that the label invested all its money in promoting its most commercially successful musician - James Brown (soul/funk), without caring about the others. Young musician Freddie had heard many stories about how companies cheated his colleagues, so he approached business dealings with concert organizers and record companies very cautiously and never hesitated to speak up if he felt he was being treated worse than he deserved. In '63, he moved to Dallas, indulging in his passion for hunting and fishing. "I grew up in a big city, cities are cool. But I love open spaces, I love fresh air. That's just who I am." Freddie continued to regularly play in clubs, but without new recordings, he gradually became forgotten. For a few years, as he put it, "things just didn't go well for me."

However, the "British Invasion" sparked new interest in the blues in America, and Freddie returned to the public eye. Cream with Eric Clapton, John Mayall, and bands like Chicken Shack (with whom King played on his first tour of England in October '67) revived his music. Freddie (who had changed the spelling of his name from Freddy to Freddie) signed a new contract with Cotillion in 1968 and recorded two albums produced by the legendary saxophonist King Curtis. Freddie hoped that Curtis could recreate the live sound in the studio, but the results of the first recording, released under the title "Freddie King Is A Blues Master," disappointed him. His guitar got lost in the mix, while the studio musicians were at the forefront. The next recording for the label, "My Feeling For The Blues" ('69), turned out to be his last.

Later Career and Legacy

The next company to offer Freddie King a contract was Atlantic/Cotillion. With them, King made two albums, both produced by King Curtis. Furthermore, not a single song performed by Freddie made it into the charts.

In 1971, King began working with Shelter Records, founded by rock musician Leon Russell and producer Denny Cordell. The three albums he recorded for Shelter - "Getting Ready" ('71), "Texas Cannonball" ('72), and "Woman Across The River" ('73) - were the result of both Freddie and Russell's work. Russell wrote a significant portion of the material, and the rock sound that characterized these recordings was undoubtedly his doing. However, despite the rock context, these albums were true blues. Almost half of Freddie's recordings on Shelter were versions of classics belonging to his teachers and colleagues. Wonderfully performed versions of "Key To The Highway" by Big Bill Broonzy and "Dust My Broom" by Elmore James paid homage to the founding fathers of the blues, while versions of songs by Lowell Fulson, Howlin' Wolf, and Little Milton showed King's respect for his contemporaries. Over time, these recordings have become classic blues-rock.

Russell/King proved to be a successful partnership: these albums were highly successful with both the blues and rock audiences. And one song written by Don Nix and Russell for King - "Going Down" - replaced "Hide Away" as the finale of his concerts. Inspired by Little Richard's maniacal piano playing, pulsating bass, and, of course, Freddie's piercing guitar solos, "Going Down" became a blues standard. During their joint tour in '89, Jeff Beck and Stevie Ray Vaughan ended each concert with this song - a duet that turned into a duel every time.

Unfortunately, Shelter did not last long, and in 1974, Freddie changed companies once again. Upon the suggestion of his new friend and "student" Eric Clapton, King signed a contract with RSO. In the final years of his life, Freddie King released two albums, one of which was produced by Clapton. On the albums "Burglar" ('74) and "Larger Than Life" ('75), the musical content often got lost behind bombastic arrangements. However, it is worth noting that in his later years, Freddie played a different style of music in his concerts than in the studio, remaining true to the blues. The studio recordings from this period have more in common with soul, funk, and rock.

In 1976, King embarked on a U.S. tour, despite doctors strongly advising against it. On December 29, King passed away from a heart attack. He left behind a legacy at the age of 42, having had a tremendous influence on blues guitar and blues-rock.

Freddie King was a true giant of the blues, both literally and figuratively. During his live performances, this two-meter whirlwind with a guitar amazed audiences with his magnetism, accompanying his emotional vocals and piercing guitar sound with frantic circles on stage, often finishing the show drenched in sweat. He fiercely competed with other musicians, leaving no doubt in the minds of the audience that they were witnessing a living legend. (Eric Clapton told his biographer Ray Coleman that playing on the same stage as Freddie King was more exciting than with anyone else.)