by Greg Johnson
Article Reprint from the October, 2003 BluesNotes
In the world of the Blues the name of “King” is highly respected. Most fans associate the surname with the obvious “Big Three,” Albert, B.B. and Freddie. But in New Orleans, the residents know there is a fourth that deserves his place alongside these three: Earl King.
Earl King was more than just a musician. He was a renaissance man. During his nearly five decade career, he wore many hats: guitarist, vocalist, songwriter, producer, sideman, arranger and mentor. He was prolific in his output, perhaps only rivaled by Allen Toussaint for recognizable material. His songs have been covered by the likes of Fats Domino, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, The Meters, Johnny Adams, Professor Longhair and many more. And unlike many other artists of his generation, he profited from the royalties gained by those who covered his songs as he had wisely retained the copyrights to his work.
He was born in New Orleans as Earl Silas Johnson on February 6, 1934. Raised in the city’s Irish Channel neighborhood, his father was a Blues pianist who was a close acquaintance with the locally renowned Tuts Washington. But Earl’s father died when he was still quite young and he was raised in a single-parent home by his mother, a heavy-set woman known affectionately as “Big Chief.”
Earl’s musical life began in the family church. He participated in the choir singing Gospel. But one day while walking through the neighborhood he heard the guitar playing of Smiley Lewis emanating from a bar. The music enchanted him and he sought means to express his singing outside of the church.
Pianist Huey Smith heard the teenager sing and decided to hire him for his band. Needing another vocalist and musician, he convinced Earl to take up the guitar. The band began to work steadily at now legendary Crescent City clubs such as The Tiajuana and The Dew Drop Inn. Many of the city’s future R&B stars found their start in these clubs and it was the extraordinary guitarist Eddie Jones, better known as Guitar Slim, who captured Earl’s eye and ears. He began to style his own playing after Slim and became so adept at mimicking his playing, he was hired to fill in for the guitarist on several dates when Slim was hospitalized. But under the name of Guitar Slim to unsuspecting audiences.
In 1953, Earl earned the opportunity to record for the Savoy label. On June 1st, he laid the tracks to the song “Have You Gone Crazy,” with accompaniment by Huey Smith on piano and Lee Allen on saxophone. Though the song did not produce much fanfare, it was the beginning to a lifetime of recording and studio work.
The next year, Earl found himself in the studio again. This time for Art Rupe’s Specialty Records. He had three sessions for the label, which included a regional hit with the song “A Mother’s Love,” a song that very closely had the flavor of Guitar Slim in its sound. But perhaps the most significant aspect of his short stay at Specialty was due to a typo when his first release for them came out. Given the nickname King Earl by Rupe, the printers mistakenly transposed the name to read Earl King and the name was there for the remainder of his life.
1955 found Earl King with yet another label; this time it was Johnny Vincent’s Ace Records. He recorded a string of well-received numbers that included tunes such as “Well O Well O Well O Baby” and “ Weary Silent Nights,” but it was the release of “Those Lonely, Lonely Nights” that made Earl King a national recording star. The song reached the Top Ten on Billboard’s R&B charts and reportedly sold over 250,000 copies. Since its initial release, the song has been covered numerous times, by artists ranging from Hank Ballard and Ann Cole to Johnny “Guitar” Watson. Unfortunately, the song may have even done better for King had it not been for Watson’s version, which was put on the market shortly following King’s own, taking away sales from the original’s pace.
By 1960, Earl King had once again relocated to another record label, working with the incredible songwriter/producer Dave Bartholomew at Cosimo Matassa’s Imperial Records. While with Imperial, King began focusing on more than just songwriting and performing. He worked as an arranger and producer for the label, too. Among the artists under his control were Huey Smith, Roland Stone and Jimmy Clanton. In fact, King claimed that he was responsible for the production of Clanton’s biggest hit single, “Just A Dream,” though he was never given for credit for his participation in the session. Others for whom he wrote material for were Fats Domino, Johnny Adams and Willie Tee.
In 1962, Earl King once again struck the big time with another hit song, “Trick Bag.” The number has often been labeled as the essential New Orleans story song. It reached up to No. 17 on the Billboard charts and has seen extended life with covers by The Meters and Robert Palmer. He followed “Trick Bag” with yet another smash single, “Come On (Let The Good Times Roll).” With covers of this tune recorded by the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Fats Domino, Lee Dorsey and Dr. John, among others, it may have single-handedly provided a steady income through royalties.
Earl King wrote the song “Big Chief” about his mother for a recording to help re-establish the career of Professor Longhair in 1964. Joined in the studio on guitar by his songwriting protégé Mac Rebannack, more commonly recognized as Dr. John, King sang and whistled, perhaps the song’s most beloved trait. Longhair had recorded the piano parts during an earlier session, and Earl had laid tracks for the vocals and whistling as a demo for which Longhair could repeat himself later. But the song was released with King’s tracks intact, becoming one of the most cherished Mardi Gras anthems of all time.
Things began to slow a bit for Earl King as the decade came closer to an end. He recorded an album at Allen Toussaint’s SeaSaint Studio in 1972, titled “Street Parade.” But there were complications and the recording only saw release in the United Kingdom at the time. But once again, King struck home with another Mardi Gras standard with the title track.
The following years saw earl King fall into semi-retirement. He continued to write songs, but only made rare appearances on compilation discs through much of the next fourteen years.
His career had a resurgence in 1986, though, as he signed on with the Black Top label. That year he released an album, joined by the New England Blues band Roomful of Blues titled “Glazed.” It featured a cover photo taken at one of the city’s Tastee Donut shops, where King reportedly held court as a regular customer and conducted his business from. The album was very well-received and earned a Grammy nomination, declaring that Earl King was back! He appeared on recordings documenting the label’s acclaimed Blues-A-Rama shows held at Tipitina’s during the yearly extravaganza New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Two more solo efforts, “Sexual Telepathy” (1990) and “Hard River To Cross” (1993) featured new takes on some of his earlier classic. Both also received critical acclaim. Earl even received a Lifetime Achievement honor from the city’s famed Offbeat music magazine.
During the last few years of his life, Earl King suffered many bouts with diabetes. His touring schedule took on more performances overseas, especially in Japan, and less at home. Diabetes eventually caught up, hospitalizing him April of 2003. He died of complications stemming from the disease on April 17, 2003, at New Orleans St. Charles General Hospital. As is tradition with the Crescent City’s most beloved artists, he was carried home to rest with a traditional Jazz funeral procession complete with street parade. A fitting tribute to a man who defined the city’s musical heritage.