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Touched by the King: A feeling for the blues was instrumental in Freddie King’s sensational guitar slinging

Michael Corcoran
A Freddie King Armadillo Mural by Jim Franklin during the Armadillo World Headquarters auction at Burley Auction Gallery in New Braunfels, TX Saturday, Jan. 17, 2015. (Stephen Spillman for AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

Editor’s note: This story was originally published on Dec. 28, 1996

If you've spent any time in a Texas blues club, you've heard Freddie King, whose influence goes beyond notes, style and material. "The Texas Cannonball" is there in the stinging leads that pierce precaution and in the low-slung blues breakers that remind everyone to tip the waitress or bartender. King's been dead since 1976, yet he's still alive in the growling defiance of last-call favorite "Going Down," and he lives in the raw tenderness of a bluesman's regret. When King sang "Have you ever loved a woman, so much that you tremble in pain?,” you could be certain that this huge, soulful man had, so it was easier to admit that so had you.

Like the comfort zone marked by the smell of good barbecue or the way beer just tastes colder when you're listening to somebody hot play guitar, the spirit of Freddie King (or "Freddy," as it was spelled in the early years) engulfs blues joints like riffs in the rafters. He practically stamped the walls with his outline, so massive was his stage presence in form and function.

Texas blues are about loving all kinds of music with guts, whether it's country, jazz or R&B, and they're about respecting the past while blazing new trails. Although T-Bone Walker practically invented this rawhide style of electric blues, it was King who revved it up for the rock crowd by hoeing the turf between Walker and B.B. King. Moving from Texas to Chicago with his family at age 16 (then back to Texas in his 30s), Freddie King merged the most vibrant characteristics of both regional styles and became the biggest guitar hero of the mid-'60s British blues revivalists, who included Eric Clapton, Savoy Brown, Chicken Shack and Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac.

Closer to home, this "Country Boy" with urban intensity could count such guitarists as Stevie and Jimmie Vaughan, Bill Campbell and Denny Freeman among his disciples. He also had a big fan in Leon Russell, who signed Freddie to his Shelter label in 1970 and played the great piano part on "Going Down.” Look at Walker as Jim Brown, the original fleet bruiser, and King as Gale Sayers, the fabulous juke- stepper who took the running-back position to new sensational heights.

But just as Sayers tore out his knee and his career by taking one impossible cut too many, King's tireless appetite for life, which included countless late-night/early morning jams, probably had a lot to do with the heart attack that took his life Dec. 28, 1976, at age 42.

"It was an untimely tragedy, a major loss," said former Armadillo World Headquarters owner Eddie Wilson. "When he was alive, he was the most alive human being you've ever seen. He just seemed so young and healthy even a few months before he passed away."

During a 20-year recording career, King registered only one top-40 hit, when "Hide Away" peaked at No. 29 on the Billboard singles chart in 1961, but he was a sensation at hippie rock clubs all over the United States, from the Fillmore East to the Fillmore West. And he always stole the show in the European festivals.

King often referred to the Armadillo as "the House That Freddie Built,” and Wilson has to at least partly concur. "Freddie always packed the place, sometimes four nights in a row, and he always sold more beer than anyone else, except maybe Commander Cody. Plus, you could be sure that every guitar player in town would be there."

The first time King played the Armadillo, in 1970, soon after it had opened, he and Wilson agreed to a 50-50 deal, the hacker's split, but even after King became one of the club's biggest draws, he never renegotiated his take.

"Freddie just wanted to get up there and tear it up," Wilson said. "He loved the Armadillo, and he was more than satisfied with what he was making.”

King's backing band at the Armadillo was often Storm, whose members had recently moved to Austin from Dallas, where King was headquartered in later years. King loved those longhaired kids who knew his stuff inside and out and was particularly fond of the group's guitarist, Jimmie Vaughan. With his idol King in the wings during the opening set, Vaughan would impress the master with his almost encyclopedic collection of riffs and styles, and when he'd build to the climax of a solo, it would be with swirling power that would take the rest of the band up with him.

