If you’ve spent any time in a Texas blues club, you’ve heard not only T-Bone Walker, but Freddie King, whose influence goes beyond notes, style and material. The “Texas Cannonball” is there in the stinging leads that pierce precaution and in the low-slung blues breakers that remind everyone to tip the waitress or bartender. King’s been dead since 1976, the victim of acute pancreatitis at age 42, yet he’s still alive in the growling defiance of last-call favorite “Goin’ Down.” When King sang “Have you ever loved a woman, so much that you tremble in pain?,” you could be certain that this huge, soulful man had, so it was easier to admit that so had you. Like the comfort zone marked by the smell of good barbecue, the spirit of Freddie King (or “Freddy,” as it was spelled in the early years) engulfs blues joints. He practically stamped the walls with his outline, so massive was his stage presence in form and function.
“When he was alive, he was the most alive human being you’ve ever seen,” said Eddie Wilson of the Armadillo World Headquarters, which came to be known as “The House That Freddie Built.” He played the club for a 50/50 split and never asked for more, even after he was selling it out. “He just seemed so young and healthy even a few months before he passed away,” said Wilson.
Texas blues is ’bout loving all kinds of music with guts, whether it’s country, jazz or R&B, and it’s ’bout respecting the past while blazing new trails. Although T-Bone invented electric blues, it was Freddie who revved it up for the rock crowd with his stinging, right-hand attack. Moving from Texas to Chicago with his family at age 16, his hero Muddy Waters would sneak him in through the side door of Club Zanzibar. Muddy’s guitarist Jimmy Rogers showed Freddie how to use a plastic thumbpick and metal fingerpick to give an urban edge to his Texas blues. Eddie Taylor (Jimmy Reed) was another Chicago guy who gathered the big boy from Texas under his big wing. Albert Collins, Otis Rush, Magic Sam and Buddy Guy were Freddie’s contemporaries and close friends.
“I picked up the style between Lightnin’ Hopkins and Muddy Waters,” King told Living Blues magazine in the early ‘70s. “That in-between style…I play country and city.”
King merged the most vibrant characteristics of Delta, Texas and Chicago styles and became the
biggest guitar hero of the mid-60s British blues revivalists. John Mayall, Eric Clapton, Savoy Brown, Chicken Shack, Peter Green and the rest of the longhaired blues set loved this intense “Country Boy” and talked him up to the point that King’s 1966 tour of England was sold out every night. When Freddie hit a note, it couldn’t be hit with more feeling, but guitar players tried their best and a couple came close.
Look at T-Bone Walker as Jim Brown, the original fleet bruiser, and King as Gale Sayers, the fabulous juke-stepper who took the running-back position to new sensational heights.
But just as Sayers tore out his knee and his career by taking one impossible cut too many, King’s tireless appetite for life, which included countless late-night/early morning jams, probably had a lot to do with shortening his life.
Born Freddy Christian in Gilmer in 1934, he took his mother Ella’s maiden name King for its greater blues connotation. She and her brother Leon King taught Freddie the guitar at age six. His first musical idol was Louis Jordan, whose solos on the alto sax King copied on guitar. King played a Les Paul goldtop in the ‘50s, including his first 1956 debut on Chicago’s El-Bee label, and some recordings backing Howlin’ Wolf. But in the ‘60s he switched to the big, red, Gibson ES-355 that he’s best known for today.
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 “Sen-Say-Shun” at hippie rock clubs all over the United States, from the Fillmore East to the Fillmore West.
King usually played the Armadillo three nights in a row, and he always sold more beer than anyone else, because beer just tastes colder when somebody’s playing the hell out of a big, red, electric guitar. Quite simply, you would go see Freddie to have your ass kicked. He was the AC/DC of the East Texas blues.
