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An individual exhibiting such uniqueness or individuality that he or she will cause a roomful of bar cronies to exclaim, "That's one interesting motherfucker!" Actual sexual relations with one's mother are not required.

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Freddie King, blues guitarist,

By Wil Forbis

About twelve years ago I was wandering around Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee, an area often called the "birthplace of the blues."  Given such a reverent title, I was expecting to find an awe inspiring musical wonderland populated with a never ending parade of skilled musicians. But it was about 3 in the afternoon and the place was quiet  - dead as ghost town. I was strolling along and I came across an open lot. In the middle of the lot was this old, frail black guy sitting atop an open gazebo. He was starting to tune up an electric guitar that he had hooked up to powerful sound system with giant speakers that hung from wire above him.

"This is great!" I thought to myself. "Here I am in the birthplace of my favorite form of music and I've stumbled across some forlorn master of the blues arts." I felt like Alan Lomax discovering Leadbelly, or Mick Jagger discovering  Stevie Ray Vaughn, or adult filmmaker Doris Wishman discovering the mellon breasted Chesty Morgan. I was, no doubt, about to uncover a great talent. I waited for the guy to finish tuning up and start bedazzling me with his musical expertise.

And I waited. and I waited. But all the stupid fuck did was sit there tuning the guitar for twenty minutes, babbling on apologies like, "Hold on there young fellah, I'll be done in a second, Jus' got to get it jus' right. hold on." Eventually he did get it tuned, and then proceeded to detune the instrument as if he were completely oblivious to what a tuned guitar sounded like. (Years later, I think he became the guitar tech for Sleater Kinney.) Finally, he started to play a song, and it was awful. (He must've also became the main songwriter for Sleater Kinney.) All my hopes of discovering the next blues genius were dashed and I thought to myself, "I sure hope this guy isn't Freddie King."

Did I really think that? Well, no. But I've been trying to get that story off my chest for some time, and I figured there'd be no better place to do it than in an article about Freddie King, the quintessential yet vastly underrated master of blues guitar. In actuality, there were a quite few things that made it very clear that this decrepit old bastard wasn't my favorite blues guitarist.

1)      Freddie was kind of fat, whereas this guy was skinny

2)      Freddie was a great guitar player, whereas this guy sucked.

3)      Freddie King was dead. whereas this guy should have been.

As you probably know, in the blues game, "King" is a recurring family name. The most successful bluesman of all time is B.B. King, a cat who's still alive knocking out albums and doing ads for diabetes monitors. There was also Albert King, who, until his death in the 90's had great success with songs like "The Sky is Crying" and "Born Under a Bad Sign" as well as being an artistic father figure for a young Stevie Ray Vaughn. I was particularly impressed with Earl King when I caught his show in Hollywood about 15 years ago. Jimmy King was making the scene over through the course of the nineties until his recent death at the age of 37. (Jimmy toured extensively with Albert King, and once, while I was stopped at the Canadian border, both musicians came in and I had the chance to have a long conversation with Jimmy - but that's another story.)

You might wonder how and why so many blues musicians could be named "King" but it's worth noting that none of these guys actually had "King" as their birth name. (Sorta like how none of the Ramones were born to a "Mr. And Mrs. Ramone.") And despite similarities in their signatures, each of these players had a pretty distinctive style. B.B., despite his success, has my least favorite King sound, a somewhat chirpy collection of clichés he pumps out of his guitar, "Lucille." Albert had a great, stinging style that was absorbed by most of the white players like Eric Clapton and Mick Taylor. I remember Earl being very aggressive sounding and Jimmy was something of an offshoot of Albert, combining classic licks with a more modern tone.

But Freddie. Freddie was something else.

There were, in my opinion, really two Freddie Kings to take note of. The first Freddie King can be defined by the mostly instrumental material he recorded on the King/Federal label during the first half of the sixties. The second Freddie can be found on the 70's recordings on the Cotillion, Shelter, and RSO releases which feature quite a bit of Freddie singing as well as playing guitar. (As if to add emphasis to my tale of two Freddies, it was on these latter recordings that Freddie switched the spelling of his name from "Freddy"  -  as it existed on the King/Federal recordings - to "Freddie.")

Freddie in the 60's
Early Freddie sounds pretty dated today, but for the era he was really adding a modern sound to the style of blues. His first instrumental hit, "Hideaway," is an uptempo, playful number. (Note: you can hear several samples of some of the tunes I mention by going here:  Freddie starts out with a now classic opening melody, and then cycles the 12 bars blues through a variety of mutations: an accented funk groove, a Chuck Berry-ish double-stop* frenzy, and a spy music section lifted from the theme to "Peter Gunn." The song also provides an example of Freddie's talent of creating extremely catchy guitar riffs that could be mistaken for Beatles melodies were they placed in a vocal context.

