James Brown was once called the “hardest working man in show business,” that may be so, but blues guitarist Freddie King sure gave the Godfather of Soul a run for his money with that title.
The Texas electric blues guitarist was known to tour 300 days out of the year for the majority of his short career. He was so driven that instead of sitting down to eat a meal, King would drink Bloody Marys. Obviously, this wasn’t the smart thing to do, but King thought it would allow him more time to write, record, and tour behind his music. The daily grind of touring and poor eating habits took its toll on the young guitarist and King developed stomach ulcers and acute pancreatitis. Combined with the stress of life on the road, the blues man’s health declined and he passed away in 1976 at the age of 42.
King got his start on the guitar when he was six-years-old when his mother, Ella Mae King, and his uncle taught him how to play. When he was 15 King and his family moved north to Chicago. Three years later King settled down with his wife and fellow Texan Jessie Burnett and earned a living working at a local steel mill.
When the King family arrived in Chicago, young Freddie would sneak into the blues clubs on the South side of Chicago and listen to such blues icons as Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, T-Bone Walker, Elmore James, and Sonny Boy Williamson. Bitten by the blues, King was honing his blues craft at nights sitting in as a session’s man while working at the mill during the day. In 1953, King cut a record with Earl Payton’s Blues Cats for Parrot Records. King started to earn a name for himself around the Chicago blues scene and was playing alongside many of the musicians who played with Muddy Waters including respected blues men like bassist Willie Dixon, guitarist Jimmy Rogers, and pianist Memphis Slim.
During his attempts to branch out to earn a living with his own music, King’s music career took a major blow when he was turned down by the iconic blues label Chess Records. King went on to record a duet “Country Boy,” with Margaret Whitfield in 1956 for El-Bee Records. As the blues scene evolved from the South side of Chicago to the east side, thanks in part to Willie Dixon leaving Chess Records and establishing himself at Cobra Records, King followed Dixon and became the top draw on the West Side. Cincinnati-based record label, King Records, owned by Syd Nathan, signed the guitarists to their subsidiary Federal label. On August 26, 1960 King recorded his debut for the label “Have You Ever Loved a Woman” backed with “You’ve Got to Love Her with a Feeling.” At the same session, King laid down the instrumental track “Hide Away,” which reached number five on the R&B Charts and #29 on the Pop Singles Charts. The song’s title comes from Mel’s Hide Away Lounge, a popular blues club on the West Side of Chicago. The semi-successful hit became a blessing and curse for King, who went on to record 30 instrumental tacks, trying to top the success of “Hide Away.”
King went on to play shows with Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, and James Brown. King Curtis brought the guitarist to Atlantic Records’ subsidiary Cotillion Records, where King would record his records—‘Freddie King Is a Blues Master’ (1969) and ‘My Feeling for the Blues’ (1970).
King would move on to Leon Russell’s new label Shelter Records after seeing the guitarist at the Texas Pop Festival. King would record three albums under the tutelage of Russell. This led King into the world of rock & roll where he was playing with Eric Clapton and Grand Funk Railroad (whose song “We’re an American Band” mentions King in its lyrics).
Despite his progressive blues style of playing and rubbing elbows with some of blues and rock’s biggest names, Freddie King never ascended over the hump to be an established blues star in the ranks of Waters, Dixon, or Wolf. Even though King was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2012 he still isn’t a name you immediately think of when talking blues guitar. He’s not even the first King you think of when talking blues guitarists, which is a shame because Freddie King literally gave his life to the blues.