Blues innovator and Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame inductee Freddie King sang like a lion and struck his guitar’s strings with rattlesnake intensity. Those talents, paired with his compositional brilliance, took King — who was born on September 3, 1934 in Gilmer, Texas — to the pinnacle of success in the blues world of the 1960s and ’70s. His early instrumental hits, 1961’s “Hide Away” and 1961’s “San-Ho-Zay,” shattered the race music barrier as they crashed the pop charts thanks to his ingenious gift for hooks and melodies, and King’s songs like those on his 1960 Federal Records single “Have You Ever Loved A Woman” backed with “You’ve Got To Love Her With A Feeling” carry an emotional charge that still showers sparks across the decades.
For lovers and blues and rock, King’s birthday should be a national holiday. Here are 10 reasons to celebrate:
• His Influence: Eric Clapton, Duane Allman, Jeff Beck, Keith Richards, Stevie Ray Vaughan and many other guitar heroes were influenced by King’s conflagrant style, which twined the roots of Texas and Chicago blues to create a swinging hybrid that also tapped the molten energy of rock ‘n’ roll. Blues-rock starts with Freddie King.
• His Gibsons: King’s early embrace of electric Gibson solid body and semi-hollow body guitars helped the profile of the Les Paul Gold Top and Gibson ES-335, ES-345 and ES-355 models.
• His Tone: A key reason for King’s ultra-brawny tone was his early embrace of maximum volume and his signature picking technique. Inspired by his Texas blues hero Sam “Lightnin’ ” Hopkins, King attacked his strings with a plastic fingerpick on his thumb and a metal fingerpick on his index finger
• His Size: King was a literally giant of the blues. His six-feet-plus, 250-pound frame won him the nickname “the Texas Cannonball.”
• His Breakthrough: After King’s family moved to Chicago from Texas, the teenager began playing the same local blues scene as Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, Otis Rush and other Windy City legends, often joining in with Jimmy Rogers’s band. King signed with Federal Records in 1960 and began cutting a string of influential records produced by the label’s owner Syd Nathan. His first single on Federal was “Have You Ever Loved A Woman.” It reached 92 on the pop chart, but became part of blues and rock history. Eric Clapton and Duane Allman recorded their historic guitar-duet version on Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs.
• His Litmus Test: For decades King’s 1961’s “Hide Away” was a litmus test for aspiring blues guitar players. “Hide Away” hit number five on the R&B chart and cracked pop’s Top 40 at number 29. The instrumental was inspired by fellow Chicagoan Hound Dog Taylor’s “Taylor’s Boogie,” a slide guitar romp. King couldn’t play slide, so he created a passage in the tune that featured sliding chords. The title was a nod to a West Side dive called Mel’s Hide Away Lounge.
• His Composing Skills: King’s instrumentals — including “San-Ho-Zay,” “The Stumble,” “The Sad Nite Owl,” “Sen-Sa-Shun” and “Side Tracked” — crossed over more effectively than those of his blues contemporaries because of his compositional intellect. He wove a sophisticated sonic tale into the 12-bar form, employing arrangements — rather than jams — with hooks, melodies, bridges and distinct movements.
• His Blues-Rock Cornerstones: The great King Curtis, who had recorded a version of “Hide Away” in 1962, saw King’s visceral performances on the Nashville-based TV show The !!! Beat, and signed him to Atlantic Records’ Cotillion subsidiary. The two resulting albums, 1969’s Freddie King Is a Blues Master and 1970’s My Feeling For the Blues, began a renaissance that would make King the living nexus of blues and rock.
• His Second Breakthrough: Getting Ready, released in 1971, would define the rest of King’s musical life much as “Hide Away” had cast his early career. King’s muscular take on Memphis songwriter Don Nix’s “Going Down” became a blues-rock anthem that would be faithfully recorded by the Jeff Beck Group a year later and remains a staple of the genre today. King also re-cut a definitive version of his 1961 Federal single “I’m Tore Down” and a rendition of Big Bill Broonzy’s “Key To The Highway” that became cornerstones of his subsequent live performances.
• His Early Demise: The rocket-fueled performances King continued to deliver for 300 nights a year as he reached the zenith of his popularity gave no indication that his health was failing. Yet nearly two decades of relentless touring and hard living had taken their toll. On December 28, 1976 he died in Dallas, Texas, leaving behind a catalog of recordings that continues to enshrine his legend and inspire new generations with his nearly incomparable energy, originality and artistry.