Freddie King was one of three blues giants with the surname King—along with B.B. and Albert—who were all unrelated.
Freddie was a forceful presence and formidable figure in two of the most prominent blues scenes. In the state he was born in (and to which he eventually returned), he was known as the “Texas Cannonball.” For much of the Fifties and early Sixties, he was a Chicago blues legend, particularly on the city’s West Side. Revered by his fans and respected by his peers, King was best-known for his searing, assertive solos and dynamic showmanship.
Living and singing the Blues
Born in Gilmer, Texas, King got his first guitar when he was five years old. “You might say I came from a blues family,” he said in 1971, noting that his mother and uncles played blues.
“Blues was the music I was born with.”
He grew up listening to and learning the styles of such country-blues figures as Blind Lemon Jefferson, Arthur Crudup, Big Bill Broonzy and Ligntnin’ Hopkins. He was also heavily influenced by B.B. King and T-Bone Walker.
His first guitar was a silvertone acoustic. His most prized guitar at that time was his Roy Roger acoustic. In a interview years later he recalled going to the general store to order it. The store owner asked him if his mother knew he was trying to order a guitar on her store account. Freddie replied ” no”. The store owner told him to get permission. His mother said “no”. She told him, “if you want a new guitar you will have to work for it.” He stated that he picked cotton just long enough to earn the money to purchase a Roger’s guitar.
After King’s family moved to Chicago from Texas, the teenager began playing the same local blues scene as Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, Otis Rush and other Windy City legends, often joining in with Jimmy Rogers’s band.By night, Freddie mixed with Chicago’s finest bluesmen: Howlin’ Wolf told him, “Son, the Lord sure put you here to play the blues.” It was the usual sort of tale for an aspiring electric bluesmen, but there were many of those in ‘50s Chicago, and Freddie didn’t have it all easy. King signed with Federal Records in 1960 and began cutting a string of influential records produced by the label’s owner Syd Nathan. His first single on Federal was “Have You Ever Loved A Woman.” It reached 92 on the pop chart, but became part of blues and rock history. Eric Clapton and Duane Allman recorded their historic guitar-duet version on Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs.
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.
Perhaps because of this “vocal-lead” style of guitar playing, King specialized in instrumentals that generally had a lot more swagger and swing than the rest of the genre. Even without lyrics, such numbers as “San-Ho-Zay,” “The Stumble” and “In the Open” (Stevie Ray Vaughan’s set-opener for years) set a vivid scenario. Chief among King’s wordless classics, however, is “Hide Away,” which has been the compulsory blues instrumental for 30 years. If you’ve spent any time in Texas blues clubs, you’ve heard it. Playing “Hide Away” is like showing your license to play the blues, and although the song’s structure was nicked from Hound Dog Taylor, with riffs pirated from “Peter Gunn” and “The Walk,” it remains a rich part of the legacy of Freddie King.
In 1969, King hired Jack Calmes as his manager, who secured him an appearance at the 1969 Texas Pop Festival, alongside Led Zeppelin and others, and this led to King’s being signed to Leon Russell’s new label, Shelter Records. The company treated King as an important artist, flying him to Chicago to the former Chess studios for the recording of Getting Ready and gave him a backing line-up of top session musicians, including rock pianist Leon Russell.
“Freddie is truly one of the all-time greats. He’s just one of those guys who seemed to be able to summon this limitless energy. When it was time to go, he just had another gear that most people just do not have.” Derek Trucks
Rock audiences and Blues loyalists all enjoyed a great run in the early to mid seventies when Freddy King carried the torch of the Blues for all to see. Performing close to 300 shows a year and enduring a brutal, constant schedule, King started to experience health issues. On December 28, 1976, Freddy King passed away due to complications from stomach ulcers. The world lost one of the greatest musicians to ever grace the planet. King was a giant in every sense of the word.
In a 1985 interview, Eric Clapton cited Freddy King’s 1961 B side “I Love the Woman” as “the first time I heard that electric lead-guitar style, with the bent notes… [it] started me on my path.” Clapton shared his love of King with fellow British guitar heroes Peter Green, Jeff Beck and Mick Taylor, all of whom were profoundly influenced by King’s sharpened-treble tone and curt melodic hooks on iconic singles such as “The Stumble,” “I’m Tore Down” and “Someday, After Awhile.” Nicknamed “The Texas Cannonball” for his imposing build and incendiary live shows, King had a unique guitar attack. “Steel on steel is an unforgettable sound,” says Derek Trucks, referring to King’s use of metal banjo picks. “But it’s gotta be in the right hands. The way he used it – man, you were going to hear that guitar.” Trucks can still hear King’s huge impact on Clapton. “When I played with Eric,” Trucks said recently, “there were times when he would take solos and I would get that Freddy vibe.”
Texas blues are about loving all kinds of music with guts, whether it’s country, jazz or R&B, and they’re about respecting the past while blazing new trails. Although T-Bone Walker practically invented this rawhide style of electric blues, it was King who revved it up for the rock crowd by hoeing the turf between Walker and B.B. King.
During a 20-year recording career, King registered only one top-40 hit, when “Hide Away” peaked at No. 29 on the Billboard singles chart in 1961, but he was a sensation at hippie rock clubs all over the United States, from the Fillmore East to the Fillmore West. And he always stole the show in the European festivals.
“He taught me just about everything I needed to know…. when and when not to make a stand…when and when not to show your hand,” said Clapton in 1977. “And most important of all… how to make love to your guitar.”