“He didn’t just play the guitar — he attacked it.”
That’s how the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s website, commemorating the 2012 induction of bluesman Freddie King, described King’s sound, adding that “[h]is heavy-handed licks can still be heard today in the playing of Eric Clapton, Peter Green and Mick Taylor, all King acolytes.”
As if to drive the point home, the Hall enlisted Billy Gibbons and Dusty Hill of ZZ Top to do the posthumous honors for King at that year’s induction ceremony.
King was part of the generation of Texas-born bluesmen, which also included such firebrands as Johnny “Guitar” Watson, Albert Collins and Johnny Copeland, who fused elements of postwar blues, R&B and rock ‘n’ roll into a sound that could — and eventually did — appeal to multiple generations and diverse audiences. He was taught the rudiments of guitar by his mother and uncle in his hometown of Gilmer, Texas, and one of his early inspirations was the veteran Texas juker Lightnin’ Hopkins — a musical free spirit who broke the bonds of convention with his rhythmic, harmonic and lyric iconoclasm.
After arriving in Chicago in 1950 at the age of 15, King began to hone a more aggressive, urbanized sound. He landed a few session gigs and insinuated himself into the local club circuit with his band, the Every Hour Blues Boys. It wasn’t until 1959 that King broke through with “You’ve Got to Love Her with Feeling,” his version of a much-covered Tampa Red chestnut that recast him as a suave urban bluesman, supported by a jazz-tinged, nightclubby backing and featuring his vocals at their most mellow and urbane.
Though the B.B. King influence was clearly evident in his guitar playing, his fierce tone and aggressively percussive attack were already beginning to make themselves felt; his technique, a combination of thumb and finger-picks that harked back to his old role model, Hopkins, lent a sonic intensity to his fretwork that would soon become his trademark.
“Feeling” made some noise on the pop charts, but it didn’t appear in the R&B listings. In 1961, though, King released the song that would start him on the path to immortality. “Hide Away,” named for one of Chicago’s most popular blues clubs and based on a riff that King and fellow Chicago youngblood Magic Sam had adapted from a Hound Dog Taylor song, peaked on the No. 5 R&B and No. 29 Pop charts, making King one of the blues’ earliest “crossover” recording stars.
Its jubilant shuffle-boogie rhythm and unique, suite-like structure, fired up by King’s deft fretwork, catapulted it to instant-classic status and set the stage for King’s coronation as an avatar of what would eventually be dubbed blues-rock.
King made the R&B charts six times, all in 1961. Though four of his hits featured his vocals, the instrumental workouts — “Hide Away” and the jubilantly lurching, proto-funk “San-Ho-Zay” (No. 4 R&B, No. 47 Pop) — became his best known and most influential, especially among the young white listeners and musical aspirants who were increasingly opening their ears to blues, R&B and soul during these years. (Eric Clapton was featuring “Hide Away” at his gigs with John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers as early as 1965.)
With his unerringly precise yet fiery fretboard attack, he managed to infuse genuine blues feeling into almost everything he did.
King’s label, eager to cash in, proceeded to emphasize his prowess as a purveyor of danceable instrumental numbers, but they didn’t tame him. With his unerringly precise yet fiery fretboard attack, he managed to infuse genuine blues feeling into almost everything he did, even when saddled with material like “The Bossa Nova Watusi Twist.”
In 1968, King signed with Atlantic; that same year, he embarked on the first of what would be many sojourns overseas, where the British and European blues boom was in full swing. Realizing the cachet the word “blues” also held for hip white American teenagers and young adults (even as their Black counterparts had embraced the word “soul,” leaving “blues” far behind), Atlantic released two Freddie King LPs, “Freddie King Is a Blues Master” (1969) and ”My Feeling for the Blues” (1970).
COVER ART FOR FREDDIE KING’S “FREDDIE KING IS A BLUES MASTER” ALBUM. | SOURCE: AMAZON | 2013
For the rest of his life, though he never entirely abandoned the neighborhood clubs and show lounges in which he’d originally made his name, King would earn most of his money and solidify his reputation as a blues legend by recording and performing for primarily white audiences. In 1971, he went on to sign with Leon Russell’s Shelter label and then, a few years after that, Robert Stigwood’s RSO imprint, making his transition from traditional bluesman to blues-rock-era icon complete.
King died on December 28, 1976 at the age of 42; by most accounts, though he knew his health was failing, he toughed it out almost to the end, summoning the strength to put in solid performances despite his weakening condition.
In 1973 and 1974, though, when this in-concert film was made, he was still in robust health. Anchored by drummer Charlie Robinson and bassist Benny Turner, who was also King’s brother and who would go on to forge a remarkable latter-day career for himself in the 2000s, his band also included organist Deacon Jones and pianists David Maxwell (in ‘73) and Lewis Stephens (in ‘74).