Guitarists revered King, but every once in a while some young gunslinger would turn the blues into a competitive sport. King’s former bassist Bill Willis remembered one young hotshot L.A. guitarist who found out you don’t mess with the King. “This kid, he came up there with a wild look in his eyes, and he just took off,” Willis said. “And Freddie’s over there, smiling, saying ‘Go on, man.’ And the kid just kept playing and playing like it was his big night. Well, when he finally played himself out, it was Freddie’s turn, and he just buried the kid. I wouldn’t be surprised if that guy sold his guitar the next day. Freddie didn’t like to be called out.” Eric Clapton told Guitar Player magazine that “Freddie could be mean, but he was subtle with it. He’d make you feel at home and then tear you to pieces.”
Willis remembered the bandleader as a laid-back fellow off-stage. “Back in those days, there’d be some ornery cats in the blues field and a lot of big egos, but Freddie was different,” Willis said. “He just had so much humanity inside him. When we were recording, he’d never say, ‘Why don’t you play this bass line instead of that one?’ His whole thing was getting the feeling of the song, and all the other musicians were responsible for getting into it on their own. We’d do a take, and if it wasn’t what he was looking for, he’d just say, ‘That wasn’t the right feeling; let’s do it again.’ There were never any instructions. It was all intuitive.”
Willis played on the first two King albums, Freddy King Sings and instrumental LP Let’s Hide Away and Dance for King subsidiary Federal Records of Cincinnati in 1961, and recalls those Cincinnati sessions as pure magic. Arranged by piano player Sonny Thompson, who signed King to the label, future blues standards “Have You Ever Loved a Woman,” “Hide Away,” “You’ve Got to Love Her With a Feeling” and Clapton’s gateway drug “I Love the Woman” were recorded in a single day.
When his contract with King expired, Freddie moved back to Dallas in the mid-60s and was based there the last decade of his life. He was signed to Atlantic by King Curtis, the Fort Worth sax great who produced two King albums on subsidiary label Cotillon in the late ’60s. But after King’s sensational set at the Texas International Pop Festival two weeks after Woodstock in 1969, he was wooed by Leon Russell’s Shelter Records and signed a three-album deal. Russell not only produced and played piano on King’s LPs, including Getting Ready (which gave the world “Goin’ Down” in 1971), but he often joined the big man onstage. That’s why, in Jim Franklin’s iconic painting of an armadillo flying out of King’s heart, there’s a portrait of Leon in the bottom right corner.
Willis, who played the bass parts on a B-3 organ in Jimmie Vaughan’s band until he passed away in 2010, said two things set King’s guitar style apart. First, there was his infusion of country picking into blues numbers. “Freddie could’ve been a great country guitarist,” Willis said. But after hearing King’s version of “Remington Ride,” written as a steel guitar showcase by Herb Remington, a correction is in order: King was an outstanding country guitarist. He could pick that downhome country blues on a Gibson ES-355.
The other most remarkable aspect of King’s playing, said Willis, was the way his solos seemed to take on the chacteristics of his vocals. “Sometimes the guitar parts were like a second singer,” Willis said of the way King bent the string into a wail or played chords that had a breathy quality.
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 is “Hide Away,” his ode to South Side Chicago blues joint Mel’s Hide Away, which has been the compulsory blues instrumental for over 40 years. Playing “Hide Away” is like showing your license to play the blues, and although the tune is a collage of riffs from Hound Dog Taylor, “Peter Gunn” and “The Walk,” Freddie King made the track something new and powerful.
It’s about that feeling, man. Digging into your being with your fingers and pulling out something you didn’t know you had. Freddie King put that guitar around his neck and knew he could make it do whatever he wanted. He had rock ’n’ roll in his heart and could make you jump up out of your seat. But blues was in his soul and he could also break your heart.
Cover photo by Scott Newton
This is one of 42 profiles found in “All Over the Map: True Heroes of Texas Music” (UNT Press 2017) by Michael Corcoran. Other subjects include Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Billy Joe Shaver, Ella Mae Morse, Waylon Jennings, Lydia Mendoza, Townes Van Zant, Stevie Ray Vaughan, T-Bone Walker, King Curtis, Janis Joplin and Lefty Frizzell.