*Double Stop: playing two notes at the same time, similar to Check Berry's opening solo on "Johnny B Goode"

Though "Hideaway" is probably Freddie's best-known song of that era, I've always placed a lesser-known tune, "San-Ho-Zay" (San Jose - get it?!) as my favorite. The song begins with the rhythm section playing a blues/funk riff that's since become a cliché, but still grabs me every time. Freddie comes in with a  series of fairly restrained guitar licks, but uses each turn of the chord progression to continually push things up a notch, finally ending on a studio fade. "San-Ho-Zay" also shows off another common Freddie King technique - that of taking a base melody and twisting and shaping it with each iteration. (Similar to the "variations on a theme" concept so popular in classical music.)

Another piece in the "San-Ho-Zay" vein is "The Stumble." Named after its rhythm, which is an illustration of the standard, "stumbling" blues shuffle, this tune features more of Freddie's singable melodies with a blues break reminiscent of the culmination of Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love."

What's not often mentioned about this early King material is how similar it is to the surf music of bands like the Ventures or Dick Dale. Freddie didn't use the heavily reverbed guitar tone of such artists, but he did have the same goal in mind, which was to start out with a standard melody and then keep in interesting by subtly changing the rhythm and feel of the song. No doubt Freddie and the surf bands  were at least somewhat familiar with each other and influences may have rubbed off.

In the latter half of the sixties, the blues, as championed by such white rock and roll groups like the Rolling Stones, Cream, and the Jeff Beck Group, were hitting the big time, and a lot of the Black artists who'd defined the style were experiencing a resurgence. Clapton and Jeff Beck were raving about guys like Muddy Waters, Albert King, and our man Freddie, which gave Black players the chance to enjoy the spotlight and expand their reputation beyond black audiences and (to borrow a phrase) "white negroes." The fact that players like Freddie and Albert had to ride the coattails of white musicians could be said to insinuate blatant racism: white audiences weren't willing to listen to rhythm and blues when it was played on mostly black "race records," but ate it up when served by long haired honkeys such as Clapton, Beck, Peter Green, or Jimmy Page. Of course there's a lot of truth to this argument, but I've always found it unnecessarily simplistic. A more honest way of looking at it is to say that it wasn't racism (e.g. fear or hatred of another race) that kept the early rock fans from seeking out black artists as much as it was a lack of knowledge and general awareness of black culture. Segregation was still alive, and the odds of a young white kid, crossing over to the black side of town and walking into a scary looking R&B club were slim, but not demonstrative of said youth being racist. (Hell, when's the last time you walked into a ghetto rap club, cracker?) And once the white artists did break open the door for earlier black musicians, white fans wasted no time becoming intimately familiar with the creators of the genre, to the degree that some partook to almost completely undiscerning worship of musicians simply because they were black. Just as the "punk" packaging of Nirvana caused fans to go back to earlier punk bands like the Ramones or the Meat Puppets, the packaging of electric blues via players like Clapton encouraged fans to return to the roots. (In the late 90's, the blues, which had become "old man's music," was repackaged via longhaired pretty boys like Kenny Wayne Shepard and Johnny Lang and successfully resold to the younger generation.)

Freddie in the 70's
Hmmm. not sure how I ended up on that tangent. However, it leads us up to the 70's where King, burgeoned by the success the late 60's blues explosion had granted him, moved away from instrumentals towards vocal numbers. The epitome of this would be, in my opinion, (course, everything in this article is "in my opinion.") his recordings for Shelter records, a label partly owned by rock pianist Leon Russell. Leon took an active interest in Freddie's output for the label, writing songs for him and playing on many of the recordings. The Shelter recordings are a point of contention amongst King fans. Personally, I think they're great, but some argue that they're overproduced and featured Freddie playing on material he wasn't comfortable with. What can I say? There's two sides to every story: my side and the wrong side.

There are a lot of reasons I love this period of King's music. For one thing, many of the songs step away from the standard 12 bar blues pattern and offer some variety in composition. One of my favorites, "Palace of the King," is more of an R&B number, replete with female background vocals. "Living on the Highway," a tribute to Howling Wolf, has a pumping "A" section before modulating down for a short solo from Freddie. "Me and My Guitar" returns to the 12 bar formula but features a pumping base riff, while Freddie boasts about making his guitar sing, "just like my woman should."

In addition, I think Freddie's guitar tone (or at least the technology recording it) improved a bit on the Shelter records. The 60's instrumentals had a sharp, high-pitched quality, but the 70's recordings have more mid range and beef to the guitar solos.

While a lot of blues artist found their careers waning in the 70's, Freddie held his own. The Shelter records kept his profile up and he did a tour with Eric Clapton. Unfortunately, he died in 1976 at the young age of 42 from heart failure. While probably the least popular of the "triumvirate of Kings" (including B.B and Albert) his songs are still oft played in blues halls and his recordings continue to be pressed and sold to the public.


Wil Forbis is the pen named shared by such noted authors as James Ellroy, Katie Roiphe, and Jim Thompson. E-mail him, I mean, them, at

View Wil's Acid Logic web log, a stirring endorsement of sex with pandas!

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Additional Freddie King Material:
Telecaster Demon bio
A nice little piece that fill in all the blanks.

Legends of Electric Guitar
Very good analysis of Freddie from a guitar player's viewpoint but not so technical to alienate non-musician scum.

Guitar World
A Guitar World "lesson" with Freddie.

The One and Only Handbook of Texas Look at Freddie.
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