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    Freddy King
    by Johnny Harper

    Freddy King -- a blazing, masterful blues guitarist, a gorgeous, heartbreaking singer, and a huge influence on Eric Clapton, Jimmy and Stevie Ray Vaughn, and many other peformers -- made his original and greatest recordings for Cincinnati's King/ Federal labels between 1960 and 1966. This places him at the very end of the "golden age" of postwar, electric-guitar-band blues styles -- that is, of the period, from the late '40s to the late '60s, when this music was principally a popular black music form, played by black musicians for black audiences. Freddy's King/ Federal recordings (now reissued on a number of superb compilation CDs) and his live performances of the period (now, amazingly, documented for us on a breathtaking Vestapol videotape issue) were made when these were still the rules of the game -- when the blues was still a popular-folk music style springing from, expressing, heard and enjoyed within, the shared language, style, and experience of black America. That situation would soon change, as the bulk of the black audience turned away from the blues towards newer soul and pop R&B styles, and as a white, rock-based audience emerged to support the blues masters as international concert stars. But in the mid-1960s, Freddy King and his music still flourished in their natural environment.

    One of the things that sets this Texas-born, Chicago-trained master apart from other great blues singer-guitarists of the postwar period is his use of the electric guitar, not only to punctuate his singing with answering riffs and solo choruses, but to take the spotlight on its own in a large body of infectious, driving, distinctive, and brilliant instrumental tunes. It apparently was a lucky accident that Freddy came to record so many instrumentals: he included a bouncy little guitar shuffle called "Hide Away" as the B side of his second King single, "I Love the Woman," a characteristic, lovely, aching slow blues song. But it was "Hide Away" the DJs jumped on, and when it became a substantial hit (reaching number 5 on the R&B charts, and even hitting the top 30 in the pop market) the record company naturally asked him for more instrumental numbers, and the pattern was set, on many subsequent releases, of pairing a blues vocal with an instrumental flipside. He went on to record over 30 instrumentals during the next 5 years, and the label also compiled most of them onto two all-instrumental LPs, Let's Hide Away and Dance Away and Freddy King Gives You A Bonanza of Instrumentals.

    Those two LPs are now brought together on a single, absolutely essential CD release: Freddy King - Just Pickin' (Modern Blues 721), on the connoisseur-oriented Modern Blues label which has licensed the material from King's present owners. For guitarists they are an absolutely essential touchstone and reference work -- in fact, I for years have used them virtually as a textbook, to open up the vocabulary of blues lead playing for my guitar students. But their appeal is not limited to guitar players: for any listener who enjoys hot, jumping rhythm & blues music, they are irresistible -- some of the most delightful, infectious, and unique music ever recorded.

    It's utterly remarkable -- a tribute to Freddy's genius -- that he is able to sustain the listener's interest through so many tunes with only his guitar taking the melodic lead over his stripped-down, hard-grooving little rhythm section. On most jazz or R&B instrumentals the lead is traded around between at least two instruments to maintain interest; but Freddy carries it all himself through a full 24 tunes on the Modern Blues CD. One thing that makes this possible is his superb sense of melody, his ability to come up with one absolutely catchy, memorable, riff after another, sustaining each riff with minor variations for one or two 12-bar choruses and then moving onto to a fresh and equally catchy theme. A second essential element is that Freddy (along with his co-writer and bandleader, pianist Sonny Thompson) shapes his tunes around a wide range of lively blues, R&B, and soul rhythms and grooves -- using not only shuffle rhythms at various tempos but also the rhythms of classic rock'n'roll and fatback soul, New Orleans and Latin inflected grooves, sinuous back-country boogies, and mid-'60s James Brown-style proto-funk beats. Freddy and Sonny's excellent sense of arranging also adds variety to the music, as they move the band into breakdown sections, shift the groove subtly or vary the form from chorus to chorus to help maintain a sense of freshness.

    Then of course there's Freddy's great guitar sound -- always clear and ringing but with plenty of "beef" or body -- and the unusually wide range of picking styles he employs throughout these tunes: he is constantly shifting from conventional upper-register single-note lines to play snaky licks in parallel thirds or sixths, to move over onto the bass strings for a few figures, play a riff in subdued staccato tones, or do one of his trademark "rakes" across several strings of the chord into his next melody note. And finally, there's the enormous feeling of excitement and release when, for one or two choruses in a given number, Freddy breaks out of the controlled riffs and inventions of the tune to simply wail the blues on the high strings, pouring his heart and soul into screaming, soaring bends, moans, slides, and sustains with all the rhythmic and emotional power of a true blues master... only to "take you home" by returning at the end of the cut to restate his main theme riff one more time.

