When Freddie King died in 1976, aged only 42, the world did not mourn. A little too old to be a “Live Fast, Die Young” legend and not quite ancient enough to get the “Last Survivor” accolades, his departure was respectfully noted and quickly forgotten. The white interest in blues was waning and King had not appealed to black audiences for some years. Yet this Texas-born, Chicago-raised musician had made significant contributions to the development of post-war urban blues and was perhaps an even bigger influence on rock guitarists than any of his contemporaries. In fact, if he had only ever made the one session for Federal in 1960 — half of which is available on this compilation — his position in music history would be secure. Now, 25 years on and with the blues having a higher profile than it has had for a while, maybe Freddie will finally become something more than one of a trio of axe men who happened to share the same surname.
That first Federal sessions produced both “Have You Ever Loved a Woman” and the archetypal three-minute rock/blues instrumental, “Hideaway”. The former is a perfect example of King’s sound, with its impassioned vocals and searing guitar licks, and has been a staple of blues acts ever since. The latter is a piece of classic Americana. No history of rock’n’roll is complete that does not mention this gem — a jumping example of a lost art. So much a part of the story of pop has it become that in a recent rock dictionary King is described as a blues-influenced guitarist, which is a bit like calling John Coltrane a jazz influenced saxophonist. But then “Hideaway” did cut across boundaries. Finding favour with urban and suburban audiences alike, it became part of 1961’s teenage landscape and proved particularly popular with the emergent surfing sub-culture of California.
“Hideaway” is so evocative of a specific time and place that it hardly seems right on a CD collection at all. It is the sort of number that should come belting out (in Mono, naturally) from a bass-heavy jukebox or over the radio, accompanied by some hyperactive DJ like Arnie “Woo Woo” Ginsberg. Everything about it is so “back then”. The title, with its promise of illicit pleasures, actually referred to Mel’s Hideaway Lounge on West Roosevelt Road, a blues club where King regularly played. I don’t suppose the surfers picked up on the reference. The tune is generally acknowledged to have been composed by the locally popular, but at that stage unrecorded, Houndog Taylor. Apparently most of Chicago’s new breed of guitar gunslingers played a version of it. Magic Sam and Earl Hooker both recorded distinctive takes. King got to the studios first — but, more importantly, gave the cut a crisp rock’n’roll feel. He added sections from Jimmy McCracklin’s “The Walk”, another Chicago R and B hit that had crossed over — thanks to every white teen’s favourite programme, “Bandstand”. A dash of Duane Eddy’s theme from TV’s “Peter Gunn” did no harm commercially either. As a bonus for the aficionados he then threw in a little run learned from Robert Nighthawk – the key transitional guitarist on the Chicago scene. Top the whole thing off with Sonny Thompson on piano and a nail-it-to-the-floor bassline and you have a truly magical slice of American culture at its most innocently allusive and exuberant.
If “Hideaway” was one for the youngsters then “Have You Ever Loved a Woman” was strictly grown-up fare. It is hard to imagine the kids on “Bandstand” bouncing merrily along to a song that starts, “Have you ever loved a woman so much you tremble with pain? / All the time you know she bears another man’s name”. This was delivered with a desperate intensity that even King, who rarely held back as a vocalist, never again matched. It also featured a mesmerising guitar pattern that was copied note for note by young Englishmen like Peter Green and Eric Clapton. Clapton, who features later on in this album, was especially indebted to the Federal sides for his sound. This was the other side of King — a big-voiced blues shouter with an almost overwhelming musical presence. His two-year stint with Federal divided between these blues work-outs and the boogie cuts. Together they make up the first eight numbers on this album, all stunning — though even more could have been added. Of the other instrumentals I would pick the gutsy “The Stumble” as the best while “I’m Tore Down” is the hardest hitting of the vocal tracks and “Someday After a While” the most moving. Together they represent all that is good about the last great phase of Chicago blues guitar. More eclectic and with a greater stress on technique than the Elmore James-Muddy Waters sound they retain all the emotional directness we associate with those figures.
King disappeared for a few years — at least as far as records go. He moved to Dallas and re-emerged in ’68 with a much more rock oriented sound. There was a new audience and King, as produced by Leon Russell, became the Woodstock generation’s blues man. Received wisdom on these recordings, which form the bulk of the rest of this set, is that they are weak, finding King struggling with ponderous and densely filled arrangements. There is some truth in that but they are much better than one remembers and are now cloaked in a certain period charm. Russell’s pounding piano is a poor substitute for Thompson’s precision and musicality but the energy and the glorious post-Easy Rider hippy chick backing vocals — think Delaney and Bonnie or the Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour — conjure up that turbulent end of the decade as effectively as the earlier instrumentals embodied its opening years. “Palace of the King” and “Going Down” are the best examples of this rock-oriented style. It is less well-honed than the earlier one but still packs plenty of punch. The guitar licks are less fluid but keep that metallic ring and keen cutting edge that were the big man’s trademark.
The only problem with this generous and well-annotated selection is not the compiler’s but King’s own choice of songs. He covered a whole range of bluesy material, only some of which suited his full-on approach. Even in the superior early days his version of Tampa Red’s “Love Her With a Feeling” sacrificed all of the original’s humour. Later on covers of Johnnie Taylor’s “Woman across the Water” and an acoustic version of “Dust My Broom” show the narrowness of King’s range and are among the least successful versions of these much recorded tunes. “Taint Nobody’s Business” is also given a throwaway vocal treatment but is redeemed by some robust guitar work. There is only one example of his attempt at funk rather than rock fusion, the forgettable “Pack It Up” — worth hearing only for a fine early outing for drummer Steve Ferrone.
So — the early tracks are unmissable and the later tracks patchy — but full of some fierce playing. This collection gives a fair picture of an honest musician of unsurpassed energy and one who in his best moments brooked no competition. The purity of tone (largely produced by the use of two plectrums) and the take no prisoners attack that he brought to all his records appealed to a generation who were starting to discover the remarkable powers of amplification. All who followed owe something to this figure. He never quite lived up to his dynamic entry into recording — but having instantly set so high a standard that is unsurprising. Turn the volume way up and try to imagine the effect these tunes had on a young audience that knew nothing of power chords and extended solos. Everything in King’s work was about impact — straightforward and smack in the chest. Feel it.