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Freddie King And The Harsh 'Business' Of The Blues

Texas claims Freddie King as its son. But although he was born on a farm near Gilmer in 1934, King's real contribution came as one of the young musicians from Chicago's West Side who challenged the Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf South Side musicians starting in the late '50s. Guitarists like Otis Rush and Magic Sam played aggressive, virtuosic blues that attracted a younger crowd. Freddie King ran with them.

King was always an innovator, and on his very first record, made for the tiny El Bee label in 1956, he used Robert "Big Mojo" Elem on electric bass, an instrument Elem played in King's band, but few others in town used.

Freddie King's big break came in 1960, when King Records opened an office in Chicago. Sonny Thompson, a seasoned veteran of postwar rhythm and blues, was the talent scout, and after learning that Leonard Chess didn't think Freddie King was worth signing, snapped him up and took him to the label's home in Cincinnati to record. The very first session in August resulted in "Hide Away," the song that has been linked with Freddie King's name ever since.

"Hide Away" was a tune everyone on the West Side played, probably written by Hound Dog Taylor. King's version, named after one of his favorite clubs (Mel's Hideaway Lounge), entered the Top 10 in the rhythm and blues chart, and even got to No. 29 on the pop charts. Freddie King had a white following almost from the beginning. King -- and Sonny Thompson -- wanted to prove that King was also a singer, and his next session had "I'm Tore Down," the hit to prove it.

"I'm Tore Down" again rocketed into the rhythm and blues Top 10, but the pop market ignored it. Freddie King only saw the charts one more time during this period, with a Christmas record that charted for one week. But King Records kept recording him, and more and more he was on the road with revues, barnstorming the country. When he was home on the West Side, he and his band worked seven days a week if they wanted to.

The thing was, although Freddie King's records sold steadily, they didn't sell a lot. His contract was up in 1966, and King parted ways with his label. He'd already moved his wife and six children to Dallas, and used that as a base from which to tour. Meanwhile, Eric Clapton recorded "Hide Away" with Mayall's Blues Breakers in England; Clapton was only the first British guitarist to show his explicit debt to Freddie King. King returned the favor by going to England and touring, showing the Brits how it was done.

In 1968, Atlantic Records in New York started a new label, Cotillion, for saxophonist King Curtis to record who he wanted. He wanted Freddie King, and so in July, King entered the studio for the first time in two years. Curtis assembled an amazing band, and they got to work.

It's hard to say why the two singles and two albums on Cotillion didn't sell, unless they were too sophisticated for the rock market and too old-fashioned for the new soul market, but for me, they remain the peak of Freddie King's output. The valley was to come: Leon Russell, flush with success from kick-starting Joe Cocker's career, signed Freddie King.

Russell's intentions were no doubt sincere, and King tried, but at their best -- as in the track "Going Down" -- the recordings were oil-and-water blues-rock, and at their worst, generic '70s blues sludge. Freddie King stayed with Russell until 1972, then moved on to RSO Records, run by Eric Clapton's manager. These recordings are among the few not represented on a new retrospective, Taking Care of Business, which spans much of King's career.

Freddie King was living hard by this point, drinking copiously, and always downing a couple of Bloody Marys before stepping on stage because, as he told a journalist, "they've got food in them." In 1976, playing a club in New Orleans, King passed out in the middle of a solo. He went back up to Dallas and played a gig in New York on Christmas. But he canceled a show scheduled for the next night, returned to Dallas and went into the hospital. He died, riddled with ulcers and suffering from pancreatitis, on Dec. 28, 1976, at the age of 42.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Ed Ward
Ed Ward is the rock-and-roll historian on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.