    To hear Freddy apply all these techniques in such a wide variety of tunes, and remain endlessly fresh, lively and natural sounding, is a stone treat for any listener. A hard-driving shuffle like "Side Tracked" giving way to the funk and Latin accents of "Heads Up," then the distinctive Earl King-style high and low string themes of "Just Pickin'" and the dark minor-key rumble of "Freeway 75"... the tunes just roll on by, each one a great follow-up to the one before. Finally as an extra treat at the end of the album, Freddy creates an extraordinary masterpiece, even for him, when he takes on the unusual chord changes of an obscure Western Swing steel-guitar tune, "Remington Ride", and just freewheels on them for an amazing six minutes of burning, soaring variations. You gotta hear it to believe it!

    At the same time he was cutting all this guitar material, Freddy was continuing to record vocals as well, following the classic pattern (set by T-Bone Walker in the '40s and emulated by B.B. King and thousands of others) of the blues singer with small combo (plus or minus horns) who is also his own electric lead guitarist. Freddy probably saw himself primarily in this role, and some accounts suggest that he even resented the label's emphasis on the instrumentals as distracting attention from his singing. At the same time, the guitar tunes did bring him a distinctly different listenership. King/Federal, sensibly spotting the similarities between Freddy's guitar material and the then-popular white "surf" guitar bands, actually even reissued Let's Hide Away... with racially ambiguous cover art, as Freddy King Goes Surfin' in an attempt to reach that market! And fans who were following Freddy at the time have told me that he and his band worked a lot of frat party gigs (!) playing the guitar tunes, while on other nights they played in clubs for black blues audiences who were more interested in his sexy, heartbreaking vocals.

    However Freddy felt about the two sides of his music, the fact is that he was also an incredible singer, with a gorgeous, rich, creamy, gritty, gospel-soul singer's voice that is capable of infinitely delicate shades of tone, as he slides into his notes and then worries or vibratos them with drama, tenderness, and amazing control. He really is one of the most powerful, rich, affecting singers the idiom has ever known. Every line is filled with little musical surprises, and of course with the natural swing and unpretentious deep feeling that are hallmarks of the great blues singer. Whatever little tricks and twists Freddy may do with his voice, however much you may marvel at his sound, he always, at the same time, makes you feel he is talking to you, comfortably and naturally, about how he's feeling, about the troubles and joys of his heart.

    A complete reissue of the 45 or so vocal numbers Freddy cut for King/ Federal is long overdue. (In fact, what's really called for is a comprehensive boxed set comprising all his work for the label!) But for now, any of several compilation CDs -- all on different reissue labels, and all overlapping each other to a considerable extent -- will serve as a good introduction to this side of his music. One of these is the Modern Blues CD reissue of Freddy's first King album, Freddy King Sings (Modern Blues CD 722): twelve fine tunes including the catchy, hard-groovin', and much-covered "I'm Tore Down," and numerous aching slow blues numbers including "Have You Ever Loved A Woman" which Eric Clapton has been performing for years. Since, as the titles suggest, there is no overlap with Just Pickin', this is a solid companion piece to the instrumental CD.

    Two other currently available compilations -- one on Rhino, one on King itself under its new ownership -- contain a mix of Freddy's vocal and instrumental material, and as such may serve as the ideal first-purchase album for a new listener who wants to get some idea of the full range of his talents. And even if you also buy the instrumental album (I tell you again, guitar players, it's a must!), these two issues (one with 17 cuts, one with 20) have more than enough of his blues vocal tunes to make them well worth your money. The material is all excellent -- virtually all top-notch original songs written by Freddy, Sonny, and occasionally by other colleagues at the label -- and all beautifully played, sung, and recorded, with incredible vocal work and concise, strong guitar solos.

    Both of the compilation CDs contain many of the same classics, including "Have You Ever Loved..." and "I'm Tore Down," and also the haunting "Lonesome Whistle Blues," the swinging "See See Baby," the deliciously smooth and sexy "You've Got to Love Her With A Feelin," and Freddy's two most-covered instrumental tunes, "Hide Away" and the hard-rockin'(live 1966 The Beat version) "San-Ho-Zay." I think, in terms of vocal material alone, I would have to say I prefer the King CD, Freddy King: All His Hits (King 5012), largely for the presence of two of my all-time favorites, the achingly lovely "Christmas Tears" and the devastating "(What'cha gonna do when) The Welfare Turns Its Back On You" -- two extremely powerful and distinctive blues songs which don't appear on any other available collection. If, however, one is not also buying the instrumental CD, then the Rhino reissue, Hide Away: the Best of Freddy King (Rhino R2 71510) gets a few extra points, for including two absolute-must instrumentals ("Remington Ride" and "The Stumble") which are of course on Just Pickin' but don't appear on All His Hits. Sorry if it sounds a little confusing comparing these overlapping sets! In the absence of one clear, comprehensive reissue of all of the material, these are what we have to work with. The good news, of course, is that all of the choices are great! It's all marvelous music and any of these issues of it are totally rewarding and worthwhile.

