He didn’t just play the guitar—he attacked it.
His authoritative presence and vigorous showmanship earned him the nickname the “Texas Cannonball.” His heavy-handed licks can still be heard today in the playing of Eric Clapton, Peter Green and Mick Taylor, all King acolytes.
Freddie King was one of three blues giants with the surname King—along with B.B. and Albert—who were all unrelated.
Freddie was a forceful presence and formidable figure in two of the most prominent blues scenes. In the state he was born in (and to which he eventually returned), he was known as the “Texas Cannonball.” For much of the Fifties and early Sixties, he was a Chicago blues legend, particularly on the city’s West Side. Revered by his fans and respected by his peers, King was best-known for his searing, assertive solos and dynamic showmanship.
Many of his most-famous songs, especially during his tenure on Syd Nathan’s King and Federal labels, were instrumentals. King’s biggest hit was “Hide Away” a lively instrumental named for Mel’s Hideaway Lounge, one of his favorite Chicago blues clubs. The song was a clever composite of licks and snippets from other songs, including “Taylor’s Boogie” by Hound Dog Taylor and “The Peter Gunn Theme.” It is a staple of the blues repertoire to this day, and it is arguably the ultimate house-rocking blues instrumental. King possessed a strong, soulful voice as well, captured on such classics as “Have You Ever Loved a Woman” and “I’m Tore Down.”
Born in Gilmer, Texas, King got his first guitar when he was five years old. “You might say I came from a blues family,” he said in 1971, noting that his mother and uncles played blues. “Blues was the music I was born with.” He grew up listening to and learning the styles of such country-blues figures as Blind Lemon Jefferson, Arthur Crudup, Big Bill Broonzy and Ligntnin’ Hopkins. He was also heavily influenced by B.B. King and T-Bone Walker.
King’s overview of the blues broadened even further when he encountered the thriving electric blues scene in Chicago. In the late Forties, King’s family moved to Chicago. At 15 he began hanging out at blues clubs. He studied various guitarists’ playing styles up close—particularly Jimmy Rogers, who played in Muddy Waters’ band; and Eddie Taylor, who accompanied Jimmy Reed. Although King was underage, Waters would sneak him into the Zanzibar Club and sit him by the bandstand, where he could observe the musicians. For years King labored at a Chicago steel mill before becoming a full-time working musician.
In his own assessment, King’s unique approach to the guitar combined elements of Waters’, Walker’s and B.B. King’s styles. “Between the country blues and the modern blues, right in there,” King explained. He also described the way he played as a “heavy hand attack.” He used a plastic finger pick on his thumb and a metal finger pick on his index finger.
Initially, he played with guitarist Sunnyland Charles and harmonica players Sonny Cooper and Earlee Payton. His first record, “Country Boy,” was a duet with Margaret Whitfield released on the local El Bee label in 1956.
Eventually, King’s virtuosic soloing, slashing attack and physical presence made him an attention-getting guitarist on the competitive Chicago scene, where he earned a reputation for “cutting heads” (i.e., beating other guitarists in informal onstage battles for guitar-playing supremacy, also known as “gunslinging”). He became identified with the more youthful, aggressive and modern blues sound of Chicago’s West Side, where he partnered and traded licks with such peers as Otis Rush, Hound Dog Taylor, Magic Sam, Robert Jr. Lockwood and Luther Allison.
Recommended by guitarist Syl Johnson, King was signed to King Records in 1960. His records were issued on Federal, a King subsidiary label. Working with A&R man and pianist Sonny Thompson, King cut a series of vocal and instrumental numbers at a series of historic sessions in the early Sixties. His biggest year was 1961, when he placed six singles on Billboard’s R&B chart, including four that entered the Top 10. His run of hits in that year began with “Hide Away” (Number Five), which was followed by “Lonesome Whistle Blues” (Number Eight), “San-Ho-Zay” (Number Four), “See See Baby” (Number Twenty-One), “I’m Tore Down” (Number Five) and the seasonal single “Christmas Tears” (Number Twenty-Six).
His instrumentals tended to be rollicking and up-tempo, while his vocal numbers, such as “Have You Ever Loved a Woman” and “Love Her With a Feeling,” were often soulfully sung slow blues. He recorded more than thirty instrumentals for King Records, many of them issued on the albums Let’s Hide Away and Dance Away with Freddy King (1961) and Freddy King Gives You a Bonanza of Instrumentals (1965). Also released on King were the albums Freddie King Sings (1961), Bossa Nova and Blues (1962) and Freddy King Goes Surfin’ (1963).
King moved from Chicago to Texas in 1962, feeling that his home state was a better to raise his family (King had seven children) and pursue such pastimes as hunting and fishing. He became a fixture on the live blues scene, especially at Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin. However, he had no more hit records, even though he remained with King until 1966 before recording for other labels.
King had numerous disciples in the rock world, including British guitarists Eric Clapton, Peter Green (co-founder of Fleetwood Mac and an alumni of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers), Mick Taylor (another Mayall alumni and member of the Rolling Stones) and Stan Webb (leader of the blues-rock band Chicken Shack). In 1966 Eric Clapton covered “Hide Away” on Blues Breakers, his lone album with John Mayall.
In the late Sixties, King changed the spelling of his first name from “Freddy” to “Freddie.” He subsequently recorded for Cotillion, Shelter (Leon Russell’s label) and RSO Records. His two albums for Cotillion, Freddie King Is a Blues Master (1969) and My Feeling for the Blues (1970), were produced by sax player King Curtis.
King’s blazing virtuosity and the support of such rock-star disciples as Clapton and Russell allowed him to reach a broader audience of blues-rock fans in the Seventies. With Russell’s support and guidance, the best of King’s later work was done at Shelter, where he recorded three albums. Much of 1971’s Getting Ready was cut at Chess Studio in Chicago, in order to get an authentic sound and feel. It was followed by Texas Cannonball (1972) and Woman Across the River (1973). The material from his Shelter years, much of it collected on the two-disc CD compilation King of the Blues, consisted of blues covers, remakes of his own King-era songs, and new material by King, Russell, Don Nix and others in their orbit. In 1973 King co-produced (with J.J. Cale) an album for his early mentor, Jimmy Rogers. Following his stint at Shelter, he wound up on RSO Records, thanks to Clapton’s intercession, where he released two more albums: Burglar (1974) and Larger Than Life (1975).
King’s heavy touring schedule had him on the road nearly constantly, which took its toll on his health. He died from a combination of conditions and ailments, including heart failure, bleeding ulcers and pancreatitis, on December 28, 1976 at age 42. His work continued to influence legions of guitarists who followed him, notably fellow Texan Stevie Ray Vaughan.
Inductee: Freddie King (guitar, vocals; born September 3, 1934, died December 28, 1976)