But when King came out to the "Star Time!" hype, Vaughan moved to the background, where he was content to play rhythm guitar, with occasional fills. "Freddie would always try to get Jimmie involved in a guitar battle, but Jimmie knew better than to try to show him up," Wilson recalled. Later, Vaughan unleashed his arsenal in duels with King, but in the early years of their association, Vaughan's playing was strictly "yes, sir" and "no, sir" when his mentor also was plugged in.

"There was nobody, and I mean nobody, who could play the guitar better than Freddie King. And there was nobody could sing better. He was just a big bear full of talent, and pity the fool who tried to out-flash him," Wilson said.

King's former bassist Bill Willis remembered one young hotshot L.A. guitar slinger who found out the hard way that you don't mess with the King. "This kid, he came up there with a wild look in his eyes, and he just took off," Willis said. "And Freddie's over there, smiling, saying 'Go on, man.' And the kid just kept playing and playing like it was his big night. Well, when he finally played himself out, it was Freddie's turn, and he just buried the kid. I wouldn't be surprised if that guy sold his guitar the next day. When Freddie felt that he'd been called out, the intensity burned a little harder, and he just tore it up,”

As a guitar player, King could be the embodiment of ferocity, but Willis remembers the bandleader as a laid-back fellow off-stage.

"Back in those days, there'd be some ornery cats in the blues field and a lot of big egos, but Freddie was different," Willis said. "He just had so much humanity inside him. When we were recording, he'd never say, ‘Why don't you play this bass line instead of that one?' His whole thing was getting the feeling of the song, and all the other musicians were responsible for getting into it on their own. We'd do a take, and if it wasn't what he was looking for, he'd just say, ‘That wasn't the right feeling; let's do it again.' There were never any instructions. It was all instinctive.”

Willis played on the first King album, "Freddy King Sings,” for Federal Records of Cincinnati in 1960 and recalls those sessions as magic. A close look at the liner notes on Rhino's essential King reissue /”Hide Away: The Best of Freddy King” provides remarkable proof. "Have You Ever Loved a Woman," “Hide Away," “You've Got to Love Her With a Feeling" and "I Love the Woman, " each a blues-bar standard (with “I Love the Woman"cited by Clapton as the song that persuaded him to play the blues), all were recorded on the same day. The money spent for studio time for King on Nov. 26, 1960, in Cincinnati is the electric-blues counterpart to the $24 that bought Manhattan.

Willis, who currently plays the bass parts on a Hammond B-3 organ in Vaughan's band, said two things set King's guitar style apart. First, there was his infusion of country picking into blues numbers. "Freddie could've been a great country guitarist,” Willis said, but after hearing King's version of "Remington Ride," written as a steel guitar showcase by Herb Remington, a correction is in order: King was a great country guitarist.

The other most remarkable aspect of King's playing, said Willis, was the way his solos seemed to take on the charcteristics of his vocals.

"Sometimes the guitar parts were like a second singer,” Willis said of the way King bent the string into a wail or played chords that had a breathy quality.

Perhaps because of this “vocal-lead" style of guitar playing, King specialized in instrumentals that generally had a lot more swagger and swing than the rest of the genre. Even without lyrics, such numbers as "San-Ho-Zay,” “The Stumble" and "In the Open" (Stevie Ray Vaughan's set-opener for years) set a vivid scenario. Chief among King's wordless classics, however, is "Hide Away," which has been the compulsory blues instrumental for 30 years. If you've spent any time in Texas blues clubs, you've heard it. Playing "Hide Away" is like showing your license to play the blues, and although the song's structure was nicked from Hound Dog Taylor, with riffs pirated from "Peter Gunn" and "The Walk," it remains a rich part of the legacy of Freddie King.

"Hide Away" is not about ownership or credit; it's about that feeling, man. It's about digging into your soul with your fingers and pulling out something you didn't know you had. It's about taking a 50-50 split with life and getting the most out of every minute, every note.