A consummate showman, King knew by this time that though his recorded catalog included some of the blues’ most highly prized treasures, mainstream audiences were coming to be entertained, not to be improved by an edifying experience in “authenticity.” His sets featured well-known blues standards and contemporary offerings alongside some of his own material, including “Have You Ever Loved a Woman,” the first of three songs culled from his performance at the 1973 Montreux Jazz Festival.
Freddie King and company delve into the blues with feeling at the 1973 Montreux Jazz Festival.
Originally released in 1961, it never charted, but it became a highlight of King’s shows. He sets the tone immediately with an extended, slow-rolling intro, his guitar work modulating from fierce, hawk-like screams to seething murmurs and purrs. King charges through his armamentarium of string-bending techniques, harshening and intensifying them with his trademark raw-edged ebullience. His vocals are more bellowed than nuanced, with testosterone-driven power eclipsing any vestiges of longing or melancholy.
Nonetheless, we get a satisfying sample of King at his latter-day best. “Look over Yonders Wall,” a standard that King had covered on his 1969 LP “My Feeling for the Blues,” adds a little funk to the mix, largely courtesy of pianist Maxwell; again, though, King’s own solos sear relentlessly through everything, with few subtleties.
King summons genuine pathos in his vocal delivery as well as his guitar solo, which sings at least as much as it screams.
“Yonders Wall” dissolves into a cover of Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine,” on which King finally fires down the jets, bringing at least a modicum of yearning into his vocals. “Woman Across the River,” one of King’s better-known latter-day offerings (from his 1972 LP of the same name) is the first of three songs recorded in 1974 at a Stockholm club called Fun House. King summons genuine pathos in his vocal delivery as well as his guitar solo, which sings at least as much as it screams.
On B.B. King’s “Ghetto Woman,” King’s vocals reveal a welcome emotional vulnerability. In both his vocals (especially those moans) and his sweet-toned guitar leads, he plunges into the emotional depths of the song’s minor-key descents with a true sense of drama, even tragedy. The following number, “Blues Band Boogie,”a balls-to-the-wall boogie-rocker, kicks us back up into a vintage King meld of ferocity and raw-edged jubilance, harking all the way back to his Texas-to-Chicago roots. King often used this number as his set closer, but this time he seems to have inserted it to goose up the energy level, complete with a flamboyant drum solo from Robinson.
“Boogie” segues directly into “Sweet Home Chicago,” which has become one of the most sulfuric emanations from the blues “Setlist from Hell” — but maybe not so much in 1974; at the very least, its familiarity and good-time energy galvanize the Swiss crowd.
The final three numbers, from a 1973 performance at a Stockholm establishment called Opopoppa, include “Big-Legged Woman,” a jubilant, funk-propelled workout. King didn’t record the much-covered song first (that honor went to composer Israel “Poppa Stopper Tolbert), but his version is probably the best known. His vocals on the Opopoppa rendition convey genuine feeling and his guitar work cuts into the heart.
Guitarist Freddie King gets funky at Opopoppa in 1973.
During this era, I saw King perform at the Shaboo Inn in Willimantic, Connecticut. I was accompanied by a friend, an avid record collector who’d learned almost everything he knew about the blues from vintage 78s and 45s. He was nonplussed by King’s extended, high-volume guitar onslaughts, which sometimes threatened to overwhelm the songs they were supposed to be complementing. He missed, in other words, the disciplined eloquence that pre-LP studio recording had once demanded of a soloist. To him, King’s displays of virtuosity (he would have said “ego” or “self-indulgence”) represented little more than the decadence and defilement of a once-eloquent folk art.
He wasn’t dissuaded when I suggested that in the Chitlin’ Circuit jukes, roadhouses and show lounges where King had cut his teeth, partying all night long was the business at hand, and a bluesman — an entertainer, first and foremost — was expected to provide the impetus; what King had done at the Shaboo was probably not too dissimilar from what he’d been doing for most of his life.
For his part, King obviously loved those long, sweat-drenched guitar solos, and it seems clear that once he realized how well they’d get his new histrionics-enamored audiences riled up, he reveled in the opportunity. As the years progressed and his bands adapted to the aesthetics of rock (as opposed to rock ‘n’ roll), the jubilant propulsiveness of the “Hide Away” era morphed (some would say degenerated) into increasingly thunderous, sometimes bone-crunching cadences and sonic fusillades. Did those displays detract from, or enhance, the emotional immediacy? That’s probably a question that only an aficionado-geek could ask; at least in live performance, the blues has always been about a party, and that’s what Freddie King was a master at purveying.