December is the perfect month to talk about the Magic
Kings (the Three Wise Men). And to speak of the Magic Kings of blues: BB,
Albert and Freddie, even better. The latter left us 40 years ago on the 28th of
December 1976, when his body said enough after a career on the road, to the
beat of more than 300 shows a year and a diet of bloody marys and poker. With
him went one of the best guitarists of his generation and also one of the great
voices of blues. His two best known and most important records are: ‘Let’s Hide Away And Dance Away With Freddie King’, and ‘Getting Ready’,
with ten years between them.
The first one is a gem of instrumental blues, right at the start of King’s solo career. This guy began his career early by leaving his native Texas for Chicago, where the blues was becoming more ‘electric’. He played with the likes of Little Walter, Jimmy Rogers, or Hound Dog Taylor, but when he decided to test the his luck with the big blues label of the time, Chess Records, they rejected him, saying he sounded too much like BB King. In spite of it all in 1959, he got a contract with Federal thanks to pianist Sonny Thompson. He made his debut on the original recording of ‘Have You Ever Loved a Woman’, a song that became a reference to one of his best known admirers, Eric Clapton. ‘Slow Hand’ also added to his repertoire a number that became a big piece for him, ‘Hide Away’, a blues instrumental, recorded in 1961, and made the pop charts, almost prohibited territory for bluesmen at the start of the 60s. Its impact led King and Thompson to record an entire record of instrumentals, called ‘Let’s Dance Away And Hide Away With Freddie King’. Included on the album were songs like ‘San-Ho-Zay’ or ‘Sen-Sa-Shun’ which Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead would consider keys to his career. And other songs like ‘The Stumble’ which became a blues standard and which John Mayall, Yardbirds, Jeff Beck or Peter Green would make covers of. His playing style throughout the record influenced various generations of guitarists like Clapton himself, or Stevie Ray Vaughan. The record was a mix of the electric Chicago style with Texan flavours from his home state, especially from his beloved Sam ‘Lightnin’ Hopkins. The muscular tone of his Gibson Les Paul Gold Top has been imitated many times over.
Ten years later ‘Getting Ready’ appeared, a very different album, in which King’s voice is as much of a star as his guitar, and shows what happened in those ten years. Mainly the consolidation of rock with the arrival of new British groups who discovered black American music for their compatriots. King was living a second childhood beginning with the records he made with King Curtis at the end of the 60s. It was the first album he cut with Shelter Records, the new label created by Leon Russell. Together with several great musicians, among them Russell himself on piano, King makes a record where the link between blues and rock of the time are evident, as shown in ‘Going Down’ one of the most intense moments on the album, soul and rock come together in this album where King howls his voice and punctuates with his guitar . The song was written for the occasion by Don Nix, an ex-component of the Mar-Keys together with Steve Cropper or ‘Duck’ Done. Actually, the last guy is another big star of the song with his powerful bass keeping the beat.
Other outstanding moments are the beginning with ‘Same Old Blues’, a blues-soul vibe ala Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland, acoustic numbers ‘Dust My Broom’ by Elmore James and ‘Walking by Myself’ from Jimmy Rogers, his guitar work on ‘Key to the Highway’ is a tribute to his heroes, especially Howlin’ Wolf, on ‘Living the Highway’, the incredible ‘Tore Down’ with a wink and a nod to his beginnings and a funky touch from the autobiography ‘Palace of the King’.