    Also recommended in the strongest possible terms is an incredible videotape issue, Freddie King -- The!!!! Beat, 1966 (Vestapol 13014), now available from Stefan Grossman's fabulous (and ever-expanding) video label Vestapol. Grossman and company were lucky enough to ferret out a series of live appearances Freddy made on a short-lived Houston television show, "The!!!! Beat," which in 1966 was showcasing a great lineup of blues and soul talent, backed by a superb house band led by the legendary Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown. The Vestapol tape contains 14 numbers Freddy played on the show; the song selections are excellent, a perfect balance of classic vocal blues and blazing guitar instrumentals, and the performances are fantastic! As great as Freddy's studio recordings are, the experience of seeing and hearing how he tears into his songs and solos in front of a live audience raises the level of excitement even higher. He's an incredibly intense performer -- you can't watch him sing these songs and have any doubt that he's pouring the feelings out of his heart and soul -- and of course a masterful, hard-driving lead player, freely improvising exciting new variations on his classic instrumental numbers, and even throwing in a brief but hot guitar version of "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag." This tape is itself one of the all-time great blues albums! It is a marvelous stroke of luck that these shows have been preserved to give us a taste of how Freddy presented his music to a black audience, when the blues was still a "happening" popular style in the R&B spectrum.

    That role for blues music was already beginning to change when Freddy was performing and recording his King/ Federal material. Within a few years most of the black audience would turn away from blues to the new soul music styles that were already being born in the early '60s. And by 1970, a large new white audience had opened up which would from that time forward provide the primary support for the black blues masters -- Muddy Waters, B.B. King, and many more -- whose styles had been forged in the '40s to early '60s. Making the move from the "chitlin circuit" clubs to blues-festival arenas and concert halls worldwide was an economic boon to many of these artists. But inevitably, the change in their audiences also changed their music to some degree. Freddy King, somewhat more slowly than some of the others, did begin to make the transition to playing for white rock audiences (and with white rock stars) in the early '70s, leaving King/ Federal to record a series of albums for Cotillion, Shelter, and RSO up till his untimely death at age 42 in 1976. He did not adapt to this cultural shift as gracefully as his (unrelated) fellow Kings, B.B. and Albert. He seemed confused how best to focus his talent in the new environment -- a confusion reflected by the decision to change the spelling of his first name (to "Freddie") in this period, as if that were somehow going to be the boost his career needed! On film, he looks much less comfortable with his later audience as well -- compare his presence in the three '70s numbers added at the end of the "Beat" video with the utterly relaxed, upbeat manner he projects in the '66 shows.

    In fact, by comparison with the earlier material, I find his '70s work of relatively little interest. He's still got his chops and his great voice, but his sound, his style, his attack, both as singer and guitarist, have become much "heavier" and less swinging in feel, almost as if he felt he had to play with the heavy-handed, overbearing force of white rock musicians in order to reach their audience. Also in this period he virtually abandons all his fine original material (both vocal and instrumental) from the '60s, and rather than write new songs of his own, concentrates almost entirely on rehashing over-familiar blues standards from the songbooks of B.B. King and other stars, plus a few tunes written for him by Leon Russell and other rock associates. There are of course exciting moments peppered here and there throughout his later work, and for those interested in following him through the later period, there are two more Vestapol videotapes of '70s concert appearances (In Concert 1973, Vestapol 13010, and Dallas, Texas Jan. 20 1973, Vestapol 13028); a comprehensive 2-CD compilation of his Shelter/ RSO recordings (Freddie King, King of the Blues, EMI E2 34972); and several ('70s) live CD sets on specialty labels, such as Live at the Electric Ballroom, 1974 (Black Top 1127).

    But it is his '60s work which will stand and remain as one of the great achievements of postwar blues, and an essential cornerstone of modern electric guitar playing. Hearing (and/or seeing) Freddy tear into any of his classic material is an experience which will delight and uplift the listener, leaving you at once fully satisfied and hungry for more. Check it out and let the good times roll!



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