By Gillian G. Gaar
He’s heralded as “The Texas Cannonball.” His skills as a blues guitarist led to him being dubbed one of the “Three Kings,” along with Albert King and B.B. King. And Freddie King’s accomplishments have led to the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame honoring him this year as an early influence.
Born in Gilmer, Texas, Sept. 3, 1934, King was taught how to play guitar by his uncle at age 6. When King was 15, he moved to Chicago, where he dove into the city’s thriving blues culture, going to clubs, sitting in with bands and eventually forming his own band, The Every Hour Blues Boys. He also recorded sessions for Parrot Records as a sideman.
King auditioned for Chess Records, but was turned down, told he sounded too much like B.B. King — a rejection he credited with pushing him to develop his own style. He finally made his solo debut, as Freddy King in 1956 — he began spelling his name Freddie King in 1968 — with the single “Country Boy,” a duet with Margaret Whitfield, for El Bee Records.
Success was still a few years off. In 1960, he signed with Federal Records, a subsidiary of Syd Nathan’s King Records label — a good omen, although his first single for the label, “Have You Ever Loved A Woman” (originally written by Billy Miles) made little impression. King began 1961 with “You’ve Got To Love Her With A Feeling,” which reached No. 93, then had his biggest pop-chart success with “Hide Away,” named after the Chicago bar Mel’s Hide Away Lounge. The swinging instrumental, partly drawn on other blues licks, was King’s sole Top 40 entry, peaking at No. 29 (and reaching No. 5 on the R&B charts); “San-Ho-Zay,” also released in 1961, just missed the Top 40 at No. 47 (No. 4 R&B). King alternated between releasing vocal and instrumental material, as evidenced by the albums he released in 1961: “Freddy King Sings” and “Let’s Hide Away and Dance Away With Freddy King: Strictly Instrumental.” King stayed with Federal until 1968.
A regular on the Chitlin’ Circuit, King landed a gig in 1966 in the The Beat Boys, the house band of the R&B TV show “The !!!! Beat” (the band was led by Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown). His stint with the show paved the way for a contract with Atlantic Records, which released the albums “Freddie King is a Blues Master” and “My Feeling for the Blues” in 1968. That same year, King did his first overseas tour to a warm welcome. There was a blues boom in Britain, and aficionados were already fans of King’s work.
“Hide Away” was covered by John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers on the 1966 album “Bluesbreakers With Eric Clapton,” and two other King numbers, “The Stumble” and “Someday After Awhile (You’ll Be Sorry)” were on the Mayall & The Bluesbreakers 1967 album “A Hard Road” (this time with Peter Green on guitar). “Have You Ever Loved A Woman” also would appear on Derek And The Dominos’ 1970 album “Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs,” and became a live favorite of Clapton’s. It was then that King began crossing over into the rock market. He signed with Leon Russell’s label, Shelter Records. Russell was very involved with King’s Shelter albums; he produced, performed and wrote songs for “Getting Ready” (1971), “Texas Cannonball” (1972) and “Woman Across The River” (1973, which reached No. 54 R&B, No. 158 pop). “Getting Ready” featured another of King’s signature songs, “Going Down.”
The rock influences were now on the forefront, and King began playing for more white rock audiences. Grand Funk Railroad, which toured with King, even namechecked him in their song, “We’re An American Band”: “Up all night with Freddie King/I got to tell you, poker’s his thing.” King also toured with Clapton and shared the stage with Led Zeppelin.
There was no shortage of musicians who wanted to work with King; both Clapton and Bobby Tench of The Jeff Beck Group appear on King’s 1974 album “Burglar.” Tench also appears on 1975’s “Larger Than Life” (the last album released during King’s lifetime, which reached No. 53 R&B).
King was considered the most emotive of the “Three Kings.” His singing has a pronounced rawness, and his guitar work is distinctive thanks to his use of thumb and finger picks (in contrast to B.B. King’s single-string style).
King’s primary means of making money was through touring, and he spent most of his years on the road. As a result, his health began to decline, and in 1976, he began having problems with stomach ulcers. King died Dec. 28, 1976, at the age of 42, suffering complications from his ulcers and pancreatitis.
Freddie King never became a major act. But anyone who has enjoyed the music of Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Carlos Santana, or Led Zeppelin has been touched by his influence.