Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,329

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,329


This is the grave of Freddie King.

Born in Gilmer, Texas in 1934, King grew up first in Dallas and then in Chicago. This was the standard Great Migration pattern of Black Americans escaping the rural South and heading to the cities. It was 1949 when the family moved to Chicago and this was a moment when the Chicago blues scene was blowing up, as a lot of people who might have played acoustically back at home and realized what plugging in and going electric could do for you, Muddy Waters perhaps first among them. King was super interested in this music and began getting into nightclubs, despite his age, to see these legends. It wasn’t just Waters. It was Howlin’ Wolf and T-Bone Burnett and Elmore James and other greats. It is not surprising that he would be influenced by these older men.

King had to get a job like everyone else so he got one in the steel mills. Steel at this time was still pretty heavily job segregated, despite the United Steelworkers of America now representing the workers. But it took time for Black workers to get better jobs. Traditionally, they were hired to work the hardest, hottest, most dangerous jobs. So you can see why King would want to get out of that if he could. While he worked in the mills, he started appearing in various bands, usually as a drummer at first. He was pretty good and he started getting gigs with some pretty big names like Little Walter and Willie Dixon. That led in 1956 to his first recordings as a leader, even though he was still drumming most of the time.

The Chicago scene was somewhat split at this time. Leonard Chess’ legendary Chess Records was the home of the South Side blues legends. But Chess didn’t care for King and his guitar, which he was trying to play more. Chess claimed he was a B.B. King soundalike. Not totally untrue. But there was a burgeoning West Side scene and King started playing over there. Willie Dixon was pissed at Chess at the time over some recording issue and so he started an alternative label called Cobra Records (good name) and encouraged new clubs and acts. King benefited from this. He became a stalwart at West Side clubs and really got to hone his sound.

This all paid off in 1959 when he was signed to Federal Records, a subsidiary of King. He recorded a bunch of singles the next year that became his first minor hits, including “Have You Ever Loved a Woman,” which he did not write but had the first big recording of the song. That became a blues standard. His instrumental “Hide Away” became a pretty big hit, reaching #5 on the R&B charts. King was now a real guy. The early 60s wasn’t the peak of commercial success for the blues. That would come a bit later when the late 60s English bands started recording a bunch of these songs and spurring interest in the writers and early blues legends that Plant and Page and Townsend and Clapton and Beck loved. Clapton recorded “Have You Ever Loved a Woman” on several occasions, including with John Mayall and then on the Derek and the Dominoes album, which is undoubtedly the most famous version of this song. His early instrumentals also became enormously influential with surf guitar bands, who incorporated some of his licks into their early danceable guitar music. In fact, in 1963 he recorded an album called Freddy King Goes Surfin’ just to appeal to that market. I’m also curious about his other album from that year Bossa Nova and the Blues. Sounds like an interesting experiment in any case.

King was making a good living during the 60s, or good for a blues musician anyway. He was often on package tours with James Brown or Sam Cooke or other major figures of the period. But when he got his chance with the late 60s white explosion in blues interest, King was happy to work hard to get his share. He signed with Atlantic in 1968 and King Curtis produced some of his most successful recordings. A new manager got him into the Texas Pop Festival in 1969, where he appeared in the same festival as Led Zeppelin. This opened him up to new fans. Leon Russell’s label then signed him and promoted him as a major American artist. Russell appeared on his albums in the early 70s too, giving him even more credibility among the pop market. Grand Funk Railroad were such fans that they named King by name in “We’re an American Band.” Clapton and he toured together. By the mid 70s, it seemed that King was on top of the world.

But there was a problem. Freddie King was a huge partier and a massive boozer. Basically, his entire food consumption was alcohol. He used to drink Bloody Marys to get nutrition. That’s a next level boozer. So you will not be surprised that as he passed the age of 40, his body completely collapsed on him. He started getting horrible stomach ulcers in 1976 and he didn’t stop drinking and he just drank himself into the grave later that year. He was 42 years old.

Let’s listen to some Freddie King.

Freddie King is buried in Sparkman-Hillcrest Memorial Park Cemetery, Dallas, Texas.

If you would like this series to visit other masters of the blues, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Johnny Ace is in Memphis and R.L. Burnside is in Free Springs, Mississippi. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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